I very rarely get giddy when I go to do an interview with someone famous. I have prided myself on this since I was 16, working for my local newspaper as a columnist and got to go backstage at a concert to interview Nickelback.
Now, I can hear you going, “Pfft, God, not Nickelback” but, to be fair, they had the number one selling single in the world at that point and most people my age would have been jelly-wrecks. I kept my calm and kept my dream of being like the reporter from Almost Famous alive for another day.
So it was with surprise that I found myself recently feeling slightly queasy and giggly about the person I was due to be interviewing for this site. I even did a few small hand claps and squeals when I found out I’d be getting to speak to him one-on-one.
And the person that finally broke through my ever-so-calm exterior?
Ichiro Akuto – the rock star of the Japanese whisky world.
Like a person getting ready for a highly anticipated first date, I found butterflies floating in my tummy and palms slightly moist as I made my way to Mizuwari on Old Compton Street for the interview.
You see, Ichiro’s distillery and its products – Chichibu – have long held a special place in my heart. Chichibu’s first release – Chichibu The First – was the first whisky I tried at the Whisky Exchange Show in October 2011, my very first whisky show experience. Lots of firsts. It was that day that I met some incredible people in the whisky industry and ever since, I’ve held a fondness for it and been thrilled to see other people embrace its products wholeheartedly.
Ichiro – the grandson of the founder of now closed Hanyu Distillery – is also the man behind the Hanyu Card Series and is such a well-known figure in the Japanese whisky world that I was afraid he’d be unapproachable and used to the limelight.
As it happens, he is neither – in fact, he was one of the most humble people I’ve ever met, alongside the wonderful David Stewart of The Balvenie.
As background, Ichiro started the Chichibu distillery in Japan’s Saitama prefecture in 2008. While the whiskies are still very young, he has gone on to win plaudits around the world for the exceptional products he is producing. Here in the UK, those whiskies are distributed by Number One Drinks, founded by the whisky-loving Marcin Miller (read my feature on Marcin).
Ichiro and I spoke for an hour that day and here is what he had to say about life in the industry, what he’s most proud of and why he dreams of the year 2038.
What is one of your favourite memories since starting the distillery?
My most impressive memory was releasing Chichibu the First. When I started the distillery, I was happy but I was not as excited because it was only the start. When we launched our first whisky, I arranged for a launch party at a hotel in the Saitama prefecture. I’d visited bars every night for weeks before telling people about the launch and talking about my dream, but I was still surprised when I saw how many people had shown up for the launch. It was emotional and exciting, and I was so happy to see people happy. Because they were happy, I was happy. Our whisky is very young but everyone thought it was a lot older, so their reactions surprised me too. That experience really encouraged me to keep going forward, it kept my motivation and my passion high.
How has the reaction to it developed since?
The demand now is growing. Even in 2011 our product was sold quickly because there was so little of it. I feel a little bit of pressure but as you know, whisky takes time. I hope to increase how much we produce as we cannot keep up with demand. So far this hasn’t meant increasing our capacity – it’s possible we will buy more stills but I haven’t decided yet.
What has been one of your main objectives since beginning?
I wanted, more than anything, to pursue quality in whisky. I have focused on buying very high quality ingredients and we go to Warminster to visit the floor maltings and learn how to make our malt for our own floor maltings. We’re now also growing our own local barley. That came about by chance: we spoke to a local farmer who wanted to plant something as a second crop because in winter the fields were fallow. He decided to plant barley and from this year we have been able to increase the number of floor maltings we’re doing with our own barley. In the future we hope to have whisky made only from our own malted local barley.
You have your own cooperage as well – how did that come about?
We have a cooperage on site. This came about because there was a cooperage in the same prefecture. The cooper was very old – 87 – and he decided he was going to retire and close the cooperage. But every year we’d gone to visit him and make our casks, so I decided to purchase all of the machinery so we could build our won cooperage on site. Making casks is, of course, a very skilled practice so the old cooper comes to train the 10 people who work at the distillery in the craft.
Your own cooperage, your own local barley and in-house floor maltings – what else do you do that makes you stand out?
We also use local peat. Like meeting the farmer who now grows our barley, I met the person who told me about there being peat in the local area by chance. He really likes whisky. He works for local government and he often visits bars to drink whisky. I think one of the bartenders told him about me so he came to visit and told me about the peat you can get in the next town. It makes for a different flavour because the smoke from this peat is almost more like incense sticks – it’s very aromatic and has certain oriental notes to it. It’s affected by the decomposing mizunara wood in the areas it’s found. We mix the peated barley from Scotland with our own floor malted and smoked barley.
You’ve obviously been partly inspired at your distillery by Scotland. What do you find most appealing about this country?
Every time I go to Scotland, I find something different. The first time it was just, ‘wow’ – the atmosphere, the landscape. But each time I go now, I focus on something different and even if I go to the same distillery more than once I can often find something new to learn there. There are so many things in common between Japan and Scotland in the whisky industry and even in the politics at the moment: at one time, Chichibu (although it is a very small state) wanted to be independent and tried to separate from the rest of Japan.
What do you think makes Chichibu stand out?
Chichibu is a small distillery set in a unique micro climate. All the people working on the whisky are very passionate. They are all whisky lovers so I think they are making whisky they want to drink in the future, which will really mean it will have to be good.
What do you love most about what you do?
I really like whisky so I am following in what I wanted to do. I love people coming together because they love whisky. I didn’t even go out to hire people – they all came to me asking if they could be a part of this journey because they love whisky. I love to share experiences with whisky lovers, which is why that first experience releasing Chichibu the First made me so happy. For me, it’s all about sharing the experience.
If you had to choose three whiskies – not from your own distillery – to take with you to a desert island, what would they be?
I like every whisky – I visit a lot of bars to try everything that I can. But if I had to choose three: it would be the products from Edradour, because the distillery is so small but they’ve proven you can be successful when you’re small and sell products worlwide; then it would be 1960s Bowmore: there was so much mango and fruit juice, tropical notes that I’ve not found in others from them; and, finally, there was this really artisan release from Glenmorangie. It was the predecessor to Astar, using the same type of wood from the Ozarks and that was really special.
And finally, what is your goal for Chichibu?
My dream is to try 30 year old whisky from Chichibu. It will take 25 more years but if I get that chance I will be very happy and my life will be so great. I am proud of what I’ve achieved. But I always felt like there was no alternative choice. This path was meant to be.
Look out for a piece coming soon on the new releases from Chichibu and the final release of the Card Series – The Joker.