Never mind the impending wave of tequila casks, or getting into baffling trouble for daring to mess around with ex-cider barrels – there’s a rich vein of cask diversity out there which to my mind has yet to be fully explored. Beer casks and beer finishing have taken somewhat longer than I expected to truly find their way into the whisky world. Despite virtually every nation on the planet having their own signature brew (some more celebrated than others), the integration of all things beer with all things whisky has only really taken flight over the past five years. I guess this might not be all that surprising when you take the look at craft beer scene across the UK – it too has flourished over a similar time period. But, look further afield and you’ll see that other countries have been way ahead of us with the beer thing for much longer. Those jokes about domestically produced American beer just aren’t true anymore. East coast, west coast or down the middle – trust me, there’s some truly astonishing brewing taking place.
The final release of the TWE Chichibu Martial Arts Trilogy is a 2014 vintage cask (#11049) that was sent over to Tamamura Honten microbrewery near Nagano to make a limited release ‘Shiga Kogen’ Imperial IPA named ‘The Far East’. Clocking at a mighty between 13-16% ABV depending on the batch - reviews of the beer seem to peg it somewhere between a West Coast style triple/quad IPA (not messing!) and a barley wine.
For the second release of TWE’s Chichibu Martial Arts Trilogy, you’ll need to wait until the 27th -28th September for the next ballot to open on the TWE website (with results being issued quickly on the 29th). There’s a limited number of bottles of this one – just 119 – stemming from the fact that it has been disgorged from a quarter cask – otherwise known in Chichibu parlance as a Chibidaru (“cute cask”). Similarly to the other releases of the Trilogy you’re looking at a sticker price of £250.
The first of TWE’s Chichibu Martial Arts Trilogy is drawn from a humble ex-bourbon barrel (#5282) that was laid down in 2015 and produced 233 bottles at 59.5% ABV. The ballot for this one is open now (until the end of today) – so interested parties should venture over to the TWE website to register. £250 is your entry price - hefty indeed - and no doubt influenced by the eye-popping prices that single cask Chichibu tends to fetch on the secondary market.
Over the years, the global whisky industry has developed and innovated though interdependence – the sharing or knowledge, the sharing of expertise and the sharing of casks to name but a few. A well-known, but always prime example being the symbiotic relationship between the US bourbon industry and the Scottish malt whisky industry – the former using fresh barrels once, the latter requiring a constant source of pre-seasoned wood for a number of fills and refills. Over the past decade, this interdependence has broadened into other categories such as rum and increasingly wine. In Japan, Chichibu distillery has continued with this spirit of innovation and interdependence, but, in 2017 managed to take it one stage further with the creation of the Chichibu IPA Cask Finish – an instance of perfect cask symbiosis.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – the method selected to allocate a limited number of bottles to a larger number of enthusiasts is only ever truly welcomed by those who successfully secure a bottle. You don’t have to look all that far to see the same folks bemoaning balloting methods one month and then miraculously championing them another (bottle in hand). Possession is it seems, still nine tenths of the law. But whilst balloting for bottles is not a new phenomenon, its prevalence is steadily growing - both as a technique for divvying up short allocation releases, and as marketing tool.
Despite waiting years, decades or even generations for a whisky to mature, it seems that patience is far from a virtue when it comes to getting that whisky to people’s doorsteps. I still remember as a much younger man feeling somewhat privileged to receive a package within a couple of weeks of ordering it. Waiting for things was simply a prerequisite back then. But, oh how times have changed. Immediate access to anything and everything all of the time and same-day deliveries might be steadily championing the democratisation of our right to laziness – but at the same time, should whisky ever be viewed as an ultra-convenience?
It became clear that we’d entered new territory the moment I put the salted caramel Twix in my mouth. Irrespective of it being waistline-bustlingly delightful, its effect on lifting my mood was palpable. Six weeks of staying at home does odd things – and this simple chocolate-covered treat had instantly become the focus for an all too short-lived moment of excitement. At times like this, it’s often the little things. And at that instant, the 184 calorie per finger treat seemed like a tangible moment of pure joy – my view of it entirely tainted by the external circumstances which persisted during its consumption.
Whilst each year that passes I grow older, it seems that as the same time whisky is getting younger. Every week brings news of either a new 3 year old release, or the discontinuation of an existing bottling and its replacement with a younger (or NAS – which will be younger) version. Some of this young whisky isn’t all that great, whilst other distillate hold a ton of promise for the future. But, many of these new bottlings are selling on that promise – commanding the prices of far superior spirit, but not delivering the equivalent quality. There is however a young distillery who’s spirit is of such high excellence that bottlings already offer much more than just promise. It’s based 100km North East of Tokyo and was born out of the ashes of the Japanese whisky downturn. This week’ The Dramble is going to be focussing on the already renowned Chichibu.
Throughout life, sometimes you’re in the right place at the right time and other times it’s unfortunately quite the opposite. The same is true of the whisky industry – bottlings capturing the zeitgeist, conversely distilleries closing due to ill-judged timing or just sheer bad luck. The story of the building of Chichibu manages to cover both these twists of fate, but now its future is firmly in the hands of Ichiro Akuto and his dedicated team – they’re making their own luck.
Japanese oak - quercus mongolia – mizunara – all one and the same thing. This type of wood is indigenous to Japan, but also grows in China, Korea and (perhaps unsurprisingly given the name) Mongolia. Shorter and less tightly grained than American oak (quercus alba), mizunara is both expensive and sought after. It is expensive because of its somewhat limited supply – it is sought after, not only for its uses within the Japanese whisky industry, but also for its proprieties as a high quality material for furniture construction. In Japan, mizunara oak is not simply purchased, ready for coopering, it is auctioned – whisky houses and furniture producers all bidding against each other to purchase this valuable resource.
Whilst a hogshead is a hogshead and a butt is usually a butt, not all quarter casks are made to identical dimensions and therefore capacities. See, it depends exactly what you’re taking a quarter of as your baseline – if you’re looking at an American Standard Barrel (ASB) which has a capacity of around 190 -200 litres, then relative to this a quarter cask is going to be around 50 litres. But, if you’re looking at a hogshead with a capacity of 250 litres then your quarter point is closer to 62.5 litres. To further add more cloudiness, I’ve seen quite a number of distilleries that list the capacity of their QCs as 80 litres – which would be around a quarter of a puncheon (320 litres). Honestly, it’s all a bit confusing. More of a guideline than an actual code.
In 1941 Isouji Akuto built the now fabled (and sadly demolished) Hanyu distillery, obtaining a license to produce alcohol 5 years later in 1946. Following a period of deep recession and a huge downturn in the Japanese whisky market, the distillery closed shortly after the turn of the Century. Ichiro Akuto, grandson of Isouji purchased the remaining stocks of Hanyu and warehoused them with local sake maker Sasanokawa Shuzo whilst founding a new company – Venture Whisky.
This week saw several distilleries failing to cover themselves in glory with their ability to ensure both fair allocations (limited to 8 bottles per person?!) and non-malignant website checkouts (“what do you mean it removed the bottle from my basket?”). And at the same time, others who, with a little bit of patience and planning, managed both high website loads, and enthusiast expectations. It can be done….but, the harsh reality of allocations and the methods to allocate allocations, is that the only systems which whisky fans will truly praise are the ones which get them what they want.