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.
To create the Chichibu IPA Cask Finish distillery founder Ichiro Akuto lent empty casks that had been used to mature the Chichibu ‘The Floor Malted’ expression to craft brewer Shiga Kogen (located 3 hours north of Chichibu in the mountainous Yamanouchi region of Nagano prefecture). Shiga Kogen used these casks to age India Pale Ale – specifically to create their Tamamura Honten ‘The Far East’, which is a barrel aged Imperial IPA clocking in at a pokey 13% ABV.
Once the beer maturation was complete, Shiga Kogen returned the now beer washed casks to Chichibu distillery and Akuto-san used them to finish whisky which had previously been matured in ex-bourbon. One barrel – two whiskies and an Imperial IPA – not bad going at all, and a fantastic cooperation between two craft operations.
The finished Chichibu IPA Cask Finish has a bottling date of 2017, but no distillation year, so in effect is an NAS. I would hazard a guess at this being 4-5 years of age. It’s bottled at 57.5% ABV and was a release of just 6,700 bottles.
Nose: Does exactly as it says on the bottle – immediate and pronounced hoppiness (Cascade, and certainly Citra hops). This is joined by an assortment of fruits – particularly dusty pineapple and melon. Maltiness (no surprise given beer influence) is quite high, but tempered by interesting florals – spearmint and pine needles. In the background a touch of earthiness and also mild salinity (where did that come from?). The addition of water broadens the fruit selection to include orange and pear, and initially lessens the IPA influence – this however returns with force after a little time resting in the glass.
Taste: An impactful arrival that delivers tropical fruits (roasted pineapples and guavas), bright and fresh oranges and again – IPA (particularly retronasally). Citrus runs strongly though the palate from the hops and from peels and rinds. It balances well against underlying maltiness, creamy vanilla and perceivable earthiness – mushrooms and forest ferns. Florals are still present (and possibly driven by the IPA influence), pine again, but now with an interesting lavender flavour. Water again rebalances the fruit assortment introducing stone fruits (peach and apricot) and some slight chalkiness to the body of the whisky. There’s less noticeable beer initially when reduced, but again, similarly to the nose, this returns after resting.
Finish: Quite long with hoppiness, dusty pepper, light ginger and plenty of tart citrus/citra
Chichibu IPA Cask Finish almost delivers two whiskies in one – straight out of the bottle it is exceedingly cask forward, but rather than tons of wood, this delivers heaps of bright, sharp IPA – there’s much more impact than any beer matured whisky I’ve tried to date. Dilution initially lessens the hop-driven flavours, dialling up the natural estery flavour of the Chichibu distillate for a spirit forward experience. The fact that the ale characteristics return so strongly after a short period in the glass is rather fascinating, and again, something I’ve rarely experienced – usually once reduced, you’ve got what you’ve got and the original profile will never return.
Transformations aside, is Chichibu IPA Cask Finish any good though? To my palate the answer is yes – there’s integration, balance and boldness of flavour - I’d heartily recommend sourcing a bottle. But, I think this one might divide the room – if you’re adverse to beer (heavens above), or in particular the citrus tang of many pale ales, you may well struggle with this.
Experimental? Novelty? Well, I guess both. But, that alone shouldn’t cloud your judgement of this or any other whisky – without the innovation, without trial and error, the industry would be an exceedingly dry and dull place and our experiences as enthusiasts would be destined to be rather linear. Sold out here in the UK (and probably most other places barring the scalping retaillers), however, recent auction prices (around £130-£135) are only a shy over what the bottle was being sold for originally. This is possibly an ideal time for those of you who like to try before you buy (and why not, that’s an eminently sensible strategy as far as I’m concerned) to get stuck into Exchanges ‘The Perfect Measure’ range – there’s a 3cl of this bottling available – so you can dip you toes in, before making a decision to hunt down a bigger version if you find the bold and intense hoppy flavours of this Chichibu to your taste.