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.
You don’t have to look far to see other people having similar experiences – indeed, even outside of today’s strange world, whisky enthusiasm is packed full of erroneous epiphanies. And whilst it’s not for me to piss over anyone’s fireworks – there are dangers in putting the spirit on a pedestal.
Whisky worship can be seen continually. In its most fundamental form it is a positive sign of the spirit’s ever-broadening appeal and of the wonderful passion that exists within enthusiasts. This drives the industry - both financially and emotionally. And of course it is also why I’m sitting here writing this piece this morning.
But there’s a fine line between inspiration and idolisation.
Whisky is packed full of romantic notions – from an idealistic interpretation of production processes, through to a persistent, ill-educated insistence that everything is the best thing. Ever.
The first thing that happens when anything is put on a pedestal is that others will seek to tear it down. In all fandoms (and throughout the Internet and media at large) there exists an innate desire to polarise and position those who can do no wrong, against those who can do no right – a battle of blinded benevolence vs. self-serving malevolence. And whilst this ‘conversation’ undeniable drives interest, attention and debate, at the same time the middle-ground of pragmatism and realism is often lost in the fallout.
I don’t ascribe to the view that whisky is for the most part flawed – with the occasional exception standing out from the sea of mediocrity. But neither do I ascribe to treating the entire category, or sections of it as a sacred cow. Whilst I appreciate that the Internet abhors shades of grey – and that the ‘average’ is the graveyard of attention – reality and nuanced debate is completely lost when everything is either associated with being unimpeachably awesome or – in a direct retort to this overeagerness – of being somehow substandard.
It doesn’t drive clicks and likes (and that my friends is sadly what whisky pedestals are often constructed to achieve), but regardless I’d much rather find myself having a moment of true inspiration than inadvertently idolising a fleeting encounter with a chocolate bar.
"Everything is awesome, everything is cool when you're part of a team. Everything is awesome, when you're living out a dream."
Today’s review bottle comes from a category that has been entirely warped through pedestalling and over-idolisation. You can tell that Japanese whisky is in a particularly strange place when:
Press releases focus on telling you about bottles you’ll no longer be able to purchase – rather than on highlighting the new releases heading to market
If it’s new and you can buy it, there’s a high chance the liquid is not actually Japanese in origin
Enthusiasts are eagerly paying three-figure prices for 20cl bottles of new make
By the time you hear about a new release someone has already ensured it's winging its way to the secondary market
Internet discussion on whether Nikka from the Barrel is better than Coffey Malt is a near hourly experience
Of all of the liquids which have been distorted by the ceaseless clamour for Japanese whisky, Chichibu perhaps deserves its very own plinth. The distillery sits firmly in a timeline between the old guard and the new – and that’s partly where it derives its impressive reputation from. With the biggest distilleries (Suntory and Nikka) dramatically reining in allocations and/or blasting age-statement releases out of existence coupled with the new wave of distilleries (Kanosuke, Nagahama and Akkeshi to name but a few) not being yet up to full speed – Chichibu rather stands alone.
When the odd dynamics of the market are combined with the distillery’s notably high quality production methods (and conspicuously small release volumes) the result is a fandom within a fandom – and in most cases, of releases which you’ll likely never see in the flesh. I’ve already written about my small stock of Chichibu and Ichiro’s Malt expressions (I’ve not the patience nor the deep pockets required to hunt out any more) save for my bottle of On The Way – so today we’ll complete that circle.
On The Way has seen three separate releases in 2013, 2015 and 2019 – each composed of a slightly different vatting of casks with the 2015 edition that we’ll be looking at drawn from malts matured in ex-bourbon casks and finished in mizunara oak. Whilst the ages of the casks that have been married are not provided, it’s a safe supposition to position this towards the younger side of things. 10,700 bottles were produced at an ABV of 55.5%. You’ll pay a premium for this release - it's Japanese and it's from Chichibu, go figure - around £160 to £180 at current auction prices or £692.99 if you’re ever foolish enough to shop at Dekanta.
Nose: The oak is immediately prominent and presents with fresh, sappy, resinous notes. These sit with quince jelly, green apples and dried orange peels – the fruity distillate foil to the initial hefty cask influence. Oaty and malty cereals, alongside fermenting wash support overt vanilla custard, whilst some aspirin-like chalkiness is joined by the youthfulness of acetone. Reduction evens things out, presenting a syrupy orchard fruit-led affair with plenty of natural sweetness - entirely pleasant, entirely one-note.
Taste: Brighter, shaper and more characterfully fruity now. Tangy orange juice, mandarin segments and a combination of lemon and lime. Cotton-candy sweetness follows alongside powdered sugar and a coppery tang from a two-pence piece. The development is all cask – vanilla and asides of cream with a steadily building pepperiness and increasingly dry palate. The addition of water has a similar outcome as it does on the nose – juicy, syrupy orchard (basic ester) fruits with a palpable sugariness.
Finish: Medium in length, with drying oakiness and plenty of pepper.
Chichibu On the Way 2015 is a near textbook model of well-made, young whisky - and that is both a complement and (in the case of the hysteria that surrounds this distillery) a slight. There’s an honesty here – both the spirit and the cask are given equal limelight – and the balance, at its relatively youth is both notable and also admirable. But, whilst the underlying distillate is crisp, precise and packed-full of fruity-forward flavours, it is also, entirely predictable. If you’re prepared to pay over the odds and you don’t expect any fireworks you’ll likely find it enjoyable. Just don’t go putting it on an unassailable pedestal simply because it has Chichibu written on the label.
But don't take our word for it..
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