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.
Young whisky is getting more expensive. You only have to look at the weekly releases of inaugural editions (either though auction or through perhaps a more equitable ballot) to see the price that 3 year old whisky is now commanding. But, that situation, whilst becoming compounded by increasing global interest in whisky (and in some cases consumers with more money than sense) is not exactly new. Chichibu distillery though founded in 2008 was only operational from 2008 – this year, there will be 10 year old whisky stored somewhere on site – but most of the bottlings are considerable younger – and yet hardly any of them will spend more than a few minutes sitting on shelf.
Demand for whisky from Chichibu is enormous. It’s a collectors dream and auction prices, particularly for single cask whiskies (even the particularly young ones) are eye-watering. When you combine the trend for young overpriced spirit with Japanese whisky, you’ve got a recipe for incredibly rarity and equally incredible prices. However, it’s not just the combination of these two factors which make Chichibu so particularly sough after (as opposed to something from Shinshu Mars for instance) – rather, it’s the inherent spirit quality that is being produced at the distillery. Aided by warm summers, cold winters and generally higher humidity than Scotland, the exceedingly manual process (hand stirred mash, tuns, spirit cuts decided by taste alone etc) at Chichibu is producing whiskies that even at three and four years of age surpass many of their older peers.
Over the next 5 days The Dramble will be exploring bottlings from Chichibu, starting with Ichiro’s ‘leaf series’ and then taking a look at four limited edition bottlings that each highlight not only the inherent quality, but also the versatility of the Chichibu spirit.
The Ichiro’s Malt ‘leaf series’ is comprised of three blended malt whiskies (Double Distilleries, Mizunara Wood Reserve and Wine Wood Reserve) and, a blended whisky (Ichiro’s Malt and Grain) – of which, a number of limited edition versions exist. Each bottling is adorned with a label featuring a different coloured oak leaf – which I’ve only just noticed side-by-side seem to suggest the four seasons - Spring (green), Summer (red), Autumn (brown/gold), Winter (white/snow).
Double Distilleries is a blended malt (described as a pure malt) – composed of malt whisky from Hanyu (of which, Ichiro bought much of the remaining stock when the distillery closed in 2000 – more on that over the course of this week) and Chichibu. The bottling is an NAS, and given the release date vs. the founding of Chichibu distillery, one assumes that that the Chichibu element is very young (perhaps only around 3 years old age). The Hanyu component is similarly unspecified, but is likely to be older – though not by that much given the prices that old Hanyu stock sells for. The proportions of Chichibu vs. Hanyu in this bottling are similarly a mystery, though I think it’s fair to assume a much higher percentage of the former. The Internet seems to suggest that the Hanyu components are derived from ex-sherry casks and the Chichibu from fresh Japanese Mizunara oak casks – this may or may not be true. The bottling is delivered at 46% ABV.
Nose: Heathery honeyed sweetness is joined by basket of mixed fruits – oranges, apples and pears – part fresh and fruit tea-like, part reduced to preserves and mamalades. There are some gentle sherry notes here – chocolate and sugar-coated fruits – but the influence is overall very light. White pepper and aromatic incense spices sit with malty biscuits. In the background a faint steeliness. The addition was water muted many of the top note aromas, reducing overall definition, but adding in gentle nuttiness.
Taste: A solid arrival that delivers spice and fruit – stem ginger and slightly chilli pepper alongside peaches and oranges. Maltiness is again quite present and supported by water crackers, soils and wood bark (cedar). Lifting things is orange sherbet, honey and delicate wood – slightly oaky, but again with the more aromatic cedar. In the back palate, touches of mint and menthol. Water had a more positive effect than on the nose, heightening pepper, adding a touch of salt and bringing out some steely minerality.
Finish: Medium in length, and relatively woody – oak, tannins and baking spices.
Ichiro’s Malt Double Distilleries is not the more complex beast – but it is both exceptionally balanced, and also an impressive display in blending. Tasted blind, I defy you clearly identify the young Chichibu elements over the older Hanyu constituents – the marriage of the two being remarkably well integrated. That said, I would be exceedingly careful with any dilution here (not that its needed) – the nose washes out very quickly. You’ll occasionally still see this whisky popping up at retailers - expect to pay around £100 as of writing – though there are many outlets who will ask considerably more. There are also 20cl versions (they're quite cute) of the three blended malts in the leaf series. In Japan, these are relatively affordable and a good way to sample this series. Outside of Japan, these chibi-leaves are much more expensive than their 70cl equivalents when you compare the price vs. bottle size.
But don't take our word for it..
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