Posted 19 June 2018 by Matt / In Chichibu
Bottle Name: Ichiro's Malt Mizunara Wood Reserve
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.
Chichibu is one of the few distilleries around the world with its own cooperage. A wide variety of barrels are utilised at the distillery – ex-bourbon, ex-sherry, port pipes, ex-maderia. You name it, distillery manager and founder Ichiro Akuto is probably experimenting with it. This, of course, includes mizunara, which, it was recently announced, the distillery would shortly be starting to source from the local region of Chichibu rather than wider afield (Ichiro has wanted to produced entirely locally sourced whisky for quite some time). The loose grained nature of mizunara means it is prone to leaking – it’s also apparently a bitch to work with. Constant care and attention and the watchful eye of a cooper are almost certainly required. However, it is this loose grain which also supports its properties as an excellent oak varietal for maturation – if liquids can sometimes leak out – oxygen can ingress. Oxygenation (as controlled as one can make it) is a vital element of maturation, catalysing the reactions of spirit and wood inside of the barrel. Mizunara therefore supports both active maturation as well as imbuing the spirit with unique flavours of cedar, sandalwood, incense and sometimes orchard blossom.
Mizunara is synonymous with the Japanese whisky industry, but this doesn’t mean that all distilleries either solely utilise it, or indeed utilise it at all. At Chichibu, however, its qualities and its importance is upped another level – the eight 3,100 litre (I.E. quite small) washbacks at the distillery are all made from Japanese oak. Fermentation at Chichibu takes around 4 days, and the distillery’s special washbacks enhance the liquid through a stable lactose fermentation - delivering an even more estery flavour profile to the eventual new make spirit.
Ichiro’s Malt Mizunara Wood Reserve was one of the distillery’s earlier releases. Whilst it is unspecified, it is commonly believed to be a blended malt containing young whisky produced at Chichibu with older spirit from the Hanyu stocks (which Ichiro had purchased and utilised to help fund the development of Chichibu). The constituent malts in this bottling have both been finished in mizunara oak. It is delivered at 46% ABV and can be bought as of writing for £100 via The Whisky Exchange.
Nose: Fruits first – spiced orange liqueur, nectarines and a hint of mango. Then, the wood – which quite pronounced - sandalwood, and incense, but also some white oak wood chipping and shavings. Florals also seem derived from the wood influence – blossom and peony. There’s honey sweetness running throughout, which sits alongside faintly burnt toast, white pepper and a smattering of ginger. The addition of water adds some bakery aromas – buns and pastries.
Taste: A lot less defined and pronounced than the nose promised. Saccharine at first - stone fruits lead – peach and apricot with some affections of tart citrus here and there. Both bitterness and sourness develop in the mouth and into the back palate – tart orange, astringent pepper – with a slight touch of raw spirit. Water is no benefit at all here – the palate quickly becoming washed out and undefined – the wood taking over with real bite and sharpness.
Finish: Very short – falling off a cliff in fact. Cinnamon buns and ginger and then gone.
Ichiro’s Malt Mizunara Wood Reserve starts promisingly, but ends poorly. The nose is quite lovely – pronounced mizunara influences sitting alongside well-defined fruits. The palate is less successful, being exceedingly wood-forward, but failing to totally achieve balance between the sweetness, bitterness and spicing. The finish alas all too brief. Nevertheless, this is highly evocative of both Japan and of the impact of Japanese oak. The least successful of Ichiro’s leaf series bottlings, but by no means bad.
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