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.
The closure of Hanyu distillery in 2000 was a particularly sad moment in the history of Japanese whisky – unable to survive the downturn in the industry, one wonders what might have happened if it was just able to keep going just a few years more and weather the storm. But, at the time, the outlook was a lot less rosy as it now. Nevertheless, the demise of Hanyu made Chichibu possible – Ichiro, purchased all the Hanyu stock (warehousing it at Sasanokwa Shuzo who primarily produced Shochu and Sake historically) and formed the Venture Whisky company to bottle and distribute it – the proceeds went on to help fund the development of the his new distillery from 2004.
But, it was not all plain sailing – many of you will have heard of the now legendary Ichiro’s Playing Card series (54 different single malts for each playing card in a pack – plus 2 jokers), but years back, I remember hearing stories of playing card bottlings sitting on shelves in Japan getting dusty. That sounds completely unimaginable nowadays – these bottlings sell for thousands each – however, the downturn in the Japanese market was both deep and sustained, and it’s only really over the last 10 years (and particularly the last 5) that it has emerged from this and taken on a stratospheric direction.
If Ichiro had waited to bottle up the old Hanyu stock, I wonder how much cash he’s have had available to him nowadays?! However, he proved to be in the right place at the right time, generating enough finance to make the founding of Chichibu possible – and even enough to cover operations for the particularly long period to obtain a license to distil (not until 2008) from the government. Right place, right time – since the founding of Chichibu, the industry has gone from strength to strength, winning awards and broadening its international appeal so widely that now stock shortages are the main talking point. Chichibu is still a young distillery – 10 years old this year – however it’s riding the very crest of the whisky wave with bottlings in such high demand that few rarely sit on the shelves for long. Sometimes fate can be very cruel – other times, you’ve simply got to take your chances and trust in your instincts.
Like the other leaf series bottlings Ichiro’s Malt Wine Wood Reserve is a blend of pure malts (a term commonly used in Japan, but rather disliked by the SWA in Scotland) from both Hanyu and Chichibu. In this case, the Hanyu element is composed of whisky that has been matured in French Oak (either quercus robur – European oak, or quercus petraea – sessile oak) that previous contained Japanese red wine. It’s bottled at 46% ABV and will cost you around £140-£150, though if you’ve taken the plunge into the sometimes murky world of online auctions, you’ll probably be able to obtain this bottle for quite a lot less than the retail price.
Nose: Immediate and highly pronounced wine aromas – soft black and red fruits – black cherries and raspberries. A touch of rose and violet and we’re firmly into the category of some youthful Pinot Noir. Fortunately, whilst wine-forward, the nose does offer up other nuances – gentle toffee and coffee, grassiness and a touch of menthol are joined by nuttiness from almonds (sugar coated) and some hefty spices – pepper, and anise in particular. The addition of water completely alters the balance of this whisky, reducing the definition from soft fruits, almost entirely to the cask influence – vanilla, coconut and bitter spicing. Interesting, but certainly much better balanced in its 46% ABV form.
Taste: A slight oiliness on arrival – the wine influence is much reduced in the mouth. Juicy red berries (raspberries and cranberries) and blackberries (even some Ribena berry) start us on a sweet path, that is supported by chocolate, toffee and sweet cinnamon spicing. Development quickly changes things up a notch – pepper, chilli, grapefruit and citrus coming through in the mid to back palate. You don’t even want to think about adding water to this. Whilst the existing profile moves from sweet through spicy into bitterness, it does so in a measured way - water disrupts this, adding all the emphasis to the bitterness and oak influence, which invariably brings with it a ton of tannins. Again, 46% is where this wants to be.
Finish: Medium with pepper spicing, chocolate, brown sugar and a touch of cough syrup.
Ichiro’s Malt Wine Wood Reserve is the best bottling of the series to my tastes – and it really pleased me to be say that about a wine influenced whisky (not always my cup of tea). Not only are the Hanyu and Chichibu elements so well integrated that you’d not be able to differentiate them, but the wine influence is perfectly judged – big and pronounced on the nose, restrained and supportive on the palate. Water ruins this balance to my taste and brings out a heap of unrefined brutish tannins – your mileage may vary, but I’d happily drink this in the form it has been presented to me. Certainly recommended – though consider purchasing at auction over through brick and mortar/online retail – you’ll save 30-50%.