A pioneer in the Japanese whisky industry and promoter of Japanese whisky culture worldwide, the founder Ichiro Akuto talks about the art and dreams of his whisky-making.
Ichiro Akuto is the founder and owner of Chichibu Distillery, an icon in the Japanese whisky industry. This tiny distillery started production in 2008, with only small (but extremely high quality) quantities of whisky produced. Akuto’s whiskies are well-recognised as young in age yet perfectly balanced. Also, their spectacular label designs are always eagerly sought by whisky enthusiasts. No matter how impressive the accolades received at worldwide whisky competitions, Akuto remains humble, saying “The development of Japanese whisky is based on Scotch whisky. I continue to refine the unique taste of Chichibu whisky. My experiences in Scotland were undoubtedly useful to my whisky-making. All I have to do is keep studying.”
What is the relationship between Chichibu whiskies’ label designs and art?
When I was thinking about the design of the card series, I met a painter called Heizi (also known as Hay) who had created an artwork of a clown. When we met each other, he could not summon enough excitement to create a new artwork. Fortunately, he regained his creative motivation after receiving highly positive feedback from the card bottle design series from close friends. After that, I found the relationship between whisky bottle labels and art to be interesting.
What is the implication behind the superb bottle design of Chichibu whisky?
I am delighted when the bottles become more memorable if they are accompanied by a unique label. Previously, I decided to use a full playing card deck to denote the 54 kinds of whiskies from Hanyu Distillery. Since each barrel has its own characteristics, like a person, I wish to distinguish the exclusive taste of each bottle using different label designs. I believe people might not remember the number of the barrel after they enjoy the whisky, but they do remember which particular card was on the bottle. People like to have labels and packaging that match the individual taste and flavour of each whisky. So I think the bottle design is highly appealing to the drinker.
My dream is to enjoy whisky which has been aged for 30 years in my distillery barrel. It would be the highlight of my whisky life to enjoy them.
How do you feel about the maturity of each day in the distillery?
I'm experiencing an “angel’s share” every day in the blender room. The whisky becomes mellower, the balance changes, and the personality of the whisky becomes more obvious. The whisky is more delicious after a certain period of time. It is interesting that when you compare the same barrel regularly, the same whisky which I thought was immature a year ago has become more delicious. It's really fun to experience the changes in taste which are always unpredictable. I am looking forward to seeing what kind of changes might happen to my
whisky in 20 or 30 years. My dream is to enjoy whisky which has been aged for 30 years in my distillery barrel. It would be the highlight of my whisky life to enjoy them.
Please tell us about the unique features of Chichibu whisky.
We keep using various barrels such as Mizunara, Sherry and wine barrels. The barrels are imported from foreign countries, but I am planning to try domestic products. Of course the priority is to make delicious whisky. If the quality of domestic products and local ingredients could be further improved, it would be easier to develop the unique features of our whisky. We are still exploring the unique taste of Chichibu whisky, and I am delighted to keep experimenting and working on it.
What is the plan of Chichibu Distillery for the Tokyo Olympics?
We are preparing a 10 year old single malt whisky. We hope the whisky enthusiasts and tourists could enjoy it when they visit the Tokyo Olympics 2020. We are still in the planning stage, but we are on schedule. I think it would be great if visitors to Japan who love whisky could try our whisky when they visit a Japanese bar.
Could you recommend your favourite way to enjoy whisky?
My whisky life started when I discovered single malt whisky. I love to go to a bar and enjoy the whisky recommended by the bartender. My favourite way is to always have a chaser along with a straight whisky. The standard way to drink whisky is to enjoy the individuality of each whisky. Recently I have been trying to blend whisky by myself. Since Japan is having a hot summer, I would love to take a gin and tonic, a beer, or a highball to moisten my throat before taking a straight whisky... In terms of food pairing, Japanese and Western cuisines are also suitable for high ball. You will find increasingly more restaurants and izakayas serve our blended whisky (Ichiro’s Malt & Gain Whisky). We hope that more people will enjoy Chichibu whisky.