By Nicholas Coldicott

Photography by Yoshi Dazai

There’s an unmistakable aroma in the air. I’m standing in the grounds of Japan’s Chichibu whisky distillery, about 60 miles northwest of Tokyo in the lush Okuchichibu Mountains, and I can smell caramel. Not the subtle notes you sometimes find in whisky. The rich, gloopy stuff you squirt on a latte. I know the smell of a whisky distillery. Something like hot beer. 
Nothing like this.

I ask, delicately, why this distillery smells so syrupy. Chief mashman Manami Momma points at a factory a few hundred yards away. It looks to be the only other business in the area. “They make artificial flavors. Sometimes we get Earl Grey wafting over. Sometimes coffee,” she says.

It’s a striking juxtaposition. To the left, the Musashino Aromatic Chemical Laboratory dyeing the mountain air with E-number taste bombs. To the right, Japan’s newest whiskymaker, discreetly nurturing more natural flavors. Both harness science in the name of flavor, but only one will need a trophy cabinet. Only one will elicit gushing reviews. Only one will lure pilgrims like me.

Chichibu is one of eight working distilleries in Japan. That may seem plenty for this tiny archipelago, but the Japanese get through a lot of whisky. Only Scotland produces more single malt. Most of the work is done by five giants — Fuji Gotemba, Hakushu, Miyagikyo, Yamazaki and Yoichi each of which can turn out millions of liters per year. Chichibu can stretch to around 90,000 liters.

I first came here in 2010 with whisky critic Dave Broom when the distillery was not yet two years old. After a tour of the site, owner Ichiro Akuto offered us a sample of a year-old spirit. It was still limpid but tasted inexplicably, astoundingly mature. On the drive home, Broom said, “Imagine what that’ll be like at 10 years old.”

Chichibu has released three official whiskies since then, each three years old and each tasting more like 10. They’re clearly doing something special and I’ve come to find out what it is.

Hiroshi Yamagishi

I once harbored romantic notions of giving up writing and learning the distiller’s craft. Those dreams disappeared the moment Akuto told me the schedule. Full days begin at 4am. Half days start at 9am. I picked a 9am day and arrived a few minutes late. Momma is already discussing the day’s mash with protégé Hiroshi Yamagishi.

A few meters away, stillman Masashi Watanabe has switched on the wash still and is staring at the spirit safe — a glass-walled brass box that sits between the two stills. After a few minutes, a clear liquid trickles from a funnel inside the safe. Watanabe opens a hatch, reaches in and collects some in a tasting glass.

The scene would surprise a Scottish distiller. It’s often said that Japanese whisky is made in the Scotch style. The industry was founded by Japanese chemist Masataka Taketsuru, who traveled to Scotland in the early 20th century and took scrupulous notes on every aspect of whisky making.

A century on, Japan’s distillers still adhere to the same basic tenets. But you’ll never catch a Scotsman opening the spirit safe. Over there, the taxman padlocks it. Distillers use eyesight and gauges to judge when to stop draining the unpleasant foreshots and divert the good stuff into the second still. 
In Japan’s bigger distilleries, it’s fully automated. But at Chichibu, they also use their tastebuds. This seems like a significant advantage. Watanabe takes his sample, noses it, sips it and hands it to the boss. Akuto tries it and hands it to me, saying, “You can taste the tail of the last distillation.” It’s musty, but I wouldn’t know why.

A minute later, Watanabe takes another sample. He declares it oily, clay-like, but now with a hint of fruit. To me, it tastes much the same. By the fifth glass, even I can tell it’s full of fruit, but Watanabe wants more. Sixteen minutes after he switched on the stills, he takes a sixth sample, likes it, and pulls a lever to send the liquid into the spirit still. He says it took a year to learn precisely when to pull that lever.

Watanabe turns to face the first still, hand on a little red wheel, staring straight ahead, motionless, expressionless, like the captain of a ship that won’t change course for days. He’s waiting for bubbles to appear in the window of the still. At 10.16am they do, and he manipulates the inflow to keep them in sight. If the bubbles reach the neck and hit the condenser, the spirit will acquire an unpleasant metallic taste, and the batch will be ruined.

Masashi Watanabe

At 31, Watanabe is the oldest member of the team. Mashman Yamagishi, now 24, was barely out of high school when the distillery opened. Momma joined straight from college with a blank résumé. Akuto says he didn’t so much hire her as fail to convince her that she couldn’t work there. “She asked for a job, but I rejected her. The distillery was only a plan at that time, so I wasn’t ready to hire,” he says. But Momma persisted. She volunteered. She’d help with the planning or do the drudge work for his other business, bottling stock from his family’s defunct distillery in the nearby town of Hanyu.

Manami Momma

It worked, and her payoff was to participate in the birth of Japan’s first new distillery in 35 years. Akuto worked briefly for his family’s distillery, and later followed Taketsuru’s path to Scotland, training at BenRiach. When he opened Chichibu, he hired a stillman from Japan’s dormant Karuizawa distillery, but he’s long gone now, and the day-to-day production is in the hands of seven young people who’d never made whisky before arriving here.

Akuto says it was something of a muddle for the first few months as they each practiced all the jobs in the distillery. But they soon agreed roles and production settled into a pattern.

At 10.20am, Yamagishi begins airing the mash tun — a large vessel for steeping the malt — by smacking it with a wooden pole. Many distilleries automate much of the mashing, but not this one. As the grist and water pour in, Yamagishi stirs it with a wooden paddle. “I can feel the condition if I stir by hand,” he says. Throughout the process, he measures depths and widths and temperatures. The mash is 64 degrees Celsius and spitting at me. I move away; Yamagishi moves closer. He scoops a shot of the mash with a tasting glass and studies it. “I’m looking at my fingerprint through the mash to judge the clarity,” he says. “Today isn’t as clear as usual.”

The mash will ferment in one of eight washbacks. Some distilleries use steel washbacks, others use pine or fir, but Chichibu’s are made from Quercus mongolica, a Japanese oak also known as mizunara. “Lacto bacteria works better with wood, but we’re probably the only distillery in the world that uses oak for fermentation,” says Akuto.

Ichiro Akuto

The mizunara washbacks fit Akuto’s ambition to make a truly local distillery. His team has already begun to practice malting on-site. Ten percent of their barley is now domestic, and local farmers are eager to supply more. The team has also been learning to make casks with a local cooper. “He’s over 80 years old and doesn’t have anyone to succeed him, so we decided to succeed him,” says Akuto.

In the warehouse I see an unusual variety of casks. “We’re using more than 20 types, including sherry butts, port pipes, Cognac casks, Madeira casks and rum casks,” says Akuto. When it comes time to release a whisky, the boss taps a cask or two and solicits opinions from everyone.

Chichibu feels like a rosy kind of family business with a paterfamilias and his loyal offspring. He’s taken a bunch of novices and turned them into a skilled whisky making team. I suspect he was motivated partly by experience — he tells me he dreamed of working for the Yamazaki distillery near Kyoto, but never got the chance. So when he built his own workforce, he chose young enthusiasts over seasoned pros. Perhaps this is what makes this distillery so special. They know how everyone else makes whisky, but they do things their way.

Tasting Notes

The First 61.8%
A triumphant debut. The whisky spent three years in first-fill bourbon barrels and came out with the sweet vanilla notes you’d expect, along with citrus and cream. Even at this young age and high strength, it’s enjoyable straight from the bottle.

The Peated 50.5%
At only 3 years old and with more than 50 ppm of peaty phenol, this ought to be a harsh beast. But it’s not. There’s plenty of body on the nose, and creamy on the tongue, with vanilla and nougat tempering the smoke. A splash of water brings out the creaminess.

The Floor Malted 50.5%
The Chichibu team traveled to England to malt the barley used in this release. Pine needles dominate the nose, with cereal and cough drops in there, too. It’s spicy on the tongue. A splash of water will open up some bran and almond flavors. The finish is short and sharp.

Originally Published in Sabor’s 2013 iPad edition.