Inside the visitors' center at Chichibu Distillery, high in the hills of Saitama Prefecture, a hint of sawdust mingled with the aromas of vanilla, dried fruits and honey that filled the air. The wooden structure is the newest building on the site of Japan's most recently opened distillery, which began producing Ichiro's Malt whisky in 2008. Since then, the whiskies crafted by owner Ichiro Akuto have won awards at global competitions and inspired cultlike devotion among connoisseurs, fetching as much as ¥50,000 for some of the rarest bottles.

I first heard of Ichiro's Malt a few years ago, when Japanese whiskies were starting to attract attention on the international scene. Apart from the glowing reviews, what had initially intrigued me about Chichibu Distillery was the history of the company. Akuto's family had been brewing sake for nearly 300 years before his grandfather decided to try to make whisky as a side business. In 1941, he built a sake-brewing facility in Hanyu, near the border of Gunma Prefecture, and got a distiller's license in 1946. Akuto's father continued the tradition. After buying two stills from Scotland in the 1980s, he poured his energy into creating single malts — an expensive and risky enterprise. By 2000, the business was ailing and the Akuto family had decided to sell, but the new owners had no interest in producing whisky. The stills were dismantled and the stocks of whisky that remained were put on sale.

Despite major setbacks, Ichiro Akuto was determined to start again. He managed to buy back 400 casks from the Hanyu distillery with the help of local sake producer Sasanokawa Shuzo and founded his own company, called Venture Whisky Ltd., in 2007.