The “smallest distiller in Japan” operating on a mountainous site about 100 km northwest of Tokyo has won recognition from whisky lovers at home and abroad.
Venture Whisky Ltd. was established only 11 years ago. But some of its products won high marks as Japanese whisky from a prestigious British publication, the Whisky Magazine, for several consecutive years since 2006, putting its brand “Ichiro’s” in the ranks of big names like Suntory and Nikka.
“My plan is to release a 10-year-old malt whisky in 2020 when Tokyo hosts the Summer Olympic Games,” says Ichiro Akuto, founder of the distiller which now sells about 90,000 bottles of whisky worldwide on an advanced-order basis.
Akuto says the natural environment around his distillery in Chichibu, Saitama Prefecture, is good for whisky production.
“The quality of water here is so good that there used to be lots of sake breweries. A wide difference in temperatures, which rise to 38 degrees Celsius in the summer and fall to 10 C below zero in the winter, deepens the maturation of whisky and makes even 3-year-old products tasty enough,” he says.
To make the best of the environment, the distillery has no air-conditioning system in the storehouse where casks are placed on wood boards over dirt to mature, like distilleries in Scotland.
Akuto was born into a family in Chichibu that began brewing sake during the Edo Period (1603-1868) in feudal Japan. After finishing university, he joined Suntory Ltd., a leading Japanese brewing and distilling company and worked in the sales field.
As a sales representative, he visited wholesalers, restaurants and other businesses to sell Suntory whiskies.
A few years later, Akuto was asked by his father to help the family business involving producing sake, shochu (spirits) and whisky.
The family business, however, fell into financial hardship and was eventually sold.
Akuto was left with about 400 casks of single malt whisky as the buyer did not want that business.
He then decided to produce whiskies and set up Venture Whisky in 2004. He transferred the spirit into casks which used to contain sherry and brandy as well as brand new barrels of Japanese oak wood for maturing.
He succeeded to produce 600 bottles of “Ichiro’s Vintage Single Malt 1988” the following year.
Utilizing his experience as a sales person at Suntory, he visited some 2,000 bars in Tokyo and its vicinity to introduce his brand of whisky.
He recalls how glad he was when he heard a bartender say the taste was “unique.” The whisky was all sold in two years.
As the 400 casks would eventually run out, Akuto built Chichibu Distiller, which he says is the smallest in Japan, at a cost of ¥200 million and began operating it in 2008.
The distillery, which has two units of the world’s smallest distilling equipment imported from Scotland, shipped a 3-year-old whisky for the first time in 2011 and the entire production run of 7,400 bottles sold out.
Akuto, who has learned whisky production not only at the family plant but also at other places including distilleries in Scotland, uses tanks of Japanese oak, rather than pine, for the fermentation of malt in order to make whiskies richer in taste.
“I don’t think any other distilleries in the world use tanks of Japanese oak,” he says.
The cask is a decisive factor in whisky’s flavor, according to Akuto. A barrel that used to contain sherry makes a whisky taste fruity, while whiskies transferred into former brandy and wine casks are mild and bitter, respectively, he says.
Venture Whisky has released 100 to a few thousand bottles of single malt whiskies two to three times a year and they immediately sell out.
“My dream is now to drink a 30-year-old whisky mellowed at Chichibu,” Akuto says.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.