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Dr John Hawkins

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Chichibu Distillery

Posted on 2008/04/02 07:50:37 (April 2008).

[Saturday 29th March 2008]
I had first heard of (and tried) whisky from what Watanabe-san referred to as Chichibu distillery on my first visit to Quercus back in May 2005. It was one of the Ichiro's Malt series, distilled in 1988, from a bottle bearing an Acorn motif, rather than the now more familiar playing card labels. I was immediately impressed - as I wrote at the time, everything just seemed to be in perfect proportions, and that one dram was single handedly responsible for my future interest in Japanese whisky (I started that wikipedia article!).

Chichibu became a regular dram for me on my many visits to Quercus, and as Ichiro Akuto was a friend of Watanabe-san's, I was even fortunate enough to meet the great man on a few occasions (such as in November 2005). Watanabe-san was a particular pioneer of the whisky - at the time when I was first drinking it there it was hardly available anywhere else, so I was really pleased to watch its' meteroic rise within the whisky world - from Whisky Live Tokyo 2006 to all the press it started receieving later on that year. I was really pleased on my return to the UK to see that Ichiro's Malt had started appearing in whisky shops here in London, and was developing a real profile for itself.

The fine malts I was drinking were all from the old Chichibu distillery, sometimes also referred to as Hanyu or "Golden Horse" distillery. Sadly this had closed a few years ago, but Akuto-san, grandson of the original distiller, had managed to buy up much of the stock, and sell it on under the now much acclaimed Ichiro's Malt range. This was, one presumes, also a bid to raise funds for building a new Chichibu distillery.

I had often heard talk of this new Chichibu distillery on my visits to Quercus, both from Watanabe-san, and on occasion from Akuto-san himself - and we all felt a definite sense of excitement about the project.

It was then to my delight that I heard that on this visit the new distillery had now opened, and started distilling, and Watanabe-san had been able to arrange for us to go on a tour. This was a real privilege - I believe only a handful of whisky industry dignitaries (people like Dave Broom) had so far been to visit the place, and when they went there I think it hadn't actually started distilling yet.

So we met with Watanabe-san at 11:00 at Ikebukuro station, and also met there Toyoda-san, another regular of Quercus I had met a couple of times before, and shared a keen interest in Chichibu. From there we got on the Seibu line to Saitama, a little under an hour-and-a-half's journey. It's then about a 15 minute taxi ride to the distillery from Seibu-Ikebukuro station (although the place is so new, our taxi driver had no idea it even existed).

As we came over the brow of the hill, and the pagoda roof of the maltings at Chichbu came in sight, there was audible excitement in the taxi (I wonder what the driver made of it!). We then got out to spend a while admiring the fine new building, set to a backdrop of the mountains of Saitama prefecture.

We then met Akuto-san inside, and were given a fantastic and detailed tour of the distillery - see the pictures for the full details.

I've also written a more detailed article about our visit for the excellent Nonjatta blog (a blog all about Japanese whisky).

It is hard to explain the excitement I experienced at this new distillery - it had been quite similar to my visit to Kilchoman last year. I suppose partly it is the sense of delight at seeing someone else's dream project come to life. After we finished the tour we took a picture of Akuto-san standing outside the distillery - I'm very fond of that shot - I have seldom ever seen a man looking more proud, content and satisfied than Akuto-san did in that picture. And rightly so - the man has a huge talent for whisky, it runs in his blood, and I am confident the new Chichibu distillery will be a resounding success.

We got on the train back to Tokyo around 3, and at Ikebukuro station said our goodbyes to Watanabe-san and Toyoda-san.

Chie and I then headed over to a little district of Tokyo somwhere near Shibuya (whose name espapes me) to meet up with a load of her old university friends at a nice little Italian restaurant there. I spent the remainder of the day in something of a daze, visiting Chichibu was undoubtedly one of the biggest highlights of this whole trip, and probably my whole year!



Comment 1

Hey John, do you have an E-mail for the distillery. I can't find one and wish to arrange a visit. The operation looks super-cool and is what I want to be doing in about five years. Thanks man, Mark David from the U.S.

Posted by Mark David at 2009/04/10 19:36:03.

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