Ichiro Akuto, the founder of Chichibu Distillery, tells Matthew Wilcox how he took his family's whisky business off the rocks
In August 2015, a full 54-bottle set of Ichiro's Card Series of Japanese whisky sold for US$489,978 at Bonhams sale of Fine and Rare Whisky in Hong Kong. It was a record price for a lot in a whisky auction.
"It was astonishing," says Ichiro Akuto, the malt maestro behind Ichiro's Card Series. We are standing in the warehouse of his tiny new distillery, Chichibu, deep in the mountains north of Tokyo – an area that was, until recently, most famous for the quality of its udon noodles. Akuto still appears to be shocked about the historic auction and, indeed, the recent meteoric rise of Japanese whisky – two years ago, the renowned spirits writer, Jim Murray, named the Yamazaki Sherry Cask Single Malt 2013 the best in the world in his Whisky Bible.
It was not always thus. In fact, the early history of Japanese whisky was not one of distinction. As an American officer on shore leave in Hakodate in 1918 recorded: "All the cheap bars have 'Scotch whisky' Made in Japan. If you come across any, don't touch it. It's called Queen George, and it's more bitched up than its name... I never saw so many men get so drunk so fast."
Akuto's family have been making spirits since 1941. During the post-war era, the company, Hanyu, steadily built a reputation for the quality of their malt but, following the collapse of the Japanese economic bubble in the 1990s, the Akuto family fortunes were very much on the rocks. In 2004, Akuto's father was forced to sell the family's distillery.
"The new owner was not interested in whisky," says Akuto. "They would have discarded the remaining casks, but some were nearly 20 years old and very precious. They were like our children. So I saved the whisky and set up a new company."
In those early years, Akuto trudged from bar to bar in Tokyo to sell his bottling from the old 400-litre casks of Hanyu stock he had saved. "It was the spring of 2005, I wanted to release four single casks from the closed distillery, and suddenly I hit on the idea of four suits of playing cards. At that time I wasn't thinking beyond those four bottles, so I used iconic cards: the Ace of Spades, King of Diamonds, Queen of Hearts and Jack of Clubs."
Akuto must have played his cards right: the following year his King of Diamonds won the Editor's Choice award from Whisky Magazine. In 2008, confident and armed with the profits from the Playing Card series, he bet the farm and opened Chichibu with one task, to "take whisky back to the past".
Whisky, says Akuto, is not what it was. Describing a 1966 Bowmore as one of the three whiskies that have most influenced him, he says, "You can't find that taste in Scotch whisky nowadays." The root of the problem, the whisky whizz suggests, lies in the success of Scotch as a global drink: "When they scaled-up, they changed the way they made whisky."
Rather like Olympic endeavour, it seems, the key to great malt is the accumulation of marginal differences. "Each little thing might contribute only a very small percentage to the overall profile, but gradually each step has changed, from floor malting to mashing, how they ferment the wash, to the distillation process and the way they deal with the casks."
That's why Akuto is reasserting control over every single step in the process, becoming the only Japanese distiller to grow rather than import his barley.
An example of this attention to detail was demonstrated when he bought his own cooperage. Not only did this allow him to construct barrels using mizunara, the rare Japanese oak, with its whiff of high-end temple incense, but in turn opened up more areas for exploration. "It grows up north and we have to go to auctions to get hold of it. Recently, we visited the forest it grows in as well."
Where will it all end? "I would like to go back to the old variety of barley that was used in the 1960s," he tells me, like a whispered confession.
Akuto's curiosity may be inexhaustible, but he hasn't forgotten what whisky is for. "I was very happy with the sale," he says. "But, on the other hand, I find myself wondering, 'will anyone drink it?"
Matthew Wilcox is Deputy Editor of Bonhams Magazine.