Just over a decade ago, it took all of Ichiro Akuto’s powers of persuasion to convince a bank to lend him the money to open a whisky distillery.
Today, despite working out of modest premises with just two tiny pot stills in the hills of Chichibu, a town 100 km northwest of Tokyo, Akuto’s single malts are winning rave reviews from the global whisky cognoscenti.
Many are willing to pay hundreds of dollars - and in a few cases much more - for a bottle of single malt from what is Japan’s smallest distillery.
The Whisky Magazine, a British publication, has consistently given awards to Akuto’s firm, Venture Whisky, and its range of “Ichiro’s” single malts now rival those from the bigger and more established Japanese distillers Suntory and Nikka.
This year, Akuto won first prize in the Japanese single malt single class category at the World Whiskies Awards.
The 50-year-old traces Japan’s newfound obsession with whisky to its long history of brewing sake. “We love perfecting the art of making things, so you could say we’re quite geeky in that respect,” he says. “That determination to do things right extends to whisky.”
The comparison is particularly apposite in Akuto’s case. His grandfather, a sake maker, was running the family’s 300-year-old sake brewery when, on a whim, he decided to obtain a distiller’s license a year after the second world war ended.
Akuto’s father continued to dabble in whisky making, using two stills imported from Scotland to produce about 400 casks. By 2000, however, the end of Japan’s bubble economy and a decline in sake consumption forced the family to sell up.
The sale, though, turned out to be the beginning of Ichiro Akuto’s successful career as a distiller, after he snapped up the unwanted stills and casks of maturing whisky from the brewery’s new owners.
He launched Venture Whisky in 2008 and produced his first label – Ichiro’s Vintage Single Malt 1988 – the following year. Much of the rest of the inherited stock went into Venture’s award-winning “card” series, with each small batch labelled with the name of a playing card.
The whiskies sold out as soon as they went on sale, bought, in some cases, for tens of thousands of yen online by whisky enthusiasts. Some bottles in the series are now considered collector’s items.
Akuto achieved another milestone last year when a bottle of his 1960 Karuizawa single malt – made with whisky rescued from the family sake brewery - sold for a US$118,500 at an auction in Hong Kong, a record for a Japanese whisky.
The bottle sold at Bonhams was one of its kind just 41 in existence, but it is the whiskies - which cost anything from a few thousand yen to 100,000 yen or more - made exclusively at the Chichibu distillery that are reinforcing Japan’s unlikely status as a whisky superpower.
Most of the distillery’s barley comes from Norfolk, with smaller quantities from Germany and Scotland, whose peaty tones initially struggled to win over Japanese drinkers more accustomed to lighter, floral flavours. Akuto is also experimenting with barley grown locally, a bold move that, if successful, promises to produce a genuinely Japanese whisky.
The company produced 90,000 bottles of whisky last year, about half of which were for the international market, with the UK, France and Taiwan among its biggest customers. It has also started exporting to the US.
“If we were interested in just making balanced, easy-to-drink whiskies then we would inevitably have to compete with Suntory and Nikka,” says Yumi Yoshikawa, Venture’s brand ambassador.
“But we’re trying to do the opposite – making whiskies with character that are not necessarily balanced or easy to drink. That’s how we’re keeping our market share,” adds Yoshikawa, whose love of the “water of life” has taken her on study tours to 70 distilleries around the world over the past five years.
Venture’s older single malts of the future are maturing in 4,000 casks that once contained sherry from Spain and Portugal, wine from France and bourbon from the US. At the firm’s in-house cooperage, lengths of Japanese oak are being turned into wholly domestic casks that will impart new flavours to its whiskies.
Chichibu’s hot, humid summers and cold winters are ideally suited to whisky production, with the temperature variation exacerbated by the town’s mountainous location. “That all makes for deep whisky maturation,” Akuto says.
The number of international awards going to Japanese whiskies underlines the dramatic progress the country’s distillers have made since Masataka Taketsuru launched Suntory’s Yamazaki distillery in 1923. As recently as the 1990s, whisky – usually the blended variety – was often drunk as highballs or watered down, mizuwari-style, in salaryman bars.
Chichibu, though, is the closest Japan comes to a genuinely craft distillery, with a staff of 14 whose average age is just 30. “We’re not competing with the big companies,” says Akuto, who likens his enterprise to a lean sumo wrestler who, lacking the heft to bulldoze his opponents, must rely on faultless technique and a sense of adventure.
“You could say that we’re building our own, more exclusive sumo ring and keeping out the bigger guys out that way,” he adds.
He has ambitious plans for his distillery, including a 10 percent annual increase in sales and expanded premises. But he has no intention of selling his idiosyncratic whiskies in supermarkets or convenience stores; instead, their growing number of devotees must go online or buy directly from specialist suppliers, including high-end department stores.
“Our whiskies are relatively expensive, and they’re intended to be drunk over time and savoured,” says Akuto, whose next big project is to release a 10-year-old whisky to coincide with the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, followed by a 30-year-old single malt made entirely in Chichibu.
Judging by the reviews his tiny distillery has received so far, they will be worth the wait.