It’s said there’s no limit to what the Japanese people are prepared to endure… and the universe seems intent on making them prove it.
My first trip to Japan was in 2010; business meetings were fixated on the recent Riman Shokku (Lehman Shock) which had decimated all global economies, including Japan’s. Whereas other countries could count on a reversion to their natural growth trajectories over time, Japan was faced with the demographic headwind of an aging population, manifest in a GDP growth rate that had only once exceeded 2% in the prior 25 years.
A year later, I was airborne on my way to Narita when the Tohoku earthquake hit. My plane made a quick U-turn above Kamchatka, looking for steadier ground on which to land. I arrived at 4 AM in Anchorage and stayed there for three days full of confusion and cold, as I had packed for springtime in Tokyo, not Alaska. Don’t cry for me, though. Those poor souls on the ground suffered far worse, as we all know.
Still, through remarkable resolve and collective sacrifice, the country rebuilt and eventually began looking forward to the future. The election of pro-growth Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in 2012 heralded the beginning of a new era in which the economy would hopefully be re-invigorated. This process was to culminate in the 2020 Olympics, in which the eyes of the world would be turned toward Tokyo.
This was also meant to be a momentous time for Japanese whisky. Ichiro Akuto, founder of Chichibu (itself a phoenix rising from the ashes of Hanyu), had planned to release the distillery’s first 10-year-old bottling to coincide with the Olympics. This would have marked the transition of Chichibu from a plucky upstart releasing miniscule quantities of young but phenomenally flavorful small batch releases and single casks, to an established distillery capable of supplying a fully mature, age-stated whisky in commercial quantities.
As I write this (in late March 2020) the only certainty is uncertainty. My city, like many others across the globe, is under orders to “shelter in place” and restrict all non-essential travel. The Tokyo Olympics, meanwhile, have been deferred until 2021. There’s been no word from Chichibu about the release of the anticipated and highly desired 10 year old whisky.
Thus this piece, originally intended as a celebration of Chichibu and a retrospective on how far the distillery has come, has taken on quite a different cast. I had originally brought these bottles out of storage to drink with a friend who had been incredibly generous in sharing his own collection with me. Now we’re strongly discouraged from getting together; I am reserving drams of each of these for his future enjoyment.
Rather, I’m cracking these precious bottles open because it feels as though we’re facing down the end of the world, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to spend the apocalypse drinking cheap whisky.
Chichibu has attracted more than its fair share of attention here on Malt, especially considering that its bottlings are typically both rare and dear. TV treated us to a pair of oddities in the form of a red wine cask finish as well as a peated commemoration of the distillery’s 10th anniversary. Henry wasn’t terribly impressed with the bottling for the London Whisky Show, though Noortje was a fan of the Chibidaru. Mark gave us The Peated and a pair of exotic barrels. Jason has visited and revisited Chichibu periodically, most recently in the form of a bottling for the Independent Whisky Bars of Scotland that was available only via ballot.
Each of the two bottles I’ll be trying today has been reviewed in prior instances long ago; Mark had a look at The First back in 2012, presciently urging readers to stock up on bottles at the price of £80. Stocking up has recently come to take on quite different connotations, and £80 won’t get you close to a bottle of Chichibu… or, indeed, to a package of toilet paper. Jason, meanwhile, tried On The Way as part of a Chichibu horizontal in 2016.
No discussion of Chichibu can proceed without a mention of price, especially so given our scoring framework takes the cost of the bottle into account. The First now seems to command closer to £400 at auction, while On The Way is a comparative steal at nearer £250. For the purposes of this review, I’ll be referencing the $250 and $200 I paid, respectively when these were still available at retail. Hey, remember retailers?
This bottle of The First is aged 3 years and comes in at 59%. This is the U.S. bottling which does not carry a date, but other bottles of this expression specify that it was distilled in 2008 and bottled in 2011.
Chichibu The First – Review
Color: Pale straw
On the nose: Ample tropical fruit mingles with a pure, malty grain note. This flip-flops between juicy mango aromas and a mint-inflected scent of malted barley. There’s plantain, apple cider, and a spicy-sweet note of cinnamon sugar. Across all of this, the creamy influence of ex-bourbon oak is apparent.
In the mouth: This is texturally profound. Sure, there are flavors throughout, but what strikes me most is the feeling of this. Immediately, this puckers the mouth with a note of wood so sharp it turns sour. This lapses into a whispering sweetness as it meets the tongue, making a woody pivot as it turns into some richer citrus fruit flavors in the middle of the mouth. For a split second I’m getting a ghostly echo of Hanyu’s hallmark green chili peppers. There’s a singularly hot and pointed note at the crest of the tongue. As this recedes into the finish, there’s a hard-to-pin-down sense of spicy wood. It’s not quite mizunara, but it incorporates some of the characteristic mizunara flavors like five spice and incense.
There’s plenty to like here. Sure, it’s young, and there’s some of the expected drawbacks accompanying that youth. Mostly it’s that the elements (all of which, by themselves, are appealing) don’t quite fit together snugly. Some more time in the barrel might allow these to knit together, producing a better overall effect. Still, I’m reticent to be overly critical. This has excellent character, being comprised of pure and intense flavors that highlight the quality of both the distillate and the wood, and which hints at the benefits of the interplay between the two.
All that said, this is damn expensive for a young whisky. In several respects I think of this as being similar to Daftmill, in that it is comparatively dear and also intensely flavorful. Not that Chichibu needs my support or yours, but: if you prefer directing your custom to a small startup distiller producing the best possible whisky, you could do a lot worse.
On the Way was bottled in 2013, though the bottle I have lacks an age statement. It is said to be a mix of vintages from 2008 onwards, matured in ex-bourbon barrels and then finished in mizunara casks. This is 58.5% ABV.
Chichibu On The Way – Review
Color: Limpid lemon
On the nose: An appropriately vernal scent immediately imparts a sense of rebirth and fresh beginnings. Similar to The First, there’s a pure barley aroma at the top of the nose. Deeper inhalation yields some freshly cut grass, grapefruit, and a whiff of the fancy floral bar soap from mom’s guest bathroom. There’s wood here, but it is so gently, delicately, harmoniously integrated that I only notice it with tenacious sniffing. A wisp of mizunara appears in the form of some exceedingly faint spice and incense; I don’t know that I would have picked this out if I were tasting this blind. Even more smelling (this is compulsively fun to nose) yields some warming notes of miso broth.
In the mouth: More lively upfront, with a deliciously fruity entry. This progresses in a much more stately fashion than The First. Whereas the former whisky immediately gripped the tongue, this one builds more slowly to achieve the same mouth coating effect in the end. Again, this is an intensely textural whisky. Precisely in the middle of the mouth, it blooms into a dense and powerful whirlwind of flavor; it swirls with malt, wood, fruit, spice. “On the way” down the throat (see what I did there) this has the unmistakable salty and nutty taste of freshly-shelled peanuts at the ballpark; I know they love baseball in Japan; do they pair it with peanuts as well? Regardless, there’s the aftertaste of barley and another lingering floral note of rosewater to bring us back to the springtime feeling.
A much different animal than its predecessor. While The First had plenty of intensity, there was a disjointed sense at parts, as though the voices were taking turns to speak rather than harmonizing simultaneously. This whisky, however, manages to capture all the positives we associate with youth (vigor, energy, potential) with none of the negatives (awkwardness, imbalance, a sense of needing more). It’s a pure pleasure to smell and to drink, and garners a bonus point for being slightly less expensive.
That said, it’s still costly enough to be in the realm of “special treat” rather than a regular go-to. Again, though, it’s not outlandishly priced with reference to comparably high-quality product out there. I’m giving this a score which hopefully underlines its excellence as justifying the price tag, which I acknowledge is hefty.
If you’ve had the good fortune to try any Hanyu you’ll be aware how special a distillery it was, and what a loss to global whisky its downfall came as. It’s early days still, but these initial forays point to Chichibu being alike in dignity to its predecessor. There are lots of big names in world whisky, and a few of those names are happy to relieve you of two Benjamin Franklins in exchange for some ultimately undistinguished product. If you’re looking to splurge, you can do so safely in the case of Chichibu, without the fear of having to wonder what all the fuss is about.
I hope my next drink of Chichibu will be at Shot Bar Zoetrope in Shinjuku next summer. Until then, banzai and kampai to all, but especially the Japanese.