I need a jumpstart, a stroke of inspiration, a kick in the backside.
In the last month or so I’ve been feeling less inclined to bang away on my keyboard for your education and enjoyment. No offense, but I’ve been busy with work and moving house on top of life’s normal demands. Fortunately, our trusty band of reliable Malt contributors has more than made up for my slacking, keeping our queue of articles full and supporting our daily cadence of publication.
In the way that momentum begets momentum, inertia can have a paralyzing effect that seems to increase the longer a body remains at rest. As each day passes, it starts to feel harder and harder to even commence a review. How to break this vicious cycle and get my groove back?
I’ve written before about how the best way to shake off the whisky doldrums is to stray from the familiar. This can take many forms; I sensed a feeling of vital refreshment from our writers back in May when we went on a Malternative streak. Even sticking to whisky, shifting focus to a novel region or style can be invigorating. This doesn’t have to necessarily be terra incognita; for today’s review, I’ll be returning to a place with which I was once well acquainted, but which I have forsaken for several years.
Japanese whisky used to be more familiar to me than bourbon. During my twice annual trips to the Land of the Rising Sun, I spent many non-work hours pounding the pavement in search of increasingly elusive bottles. Back at home, I read blogs and frequented message boards dedicated to the category. I tried to stay on top of new releases as best I could, across the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean and the even wider chasm of my lack of comprehension of Japanese.
Slowly, I got turned off Japanese whisky. It started with the disappearance of core expressions from the big distilling concerns (Suntory and Nikka principally) and the significant price increases for what remained (Yamazaki 12 went from $80 to $120+). The gaps on store shelves were filled by bottles of repurposed Scotch whisky, cynically dressed up with Kanji and Nihonga images in an attempted exploitation of the Japanese whisky hype bubble.
In the period after 2017, I usually finished my open bottles of Japanese whisky and didn’t replace them with new ones. I can’t actually remember the last time I had a sip of Japanese whisky. I remember vaguely that my brother had an open bottle of my old standby Hibiki 12 Years Old when I visited him last year… or was it back in 2020? The COVID pandemic has dilated and contracted time in a way that makes it difficult to make a precise temporal triangulation of memories.
At some point during the open-and-close dance of COVID lockdowns and travel restrictions (the dating of photos on my phone helpfully reminds me that it was May 2021), I found myself back in my old hometown of Chicago. I took the opportunity to drop into a smaller satellite outpost of Binny’s, by far the area’s largest wine and spirits retailer, now boasting an incredible 45 locations. The chain’s status as a Chicagoland juggernaut means their shelves are often filled with store picks, attractively priced clearance bottles, and relative rarities of the type infrequently found elsewhere. Price gouging in the form of opportunistic markups is also virtually nonexistent; I use Binny’s list prices as a proxy for SRP.
I left clutching a bottle of the 2020 U.S. Edition of Chichibu Ichiro’s Malt. Though I can’t recall specifically what motivated my purchase, I sense vaguely that it had something to do with my general fondness for Chichibu and the relative infrequency with which I encounter bottles from the distillery. It was expensive – I paid $350 for 750 ml – but Chichibu is always expensive. Oddly enough, the comparatively higher rate of increasing prices among the other Japanese distilleries has actually improved the cost competitiveness of Chichibu, not to mention the fact that you know you’re getting Japanese whisky proper.
So, why am I opening this at long last, more than a year later? As I referenced in passing, I moved house not too long ago. On setting up my new bar, I realized I had almost no bottles of malt whisky open, and certainly nothing Japanese. I am blessed with a long line of friends and family members to receive in the coming months, and I’d like to have something special open to share with them as we toast my new abode.
What exactly is this? The front label of this bottle shares a level of detail that Akuto-san, from the get-go, has been unique among his Japanese (and, indeed, global) whisky peers in providing. We have here a marriage of ten barrels of different types: four are labeled as “Bourbon Barrel,” three are “Re-Bourbon Barrel,” two are “Re-Chibidaru,” and the last is “Re-Wine Cask.”
I have seen the peat level on this reported at 30 ppm, which is well below hyper-peated expressions like Bruichladdich’s Octomore (250+ ppm) and in-line with the likes of Balvenie’s Peat Week. As Graham’s excellent exploration of peat reminds us, though, reducing the complexity of the flavor development to a mere number is an oversimplification and a mistake. I’m noting this mainly for housekeeping purposes and yes, perhaps to pad out the word count a little bit.
What else? I read on a retailer’s website that this was five years old, but have seen no official confirmation of this. The bottle clocks in at 55.5% ABV. 2,109 bottles were produced, of which this is bottle number 1,803. As mentioned above, I paid $350 for this, though I see that it is now being resold for $600 and up.
Chichibu Peated The US Edition 2020 – Review
Color: Medium-pale maize.
On the nose: A delightful combination of equal parts malt, oak, and a maritime salinity. There’s a buttered pastry note reminiscent of croissants from the oven, as well as some more generously creamy vanilla notes, presumably from the bourbon barrels. More sniffing allows me to pick out freshly cut evergreen boughs and a hint of chocolate fudge. There’s also a fruity, citric note of lime and some potpourri. All around the periphery dance these subtle but intense scents of iodine and petrichor that wash in and out like the tide. Judging by the nose alone, this smells like excellent Islay whisky from days of yore.
In the mouth: Upfront, a blooming heat meets a pronounced woodiness, though not in a way that comes off as unbalanced or extreme. There’s a faint flavor of floral hand soap here that meets with some spicy notes of lemongrass and green chili pepper (a Hanyu hallmark that I am grateful to see continues to carry on in Chichibu) as this approaches the center of the palate. There, the purity of the malt is evident, as the grain sings out momentarily before meeting mint sprigs and more of that smooth and creamy woodiness. The texture shifts to a drying mineral note here and, for the first time in the mouth, the peat begins to peek out with some gently smoky and savory accents that are meticulously well incorporated into the overall presentation. Into the finish, some piquantly woody notes with elements of cinnamon and cayenne pepper make way for another refreshing burst of mint before this begins a long fade. The tongue and roof of the mouth continue to tingle for a minute as faint echoes of the peaty seashore flavors occasionally reemerge.
Perhaps the best Chichibu I have yet had the pleasure of trying, this is a masterclass in the achievement of harmonious balance between malt and cask. That’s not to say the two are indistinguishable, but rather they take turns singing out before yielding to their counterparts. I especially like that the peat is not overpowering in any sense; at moments, I might have forgotten I was drinking a peated whisky, so self-assured were the other aromas and flavors on display at the time. Phenol freaks can keep their Octomores; to me, this represents the best use of peat, incorporated with an understated elegance that is perhaps the most Japanese thing about this whisky. The high price is justified by the exemplary contents of this bottle, thus I am able to bestow a strongly positive score.
Did the muse sing to me? As the reader of this review, you’d be better positioned to judge than I am. I can only tell you how I’m feeling, which is very happy and satisfied. I love that I have a bottle of this whisky to share, both virtually with you all in this forum, as well as in physical reality with anyone who stops by. I’m also reenergized; sitting down and writing this while giving the dram all the serious attention it deserved reminded me of what captivates me about whisky. I’m eager to open more bottles, try more samples, and to continue to expand my horizons. I hope you’ll come along for the journey; look for more in this vein very soon!
Seems like there’s lately been a resurgence of a new breed of Japanese whiskey—-like Shizuoka, which I think is based on the old Karuizawa stills. Like Chichibu, quality seems superb. Unfortunately the price is quite high as well, with secondary markets even higher. Hopefully as more of these new Japanese come to market, prices will come down. Wishful thinking I know, but keeping hope alive
The new Japanese single malts are very promising. A lot of them are owned by sake and/or shochu producers. A part of their culture is emphasizing the quality of the raw material and fermentation. Since there’s no culture for either category to heavily rely on wood. I’ve had some of the young stuff and they’re excellent.
Of course they’ll be expensive at 1st. But which bottlings from a new distillery aren’t expensive? Hopefully consumers who are willing to pay for Daftmill, Bimber and Ardnamurchan will be willing to pay for the new Japanese whiskys.
John, you hit the nail on the head with your second paragraph. I feel this way about bourbon as well: if someone is doing something different, at a small scale, and it is producing novel and/or superior aromas and flavors, surely it’s worth paying up to support that little guy or gal? The big whisk(e)y distilleries won’t miss the custom, and mostly don’t deserve it in the first place. Cheers.
PB, right on. Han has done a good job of bringing us some of these Japanese upstarts and they seem to be showing promise though as you note it comes with a price initially. Given Ichiro has had 12 years now to scale up and we still haven’t seen any price relief, I’m not holding out much hope for the rest, but I’d love to be proven wrong. As always, cheers for the comments and GO BLUE!
When Japanese (or US, for that matter) distillers produce peated whiskies, where is the peat coming from? I’m pretty sure the environmental regulations would not allow the extraction of peat from any bogs in the United States. I’ve never heard of any peat bogs in Japan, although I believe Siberia has some (a mere 2,000+ miles away). I’d guess it would be obscenely expensive to ship peat from active bogs to distilleries around the globe — it is heavy and bulky of course. Does that mean that there are barley processors out there that malt barley in bulk with peat and sell that barley to distilleries?. That’s fine, but it certainly puts the lie to any claims of local production — at least with peated whiskies — produced outside Scotland, doesn’t it? And shouldn’t whiskies reflect local character?
Tom, most of the peated malt used in world single malts come from Scotland. Even peated Irish single malt uses Scottish peated malt. No bogs are shipped.
A really enjoyable read! I especially enjoy reading about the forays into the occasional alternative spirits here on Malt.
An item that you mentioned about Binny’s caught my attention. You stated, “Price gouging in the form of opportunistic markups is also virtually nonexistent (at Binny’s).” While I agree with that statement, I would add that the reason opportunistic markups, or price gouging are *not noticed* is because Binny’s simply is not offering any bottles for sale (online, or in store) that they determine to be highly desired. Since at least 2020, Binny’s has kept these “desired” bottles hidden, and only available to relatives, or connected buyers. (Yes, I know Binny’s is located in Chicago, and yes, corruption is the Chicago city motto.)
Here is a prime example of what is happening:
Binny’s (all stores) search results for all bottles of Ardbeg:
*notice there is not a single bottle of Ardbeg 25, or Ardcore listed as available in ANY of the 45 Binny’s stores*
Meanwhile, just across the Indiana border in Indianapolis a SINGLE Total Wine store has both Ardbeg 25, AND Ardbeg Ardcore available for ANYONE to purchase??
I’m not a huge fan of Total Wine (or any large corporate liquor outlets), but at least Total Wine isn’t playing games with who can purchase what.
J4son, it’s a fair point. Binny’s obviously has some whales as customers, and I always assumed that their (probably not insubstantial) allocations of Pappy, BTAC, Parker’s, and so forth were allocated specially to them. Is that better/worse/same as someone marking Stagg Jr. up to $500 and letting it sit on the shelf? I have no problem with a business owner taking special care of their best customers, but admit that it’s an imperfect solution. Thanks for the comments.
You’re correct, there is no perfect solution to distributing allocated bottles. I’ve been a frequent customer of Binny’s since 2008 when they purchased the former Sam’s Wine on Marcey Street. I simply accepted the fact that the BTAC, and Pappy’s were funneled to the whale clients. It is just disheartening to watch as they have expanded the “backroom” sales to include fairly common bottles such as Springbank 12, Ardbeg 8, Ardbeg Ardcore, Octomore, Talisker special releases, even possibly standard Fortaleza bottles. Meanwhile, corporate behemoth Total Wine is where I can find any of the above listed bottles available to anyone (even us lowly non-whales). I noticed that Total Wine has a lottery system for the highly allocated BTAC, and Pappy’s, while they simply put everything else out on the shelf for sale. It would be a nice gesture for Binny’s to do the same.
It makes me a little sad that I am forced to travel to a large corporate liquor store in a neighboring state if I want to purchase something as common as Springbank 12, or Ardbeg Ardcore.