The Great Library of Alexandria. The Buddhas of Bamiyan. Palmyra. Hanyu.
The historically minded among us despair when reading the above list. Some things, once destroyed, can never be replaced. We cling wistfully to whatever fragmentary remnants we have, resolving not to make the same mistakes again… yet we’re bitterly aware that history has a nasty habit of repeating itself.
When we consider lost distilleries – those that went bankrupt, were shuttered, or dismantled – there’s a desire on the part of whisky lovers to taste liquid history through the whiskies from these long-gone stills. Governing this is a set of considerations that I will now explore.
In the case of a distillery that is truly “lost” – in the sense of having been demolished or stripped of its equipment – there’s a truly limited quantity of whisky to be had. The whisky industry likes to throw around the term “limited” to create a sense of scarcity to justify premium pricing. However, for a distillery that is still in operation, there’s always the ability to produce more whisky over time. In comparison, all the Karuizawa that will ever be distilled has already been distilled.
The actual (as opposed to fabricated) rarity of these types of whiskies leads to different approaches for the management of remaining stocks. The first is to release what precious few barrels remain as luxury bottlings with stratospheric prices. To pick but one example: Diageo has brought us whisky from the Brora and Port Ellen distilleries as part of its “Rare & Exceptional” range, with the cost of a bottle running into the thousands of dollars.
The company took a different tack with its inventory of Stitzel Weller, utilizing a solera system to blend a little bit of the good stuff with a whole lot of other bourbon to create its Blade and Bow brand. The intent was obvious: to create a going concern by stretching a small amount of genuinely scarce whisky into perpetuity. Given the breadth of Blade and Bow’s distribution (my local big box stores have plentiful bottles on the shelf), I’m willing to bet that the quantity of actual Stitzel Weller in a given bottle is so small as to be imperceptible in practice.
The whisky I’ll be considering today sits somewhere between these two approaches. Part of the blend comes from the Hanyu distillery, with the other part coming from its successor Chichibu.
My prior run-in with Hanyu was “The Final Vintage of Hanyu,” a 15 year release of 3,710 bottles under the Ichiro’s Malt label. I had the good fortune to try it at The Royal Bar in the lobby of Tokyo’s Palace Hotel. Looking back on my tasting notes from that enchanted evening, one flavor in particular jumps out: chili peppers.
I have remarked at the persistence of this hallmark note in the Chichibu whiskies distilled by Ichiro himself. This was evident from the inaugural release called (appropriately) “The First;” the peppers also made an appearance in the U.S. Edition of the Peated release from 2020. I have every reason to believe that a blend comprised of Hanyu and Chichibu stock would have that same attribute.
The whisky comes bottled at 46% ABV, and is non-chillfiltered. As is always the case with Chichibu, pricing is an important consideration. I have read that price on release was £100; However, I have seen this marked up to the multiple-hundreds-of-dollars level, which frequently happens to any bottle from Ichiro. Fortunately, I was spared any expense as this was a sample provided by Anthony, who has my kind thanks.
Ichiro’s Malt Double Distilleries Pure Malt Whisky – Review
Color: Pale maize.
On the nose: Surprisingly and exuberantly fruity to start, this hits the nose with a wave of fruits both commonplace (grapefruit, tangerine, ripe melon) and exotic (yuzu, lychee, guava). Though this remains the central note, there are all manner of intriguing nuances swirling around. Some very expressive wood (mizunara, perhaps?), the rich, roasty scent of mocha, and even some iodine and savoury smoky smells that make me wonder if some peated malt wasn’t a component of the blend? Perhaps if I really reach, I can pick up a little of the aforementioned green chili pepper. All that said, I wouldn’t have necessarily pegged this for Hanyu, Chichibu, or even Japanese whisky, had I nosed it blind.
In the mouth: In a stark contrast, this starts very austere and lean, evincing none of the plump fruitiness from the nose. Rather, there’s a very young maltiness that predominates in the front of the mouth. This is joined to a woodiness that feels lame and tired, in comparison to the zesty vivaciousness of the wood notes on the nose. There’s not much more flavor development at midpalate, where the malty notes resurge to dominate the conversation. This begins a gradual decline into the finish, where some poorly-defined minerality represents the last gasp of flavor before this falls mostly mute, leaving only a drying texture and an off-bitter aftertaste of malted barley.
After an astonishing start with a very enticing nose, this blend becomes a disaster in the mouth. It’s got none of the poise of mature Hanyu, nor any of the self-assuredness and promise of younger Chichibu. Rather, this tastes like it was designed to showcase the worst aspects of both young (immature and clumsy malted barley flavors) and old (stale and tired wood) whiskies. It’s a discredit to both the distilleries and, frankly, I’m left to conclude that the residual Hanyu stocks comprising this blend must have been really subpar to justify ending up in this expression.
This is a poor showing, and I wouldn’t be a buyer of this at release price, much less a premium. There’s a little bit of great Hanyu out there, as well as increasing quantities of great Chichibu. I’d strongly encourage anyone who wants to experience the best that these distilleries have to offer to pass by this bottle in favor of others.
Lead image courtesy of dekanta, which is a source of egregiously marked-up Japanese whisky that you should never, ever patronize. Still: cheers for the .jpeg, gents.