While the big players in the Japanese whisky industry, as discussed in the previous article in this series, have paved the way for its global recognition; the smaller, lesser known distilleries have been quietly honing their craft and producing whiskies that are truly exquisite.
The bottles they produce are known as ‘ji-whisky’, small batch whiskies that are sold locally. These are very hard to source outside of Japan and are even difficult to track down inside the country.
Their stories of success are not as straightforward as that of the major Japanese whisky brands, having endured setbacks and tough conditions, but their dedication to their craft, and the quality liquid they produce, have secured these distilleries a place in Japanese whisky.
Founded by Ichiro Akuto in 2004, Chichibu has a passionate, almost cult following, despite being so young a distillery. This small distillery hasa very hands-on approach to making whisky, by malting their own barley and building their own casks, and so their production levels are very small, and their releases very limited.
Ichiro himself is something of a living legend of the Japanese whisky world, and the subject of a beautiful tale of recovery and reinvention.
With the help of sake maker Sasanokawa Shuzo (more about them later), Ichiro Akuto rescued the unused stills and 400 casks of his family’s Hanyu whisky distillery when it closed in the early 2000s. Under the Venture Whisky brand, Ichiro launched the Ichiro’s Malt label, and his hugely popular Playing Card Series.
Though many of the Ichiro’s Malt bottles have become collectors’ items, Ichiro is determined that whisky from Chichibu should be an absolute pleasure to drink. His team are experimenting with locally-grown barley, and building domestic casks made of Japanese oak. These innovations will, if successful, not only impart new flavours to the whisky, but secure Chichibu’s reputation for producing genuinely authentic Japanese whisky.
Testament to the dedication of Ichiro’s team, the wonderfully rich and complexChichibu Whisky Matsuri 2017 won the award for World’s Best Single Cask Single Malt at the 2017 World Whiskies Awards, and the delightful Ichiro’s Malt & Grain ‘World Blended Whisky’ Limited Edition 2018 took home the award for World’s Best Blended Limited Release at the 2018 World Whiskies Awards.
With most of its produce bottled under the White Oak label, Eigashima Shuzo is a modest distillery that has stayed true to its particular and exacting production standards and is beginning to get the recognition it deserves. Having been granted a license to distil alcohol in 1888, the distillery has a strong claim to being the oldest whisky distillery in Japan, though it did not start production until late in the 20th century. It has survived throughout difficult times in the whisky industry, and with fewer than five employees, this tiny distillery produces very limited amounts of single malts.
Situated less than 100 yards from the Harima-nada sea, Eigashima Shuzo is also the closest whisky distillery to the coast in Japan, and this is reflected in the savoury, saline pure character of the distillery’s produce. As an introduction to the produce of Eigashima, White Oak Akashi is an easy-to-drink single malt that is hugely popular among friends of dekantā. If you’re looking for a brilliant example of innovation in ji-whisky, you might want to try the White Oak Akashi 5 Year Old Wine Cask Finish.
Having famously helped Ichiro Akutoto save the stock from Hanyu distillery, Sasanokawa Shuzo are truly passionate about supporting their fellow ji-whisky producers.
With expertise in sake and shochu making dating back to 1765, they turned their hands to whisky making in the mid 20th century and their produce soon matched the quality of that produced by the big players Nikka and Suntory. Yet their small batch, attention to detail ensures that they remain a little known gem in the Japanese whisky world.
The whisky from Sasanokawa Shuzo is largely released under the Yamazakura brand, and one of our personal favourites is the Yamazakura 963 21 year old, a whisky comprised of single malt and grain components meticulously blended, offering a mellow fragrance and complex flavour that rewards patience. If you’re looking for a truly delightful addition to your shelf, then the Yamazakura Sherry Wood Cask Strength 15 year old is the bottle for you.
One of Japan’s oldest, but most underrated, whisky distilleries, Wakatsuru continues to be one of our favourites. The history of this family-owned business dates back to the Tokugawa era, and they produce a whole host of Japanese spirits, everything from shochu and sake to whisky and liqueurs.
The Toyoma Sunshine Single Malt Set offers a pair of extremely limited edition, world class ji-whiskies in stunning ceramic bottles, and the WakatsuruShuzou Sun Shine 20 year old Single Malt is a hugely popular bottle among friends of dekantā.
These are just a couple of our favourite ji-whisky producers, who really hold a special place in our hearts, for their continued dedication to the Japanese whisky industry, their meticulous attention to detail and their determination to produce fantastic Japanese whisky.
Available in very limited quantities and sold locally in Japan, these whiskies are extremely hard to source internationally. Atdekantā, we are proud to put the hard work in sourcing these very special whiskies and delivering them straight to your door, no matter where you are in the world.
This is the third in an introductory series to Japanese whisky from dekantā.com, the world’s foremost online retailer of Japanese whisky, and other Japanese spirits, and most recently, Japanese wine from the dekantā cellar. Written by dekantā PR and Social Media Strategist, Miriam Rune, who has been known to write for the dekantā blog, and enjoys connecting with Japanese whisky fans for a dram and some chat. On Twitter: @MiriamRune1