Japanese Whisky Wizardry
Jan. 18, 2017
Japanese whisky is in high demand, and a small distillery outside of Tokyo has become one of the most prestigious producers of the spirit.
In 2015, a series of 54 bottles from the little-known Japanese company fetched over 400,000 dollars in a Hong Kong auction. The man behind the beverage is Ichiro Akuto, who has been using local raw materials to give his whisky a Japanese flair.
Akuto's distillery is located a two-hour drive from Tokyo, near the rolling valleys of Chichibu national park. Pure, mineral-rich water flows through the area.
The distillery has only 13 staff, with an average age of just 29. They were drawn to his company through their love of whisky.
The distillery’s output is exceptionally low -- it produces as much whisky in a year as a medium-sized plant in Scotland makes in 2 weeks. First thing each morning, barley is mixed with local river water to extract soluble sugars.
The liquid is transferred to tanks known as washbacks. Yeast is added and the mixture is left to ferment for 3 days.
The large washbacks are the standout feature of Akuto’s distillery, because in most plants, they're made of stainless steel. But Akuto insists on wood despite the considerable costs and effort. He uses mizunara, a high-grade timber also known as Japanese oak.
"For now, we're the only distillery in the world using mizunara for our washbacks," Akuto says.
Akuto believes the lactic acid bacteria that live on this wood have a positive effect on the fermentation process. The mixture is distilled in pot stills, and Akuto is responsible for deciding when the spirits are ready.
"It's a nice fruity spirit, with a deep flavor. That’s from using the mizunara wood. This sort of thing is vital in making a whisky unlike anything else in the world," Akuto says.
Finally, the spirits are transferred to casks for maturation and after being stored for several years, they take on the characteristic amber hue.
Akuto’s family brewed sake for 21 generations. In his grandfather's day, the company also began making whisky but economic pressures meant the family business had to be sold to a sake company, and all the whisky casks in storage were to be thrown away.
"The spirits in some of those barrels had been maturing for 20 years. It would have been like abandoning your kids just as they reach adulthood," Akuto says.
He stepped in to rescue 400 casks, founding a new company through which to sell the whisky. He then set about blending the raw spirits, searching for his own unique flavor through trial and error.
He bottled the results, and took them to around 2,000 bars across Japan. Akuto made detailed notes on the feedback from bartenders and customers.
"I wrote down the positive comments. But it was also important to take note when something didn't taste right. Doing so helped me decide whether to use it when blending later on," Akuto says.
He finally fulfilled his dream of opening his own distillery in 2008, and eventually his whiskies began to receive global acclaim. They've ranked among the best at the prestigious World Whiskies Awards several years running.
The casks used to mature whisky are typically imported, primarily from Scotland. But Akuto decided to take on a new challenge to enhance the local flavor of his whiskies: Making casks in-house using mizunara wood.
"Whisky matured in mizunara casks has a Japanese aroma. You get almost incense-like notes reminiscent of agarwood and sandalwood," Akuto says.
While he’s been using mizunara for washbacks for some time, the smaller casks for maturing the whisky represented a big challenge. All trees have vessels in their trunk to transport water and nutrients. Those in mizunara rarely run straight, so cutting into one when preparing the wood for barrel-making can result in a leaky cask.
They chose wood with straight vessels, and cut thick strips, but that didn't help. Akuto turned to an expert for advice, who suggested searing thick pieces at very high temperatures to bend them into shape.
Akuto will go to any lengths to produce great whisky.
In early October 2016, Akuto arrived in London to join the world’s largest whisky show. But before that, he headed with his colleague to a bar that's said to stock the city’s widest range of Japanese whiskies. The bar offers a relaxed environment for young people to enjoy whisky, and Akuto’s drinks are among the most popular.
Akuto’s next stop was Britain’s oldest seller of wines and spirits. It's been in business for over 300 years, and has sold to royalty since the days of George III. It has 500 varieties of whisky alone, all displayed in a special room.
Akuto was there for a meeting with major players in the London whisky scene to get them to stock his products.
"Oh, that's actually delicious. It's genuinely different. I have never been able to get this from Scotch whisky. It has an amazing intensity running through it which is neither purely wood-based, or peat-based," says Dan Jago, CEO of Berry Bros. & Rudd, after sampling one of Akuto's whiskies.
Though we couldn’t be present for the business discussions with Jago, Akuto said they went exceptionally well.
The world’s biggest whisky show then got underway. All of the world’s leading whisky-makers were there -- 600 brands from 130 companies. For Akuto, it marked the European debut of the 2016 version his most popular series and his booth quickly draws a sizeable crowd.
"It was quite smooth to drink. I don't like whiskies that hit you in the back of the throat with the alcohol content. That turns me off whisky, and this didn't have that," said one customer.
Akuto's team poured sample after sample. Akuto also took part in a speaking event for whisky fans, where he said that he hopes to release a 10-year-old whisky in time for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Back in Japan, the mizunara casks are finally ready. They're filled with spirits for the first time, and there appear to be no leaks.
"Being able to do whatever excites us, and taking on new challenges is an advantage of being a small company," Akuto says. "To continue to be a distillery that produces what we want to -- that’s my goal for the future."