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The Secrets Behind a World-leading Whisky Brand from Chichibu.

Inspired by Mizunara Oak Aged Whisky to Refine and Rebuild Japanese Whisky.
Communicating a New Story Worldwide with Ichiro’s Malt.

Chichibu Distillery, Venture Whisky Ltd. Representative Director and President Ichiro Akuto

 Whisky is said to originate in Scotland and Ireland n the northwest of Europe. The world’s five major whiskies are Scottish, Irish, American, Canadian, and Japanese, the last of which has been garnering significant praise and attention in recent years.  In Japan, for many years consumers sought easy-to-drink whiskies, and as such the market for authentic whiskies remained stagnant for some time. However, around 2010 consumption of whisky began to increase, and Japanese whisky has skyrocketed in popularity both in Japan and overseas. The Ichiro’s Malt developed in Chichibu was a pioneer of Japanese whisky. It has gone on to become one of the world’s leading whiskies, collecting numerous prestigious awards along the way.

Chapter 01

A Life-changing Encounter with a Shot of Whisky.

 “I had zero intention of taking on the family business,” says Ichiro Akuto. Akuto is president of Venture Whisky Ltd., a company spearheading the Japanese whisky industry, and a leading presence in the Japanese craft whisky scene. Akuto was born into a sake-brewing family that had been in business since the Edo period. After graduating from university, he joined a major alcoholic beverage company .
 Although he asked to work on the frontlines of manufacturing, he was assigned to sales, and in this role he was in charge of supplying mainly alcoholic beverages for numerous restaurants. Several years after joining the company, Akuto visited a bar and tasted a shot of whisky that would change his life forever.
 “As soon as I tasted it I was overwhelmed. It was a 40-year-old whisky that had been aged in a mizunara oak barrel with incredibly characteristic flavors. I thought that it would be a privilege to be able to produce an authentic whisky like this.” Akuto already wanted to be involved in manufacturing, but this whisky made that desire even stronger. He says, “I realized that what I really wanted to do was make alcoholic drinks.”
 It just so happens that around this time Akuto’s father had asked him to help with the family business. With that, he made the decision to begin brewing sake. However, the family business was already in decline. After applying for civil rehabilitation, the decision was made to sell the business to another company. All the stock that Akuto was left with was approximately 400 barrels of whisky from the family business, which was known as the Hanyu Distillery . At the time, a weak yen saw an increase in low-price alcoholic beverages imported from overseas, and the popularity of whisky had fallen significantly. However, some of the stock was 20 years old and boasted unique characteristics, and Akuto knew that it had significant potential. He therefore determined to set up his own distillery. In 2004, he established Venture Whisky, and in 2005 he launched Ichiro’s Malt, which would go on to receive high acclaim across the world.

Chapter 02

Uniquely Japanese Whisky Manufactured in Chichibu.

 Of course, at the time the distillery was completely unknown. Without a known brand name behind him, Akuto visited numerous bars frequented by whisky enthusiasts who he knew would appreciate the flavors. In total, he visited around 2,000 different bars. These bars were a recurring theme in Akuto’s return to the family business, and he describes them in the following way: “For me, they were places where I could encounter smiling whisky enthusiasts, places of work, and places where I could talk about my dreams for the future.”
 At one of these bars Akuto met a designer, and the two came up with the idea to create whisky labels inspired by familiar playing cards. Akuto says, “Playing cards are familiar throughout the world. Now, whisky enthusiasts show interest in our whisky labels on the shelf and bartenders can provide a description.”
 In the nine years since they went on sale, there have been 54 varieties of Ichiro’s Malt playing card series, each with a different design and flavor. In 2006, the King of Diamonds variety in the series was recognized with the gold award in the new Japanese malt whisky special feature in the Whisky Magazine.
Later, for five consecutive years between 2017 and 2021, and for a sixth time in 2023, Ichiro’s Malt was named winner of the world’s best Japanese single malt/single cask whisky in the World Whiskies Awards , the world’s most prestigious whisky awards.
 As a whisky enthusiast himself, Ichiro’s Malt is the result of Akuto’s desire to create delicious whisky by devoting himself to the process more than anyone else. The characteristics of the Chichibu region have also played a part in the whisky’s success. Hot and humid in the summer and cold and dry in the winter, the large temperature differences across the four seasons in Chichibu are ideal for manufacturing whisky. Moreover, for some of its aging barrels Venture Whisky uses mizunara oak, varieties which are notoriously difficult to manage, time-consuming, and expensive. The company purchases the wood in Hokkaido and manufactures the barrels in-house.
 “Creating the whiskies in Chichibu ensures that they have unique Chichibu characteristics,” says Akuto. Without doubt, Ichiro’s Malt is a world-class, authentic whisky that Japan can be proud of. Japanese whisky techniques have garnered high praise, with many impressed by how Japanese distilleries continue to protect traditional whisky manufacturing techniques.

Chapter 03

Passing on Ideas and Techniques to Future Generations for the Continued Creation of Authentic, Delicious Whisky.

 It has now been 16 years since Akuto began creating whisky. In the company’s warehouse is a 15-year-old whisky, and Akuto’s dream is to share this whisky with others when it gets to 30 years. When asked about the future of the business, Akuto says that the most important thing is to develop personnel who can carry forward his ideas and techniques.
 “Whisky is not something that you can create today and sell tomorrow. We are currently aging around 23,000 barrels of whisky in the warehouse. It is essential that we develop blenders who understand the characteristics of each, and who can envisage which whiskies to blend to develop the ideal flavors.”
 Akuto says that “it is a job that requires people who can organize and separate ideas and approaches inside their heads.”
 The company already has a number of personnel who share the same approaches to whisky as Akuto. For example, three blenders are currently learning from Akuto while improving their skills and developing their ability to organize different approaches. Current head of public relations and global brand ambassador for Venture Whisky is Yumi Yoshikawa. Yoshikawa was voted world whisky brand ambassador of the year in Whisky Magazine’s Icons of the Year 2019. Following experience as a bartender at a famous hotel, Yoshikawa traveled to Scotland to learn about whisky making, before joining Venture Whisky on her return to Japan. The company is also beginning to hire new graduates.
 Elsewhere, the company is making steady progress with new plans for its whisky. Currently, the company’s most popular and affordable product is Ichiro’s Malt & Grain White Label, which blends in-house malt whisky with grain whiskies from overseas. However, the company has announced it will build a new distillery to manufacture grain whisky in Tomakomai City in Hokkaido. With Tomakomai Port nearby for the import of ingredients from Europe and the US, and similar regional conditions to Chichibu with excellent water quality and large temperature differences, Akuto says it is “the ideal location for the manufacture of grain whisky.” The manufacture of grain whisky using exclusively domestic ingredients is no longer a future dream.
 As a passionate whisky enthusiast and a manufacturer of some of the world’s finest whiskies, Akuto’s goal is to create outstandingly delicious whiskies that cannot be created elsewhere. This approach will undoubtedly continue to attract people from across the world.

 A term often used in whisky distilleries is “the angel’s share.” The aging of whisky is a slow process, and during this time some of the whisky evaporates due to temperature differences. Whisky distillers of old would say this was the amount consumed by angels. Some say that it is precisely because some of the whisky is shared with the angels that the resulting whisky tastes so good. As Akuto showed us around the warehouse, he said, “If we don’t share enough with the angels the whisky loses it’s good taste.” This emotional aspect is perhaps one of the reasons why whisky is so popular across the world.
 Akuto’s continued pursuit of quality, authentic flavors without focusing on growth and expansion felt like an ideal approach for Japan moving forward.
Written by: Takahiro Miura

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