Earlier this year I took Anthony Wills of Islay’s new(ish) craft distillery Kilchoman to Chichibu to chat with Ichiro Akuto and poke his nose around Japan’s newest distillery.
I wanted to eavesdrop on a conversation between Wills and Akuto because, for me, these men have built the two most exciting new distilleries and are producing exceptional young drinks (Kilchoman had yet to release a 4-year-old, and Chichibu was still offering new make).
The article is out, in Japanese, in the latest issue of Whisky Magazine Japan, but here’s an English translation.
Now that you’ve had a look around, how do your distilleries compare?
Anthony: The size is very similar, and although we have a slightly different, larger mash tun, and our washbacks are stainless steel (rather than mizunara), you see the similarity. It’s very similar to what we’re trying to achieve. You get the feeling there’s more love and attention involved in distilling in smaller units.
It seems like you’re both trying to be as self-sufficient as possible. Is that right?
Ichiro: I think so. Because whisky making is not only done in the distillery. I think cultivating barley and making the casks is a very important part of making whisky, so I’d like to do it myself.
Anthony: How self-sufficient are you now?
Ichiro: Just a little. We use 5 to 10 tons of local barley. I think the quality was very good last year, so we asked local farmers to increase production. And I asked our cooper to teach us how to make casks, because he is more than 80 years old.
Anthony: Actually Ichiro is taking it a step further than me by involving coopering. In Scotland we don’t have the same independent expertise as they do here in Japan. That’s one thing I’d like to get involved in, because the cask is such a huge part of your end product. We grow the barley, and do the whole production process on site. That was the most appealing part of building Kilchoman, to show that we could grow barley locally and malt it. There’s a growing number of enthusiasts who feel more in tune with a distillery that’s produced something from start to finish. Do you think you’ll ever do floor malting here?
Ichiro: Yes, probably this year we’ll set up a malt house. I visited (English floor malting company) Malt Stars three years in a row, and we learned how to malt. Last year we borrowed a facility near here, steeped our local barley, did floor malting, turning, drying and we got our own malt. We distilled it and the spirit was very good, so now I’d like to use more local barley.
Anthony: And will you be able to use peat?
Ichiro: Yes, in the future. In Saitama they’re digging peat. It’s a special kind of peat, not used for fuel so far. They are using it for gardens or something like that, but I asked them to give us a small portion. We burned it and the smoke was really nice and really different. Probably, if I use this peat, people will be able to think “This is Chichibu”.
When you were both starting out, did you look at what was on the market and try to find a niche?
Anthony: We wanted to produce something different, and something we could mature reasonably quickly, because the perception that malt whisky has to be 10 years matured is now more in the past than it was. There is an acceptance now to try young whiskies – mainly from 5 to 10 years, but we’ve come in with a very young whisky and had people commenting very favourably. If you start with a good raw spirit – and this (Chichibu’s) is a very good raw spirit, it’s quite sweet, it’s floral, and not a lot of off notes that need maturing out. This, in 3 or 4 years time, is going to be superb. If you start a new distillery, it’s very expensive, so if you can achieve a good, young whisky, it makes all the difference to the balance sheet.
Ichiro: I’ve just started looking for Chichibu style. The combination is very important – the barley, what kind of casks. I plan to play around with lots of different things, makes lots of styles. Maybe 10 years from now we’ll have a definite Chichibu style.
The still plays a huge role in defining your whisky character, but you can’t know exactly what they’ll produce until you run them, and by then it’s too late. So how do you go about buying a still?
Ichiro: I wanted to get a heavy, rich taste, so I needed a smaller size, straight head, downward line. Everything is designed for a rich spirit.
Anthony: You rely on expertise, but they can’t guarantee until you run your stills, what style you’re going to get. We wanted a lighter, fruitier style, with peating, so we went for a tall, narrow neck and a boil bowl. But you talk to so many different people and they’ll tell you completely different things about what has an effect and what doesn’t.
What’s been the hardest part of establishing a distillery?
Ichiro: Many things, but especially dealing with authorities. We need a whisky making licence, and in Japan probably the last distillery (to be built) was Hakushu in 1973, so authorities didn’t know well about how to give me a whisky licence. I had to explain over and over, file many documents.
Anthony: For me that was very easy. The hardest for me was raising the money. It took 4 years, and even then I didn’t raise enough, but I thought “stuff it, I’m going to do this anyway”. There’s a perception when you invest money as an individual that you’re looking for a 3-5 year return on your money – well you’re not going to get that in a new distillery venture. So we had to find people with lots of money that thought it was fun to own a distillery, and if they lost their money they didn’t really care. But suddenly they’re seeing that it might work, and they’re now very excited.
Ichiro: That’s a difference between us – he needed investors but I had stocks of whisky. My grandfather left whisky, and I decided to bottle it and sell, but in the future, finally, there would be no stock left if I didn’t set up Chichibu distillery and pass stocks to the future.
Once you were up and running, how smooth was it?
Anthony: At Kilchoman, a lot went wrong. We had a fire in our kiln. We tried to dry the malt using anthracite, which if you think about it is completely mad because you can never control the temperature. We loaded it up, went away for two hours and the place was on fire. If I’d thought it through, I’d never have done it, but I didn’t have the experience. Now we switched to a warm-air drying system and it’s working perfectly.
Ichiro: Oh good.
Anthony: We had to get a new generator. We had to get a new boiler. Pipes didn’t fit and kept bursting. The boiler room was too far from the still house, too far to get the steam there at the right temperature. I could go on for hours. We’re still updating things. And it happens here I’m sure.
Ichiro: I only replaced pressure valves.
Anthony: Oh, right. OK. At one stage, every week we had pipes bursting. Too many corners, not enough straight lines.
How did you pick your locations?
Ichiro: My family brewed sake here in Chichibu, so we already knew that the water was good for fermenting, and there are many regulations to set up a distillery, but I was born in Chichibu so people here helped me.
Anthony: We decided on Islay because of its iconic status, so we would be taken seriously. I think it was the single most important decision of the whole project. And I had a friend who farmed barley here, so working with a distillery was a natural progression for him. He now grows barley for us, and we rent the buildings from him – a nice old traditional mill building where we have the still house, and an old cattle barn for our visitor’s center. The setting is great – it’s still a working farm, and the interconnection between the two is very nice.
Are you operating under capacity in these early years?
Ichiro: Yes. In the future we’d like to increase production. Maximum would be 80,000 liters.
Anthony: We’re at maximum production. I thought 100,000 liters was a good maximum, so you could still have rarity value. We only have four 5,000-liter washbacks so we can’t physically produce any more, which is fine.
How did you find staff?
Ichiro: They just came. We have 4 people, all whisky lovers who wanted to work for the whisky industry. They asked to work here before there was even a distillery. At first I refused to hire them, but they persisted. If they joined one of the giants, it might be hard to get into the whisky section. When I was at Suntory, I wanted to work for Yamazaki, but I was placed in the marketing department for import liquors.
Anthony: We were lucky to find people. It’s quite a risk for people to leave secure jobs with other distilleries and join me, but we managed to persuade a stillman to come from Ardbeg to help us set up. He’s now moved on, but because we started getting attention, when we advertised for a distillery manager, we had some very good quality people apply. John Mclellan, a distillery manager at Bunnahabhain who had worked there for 22 years, was very keen to join us, and he brought one of his stillmen from Bunnahabhain. We now have three full timers plus myself.
Kilchoman has a visitors centre, Chichibu doesn’t. Does a center help offset the costs of a new distillery?
Anthony: Because Islay has a lot of whisky tourists, it helps. As long as it breaks even or makes a small return, we’re happy, and it does. You could have a visitor center here, no?
Ichiro: Many people ask to visit here, so probably a visitor center is a good idea, but we don’t have many people, so we want to concentrate on making whisky. But probably in the future.
Anthony: I’m sure you’d be surprised. This room would make a great visitor center. It does help. Some places now get 100,000 visitors a year. That side of the business has only really developed over the last 20 years in Scotland. Before that, they were very secretive about what they did.
Have you been selling private casks?
Ichiro: Yes, nearly 100.
Anthony: Yes, we did about 300, but now we’re trying to buy them back.
Ichiro: Yes, I’d heard that. A Japanese enthusiast told me. No Japanese customers accepted your offer. Did you stop selling casks?
Anthony: Yes, we did it for a year and a half. It generated some income but I wish we hadn’t had to do it.
I imagine that Chichibu will create many styles, and Kilchoman will focus on one or two. Is that correct?
Ichiro: I think so. I’m trying different types of casks. I’d like to find good casks for the future, so I’m releasing different types of whisky and enjoying them with our customers: “Which one is best, do you think?” Probably in 5 or 10 years, a Chichibu style will be established.
Anthony: The danger of doing lots of different releases is you forget what the core expression is. That’s my view; it may not be the right view. We’re trying to achieve an awareness of a core Kilchoman. If you flood the market with styles, you confuse your customers.
Ichiro: Yes. I’m confusing my customers. But I’m enjoying it, and their confusion can be good. They realize “this cask is different from that cask”. To know these differences is very good to know whisky.
Anthony: Have you experimented with different temperatures for mashing, lengths of time before pumping it away to fermenters?
Ichiro: The mashing is almost always the same, but we vary the fermentation.
Anthony: And do you use different types of yeast?
Ichiro: Now, just one, because I want our people to learn the exact operation. If I use different types of yeast, why is this spirit’s character affected? What is it from? So for at least three years we want to keep the same operation and use a slightly different cut point, so they instantly know today’s spirit is a little bit different from yesterday’s because I cut like this. Or, for example, the condenser temperature is sometimes low, sometimes high and the spirit tastes different. Probably in the future we’ll use ale yeast or something.
Going forward, what do you see as the toughest hurdles?
Anthony: I think we’re small enough not to be caught up in the peaks and troughs of distilling. We’re filling only 8-900 casks a year. Some distilleries are doing that in a week. But if the bourbon industry suddenly decided to do away with the regulation that says they can only use the barrels once, then we might be in trouble. Prices would go through the roof.
Ichiro: The market fluctuates, but probably we can keep our business if we are small. I’d like to focus on the quality of ingredients and casks. Probably the whisky lovers will appreciate it, then we can overcome any challenges in the future.
Do you worry about those difficult middle years when you’re no longer a novelty but still not yet 10 years old?
Anthony: I think this is where we have to be innovative and not standardize our products. I would not dream of saying that once it gets to 10 years, that’s Kilchoman. We’re looking to be a niche distillery at the top end of the market, not standardize anything, and target the whisky enthusiast.
Ichiro: Ah, almost the same. I’d like to produce 100% Chichibu in the future. Asian markets are growing, and probably some of them will want to drink such a premium whisky. I don’t have a concrete idea for the future, but probably year by year we can think of something special.
Anthony: And I think the timing for our distilleries has been absolutely perfect, because the number of whisky enthusiasts around the world is growing all the time. The Internet’s made a huge difference, with people able to talk to each other. So the future’s very bright.