Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo
Up until last year, if you missed out on a single cask Chichibu, you could just wait a few weeks and another one would come along (well, assuming you lived in Japan). Those days are gone – a familiar refrain on the Japanese whisky scene – as Akuto-san is holding on to his stock for higher-aged expressions in the future. If there is a special release for a liquor shop or a bar in Japan these days, it’s more likely to be a special blend (‘Ichiro’s Malt & Grain’).
Fortunately, thanks to the persistence of the people at La Maison du Whisky, we can always look forward to some real gems in the fall every year. This year, like last year, there are three releases coming out of Akuto-san’s warehouses – 2 Chichibus and a Hanyu (which is becoming rarer than hen’s teeth!) – and just like last year, the labels feature artworks by Singaporean artist Tay Bak Chiang. Today, we’ll spotlight the Chichibus, the details of which are as follows:
Chichibu 2011/2015 for LMdW, ‘Tay Bak Chiang II’ series, Madeira Hogshead #1371, 62%abv, 308 bottles
One of our all time favourite Chichibu single casks is the Chichibu Whisky Matsuri 2015 release. It was fiendishly hard to get your hands on a bottle of that, because a) you had to go to the festival, and b) you had to win a lottery there and then. Most people I knew came back empty-handed, and bottles of that Chichibu now routinely change hands on auction sites for well over 1,000 euros. Anyway, that was a 2011 Chichibu, matured in an imperial stout barrel (#3292), so image our delight upon learning that LMdW was bottling a sister cask of that. There are no details about the type of beer that was in the cask before Akuto-san refilled it (‘refilled’ because these are barrels that originally contained Chichibu whisky, were then ‘lent’ to craft beer producers in Japan, and then returned to the distillery after the beer was bottled), but from the first nose, I would say it was the exact same type of cask as the Matsuri bottling.
You have to be fan of artisanal honey, but if you are, you will love this. A nose unlike any other whisky you’ve ever had (well, unless you’ve had that sister cask release): tons of manuka honey and baklava, but there’s more going on… assorted pastries (apricot Danish, almond-and-marzipan roulade), yuanxiao, grapefruit jelly, ‘hitotsubu no muscat’ (sugar-coated muscat grapes), yuzu peel, bergamot tea and a tiny hint of duck-a-l’orange. A sweet tooth’s wet dream…
There are no precedents for the Madeira hogshead. Akuto-san has done a few Madeira-hogshead finished Hanyus in the past (some for his Card series), but this must the first Chichibu release of its kind. It’s a very different affair. No honey, but blackberries and blueberries galore. Jams and preserves in an English garden – this would be great with some scones (what a shame we didn’t have any lying around the Nonjatta HQ). There are also hints of turkey meatballs (with blueberry chutney), pomelo, dates, foie gras with dried apricots and a slight whiff of raw mackerel (saba). After a bit of time, the nose is eerily reminiscent of some old Karuizawas – that is to say, not old vintages, but old standard official bottlings.
Back to the ex-beer barrel – on the palate, there’s still plenty of sweetness, but there’s a light savoury dimension that is most welcome: steamed endives, pear ginger chutney, cider-glazed turnips and apples with a bit of sage, … The mouthfeel is incredibly creamy, suggestive of crème d’anjou, white chocolate mousse and oatmeal. Citrus (candied grapefruit peel, Seville oranges, sudachi) takes over the palate after a few seconds and leads the dance all the way through the (very long!) finish with a touch of rosewater in the afterglow. Water dials up the honey on the nose, which isn’t really necessary (there’s plenty of that without water). It also pushes away the citrus on the palate, which you do want, so it’s best to keep the water on the side, in our humble opinion.
It’s clear that Akuto-san is doing some incredible things in his warehouses. We spent some time at the distillery with him talking about wood management and maturation techniques last month, and caught a glimpse of some of the amazing things that he’s been up to there on that front. (For those who read Japanese, our conversation will be published in Whisky Magazine Japan shortly – unfortunately, it’s just way too long [read: too costly] to be translated in English.) It’s still magic at the end of the day, but Akuto-san is digging deep, creatively speaking, to create the optimal conditions for that magic to happen.
Stay tuned for our review of the third release in this LMdW ‘Tai Bak Chiang II’ trilogy, a 2000 Hanyu.