Wednesday, March 5, 2008

A phoenix from the ashes


Ichiro Akuto (centre) amid the throng at Whisky Live

Update: A visit to the new distillery
Update: The ground breaking ceremony at Chichibu


The big news circulating the main hall at Whisky Magazine Live! Tokyo was the granting of a distillery licence to Ichiro Akuto's new Chichibu distillery.

Akuto, the man behind the Ichiro's Malt range, received final official notification on the eve of the big powwow at Tokyo Big Sight last month. Judging by the crowds at his stand, which were by far the thickest in the hall, there is plenty of interest in the venture.

It is a happy development in what had once looked like a very sad story. Eight years after the old Akuto family run distillery went bankrupt, Chichibu area is once again on the whisky map and under Akuto leadership.

The success of the enterprise will largely rely on tapping the booming interest in Japanese whisky in the international market. Akuto has focused on the global market with his current Ichiro's malt range, largely sourced from barrels from the old distillery, and, despite the queues at the Whisky Live! stand, it is the global market that Japanese whisky makers now look to for growth.

Akuto was one of three big hitters from the Japanese whisky establishment who discussed "The globalisation of Japanese whisky" in a round table with Dave Broom of Whisky Magazine at the Whisky Live event. Tetsuji Hisamitsu, Nikka's chief blender and Hiroyoshi "Mike" Miyamoto, general manager of Suntory's Yamazaki distillery were also on the panel.

Broom said Japanese whisky was now being taken very seriously indeed in Europe: "You are beginning to see people getting very excited about the quality and the character of Japanese whisky. The quality of the spirit is superb."

The panelists were unanimous about the trigger for the new found international profile: the 2001 Whisky Magazine Awards in which the Yoichi 10 grabbed the "Best of the Best" prize and other recent international competition wins for both Nikka and Suntory whiskies.

Akuto was fulsome in his praise for work done by the big two: "They have already put down the foundations for exporting and now the market is looking for very unique Japanese whiskies."

But if competition success was pulling Japan onto the world market, there was a less positive push behind the globalisation. Nikka's Hisamitsu admitted: "Even though Japanese whisky is doing well abroad , Japanese whisky has been having very difficult times domestically." Both the other panelists agreed that the collapse of the "bubble economy" in the 1990s had left Japan with large whisky making capacity and a much reduced mass market.

The best way to survive in the current conditions, said Akuto, was a "focus on unique high quality products" and an openness to foreign opportunities.

"In the past we were not confident that we would find a good reception but nowadays there is such a variegated market. Some people are looking for easy to drink whisky, others are looking for something much more challenging," Akuto said.

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