Ninety-two years after Masataka Taketsuru secured his historic work placement at Longmorn distillery in Scotland and started this whole Japanese whisky saga, a professional distiller from the United States is making his own whiskey pilgrimage, and this time Japan is the destination.
Brendan Wheatley, 34, who is currently consulting for a startup micro distillery in Nashville, Tennessee, will be flying in from the U.S. to Tokyo on February 26 for a 10-day work placement at Ichiro Akuto's new Chichibu distillery.
"Hopefully I will be working, observing Chichibu's processes and engaging in dialogue about distillation and barrel blending techniques," Wheatley says.
"Chichibu and its production are on a scale that is very relevant to the micro-distilling movement in the USA, and the blending techniques of Japanese whisky are a way that a small producer can create complexity in their products without the gross overheads it would take to mimic what is currently done in American Bourbon's large rick houses."
For Wheatley, it is all part of an eclectic learning process as he works to develop his own distinctive style.
"My last job, before I started consulting, was for a California brandy producer called Germain-Robin. They used classic French Cognac techniques for production and cellaring, but with any varietal (Pinot Noir, Semillon, Muscat etc.) they wanted, unlike Cognac France, which primarily uses Uni Blanc. I really want to make whiskey that incorporates both French and Japanese techniques in production and cellaring, and blending (these influences) together in my products."
Before a thousand people start pounding on Ichiro Akuto's door (I would be the first in line) please note that Wheatley is a professional. He was the first person to be selected for the Michael Jackson Whisky Internship, which is helping to make the trip possible. I do get a lot of requests from people for my help in setting up these sorts of placements and I have to disappoint a lot of people by saying I am not in a position to arrange these things. It is probably best to start off with a proper training and then subsequently apply for this sort of experience. Anyway, hopefully, from the point of view of us Japanese whisky fans, Wheatley's work in Chichibu will reap benefits for all concerned.
"I hope that not only can I learn from what they are doing in their production, but I hope I can share what I have learned about French traditional techniques and cross pollinate new ideas with traditional techniques," Wheatley says.