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Jan 19, 2023

HOW TOJapanese whiskey brands to watch out for: Ichiro’s Malt and other small-lot producers find their lane 

The most famous Japanese whiskey brands have taken the world by storm. Yet, behind the scenes, a movement is growing, with small, independent distilleries conjuring unique recipes to rival the big players.

Jan 19, 2023

Japanese small-lot whiskey makers take center stage 

Japanese whiskies have become some of the most sought-after alcoholic beverages in the world. However, beyond the big names, some smaller brands are gaining popularity at home and abroad. 

These small-lot producers are challenging the dominance of prestigious distilleries like Suntory Yamazaki with artisan whiskies that have captured the attention of whiskey connoisseurs worldwide. Some of the finest small-lot producers have won multiple accolades recently, global whiskey prizes that have catapulted them to success. Still, hot on their heels are smaller, emerging distilleries with unique offerings all of their own.

As the world wakes up to Japanese whiskey, the desire for new blends and innovations is strong. And Japanese whiskey producers are not disappointing. 

Ichiro Akuto and his Chichibu Distillery: Where it all started 

The most famous small-lot whiskey producer in Japan is Venture Whisky’s Chichibu Distillery. This outstanding producer has one five World Whiskies Awards for its Ichiro’s Malt. Named after the founder of the Venture Whisky company, Ichiro Akuto, Ichiro’s Malt follows on from a long history of distilling excellence.

The Akuto family owned and ran the Hanyu whiskey distillery, a former behemoth of Japanese whiskey production, and Ichiro was raised in the family business. In 2004, using skills picked up working at Hanyu, and at the world-famous Suntory Distillery, Ichiro launched Venture Whisky, but it was in 2008 that the Chichibu Distillery was founded. The first independent whiskey distillery to open in Japan in over 30 years, Chichibu blazed the trail that other small whiskey producers would soon follow. 

Meet some of the new players: Akkeshi, Kanosuke, Shizuoka and Sakurao 

Chichibu may be the best-known small lot distillery in Japan, but it isn’t the only one. Four other distilleries are fast gaining popularity domestically and beyond. The first, Akkeshi began distilling in 2016.

Today, Akkeshi is renowned for its range of smokey, peaty whiskies reminiscent of a Scottish Islay malt. Kanosuke opened in 2017 and soon established itself as a purveyor of smooth, mellow whiskies and found success at the World Whiskies Awards in 2022.

The Shizuoka Distillery was the brainchild of renewable energy entrepreneur Taiko Nakamura and has garnered much attention for a commitment to natural products, local ingredients, and the fact that one of the pot stills used by the distillery heralds from the legendary Karuizawa Distillery. 

Finally, the Sakurao distillery, born out of a century-old tradition of beverage production that started with sake, produces two distinct single malts. The first is aged at sea level, the other high in the mountains over Hiroshima. 

A look at some future trends in Japanese whiskey 

The exciting thing about small-lot whiskey production in Japan is that the best may very well be yet to come. Today, many thousands of bottles are maturing and it will be years before consumers can sample the unique flavor profiles they contain.

What is for sure is that artisan producers are increasingly experimenting with innovative methods to develop new characteristics in the whiskies they create. From specific ingredients endemic to local areas to various maturation locations from mountains to beachfront warehouses, dedicated Japanese distillers are working hard to impart a unique personality to these yet untasted treasures.