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Ichiro’s Malt Chichibu Whisky Distillery in Saitama, Japan

Osman Dadi
Ichiro's Malt Chichibu Distillery produces one of Japan's most prized, coveted whiskies. The distillery is located in Saitama prefecture two hours northwest of Tokyo. The brand was created in 2005 by Ichiro Akuto, founder of both the Chichibu Distillery and the company, Venture Whisky Ltd. We were very lucky to secure such a special tour & tasting.

Ichiro’s Malt is a brand created in 2005 by Ichiro Akuto, founder of the Chichibu Distillery and Venture Whisky, the company in charge of marketing the brand.

Located in the city of Chichibu in Saitama, Japan, just two hours west of Tokyo, Chichibu Distillery produces some of Japan’s most coveted whiskies. This distillery is NOT open to the public, nor does it offer scheduled tours.

Core Range of Chichibu Distillery Whiskies
Core Range of Chichibu Distillery Whiskies

Exclusively and incredibly, we were able to get a private tour AND private (unlimited) tasting of this simply incredible, multiple award winning operation.

The combination of the boutique, bespoke distillery, plus the amazing whiskey itself, plus the friendly experience with staff and the leadership at the distillery, and finally the amazing Chichibu Whisky Matsuri festival later in the same weekend, is something that cannot be repeated.

We experienced what I’d call extreme tour generosity, including the ability to try some of their most exclusive bottles within the distillery. This cannot be repeated by anybody.

In fact, we were extremely lucky to be able to get this opportunity ourselves – it’s something that I take much pride and being able to attend and report about. This is honestly my favorite distillery and whiskey tour to date, ever! Taichi – if you’re reading this – thank you, Arigato-gozaimasu!

About Ichiro’s Malt Chichibu Distillery

Ichiro Akuro founded Chichibu distillery in 2005, with the first whisky bottled in 2011. 

Ichiro Akuto’s family business dates back to 1625 as a Sake brewer. Ichiro graduated from the Tokyo University of Agriculture and first joined to Suntory whisky operations. In 1994, Ichiro moved back to his father’s company – where in 2005, Ichiro released his first “Ichiro’s Malt” release. In 2006, he trained at Karuizawa distillery in Japan, and in 2007 he trained further at Benraich distillery in Scotland. Finally, in 2008 he started whisky distillation at the Chichibu facility.

The Japanese Chichibu produces limited quantities of their blends in small batches at a time, making it extremely difficult to source despite its popularity. This results in an expensive, exclusive price for most bottles.

While the first distillery opened in 2008, their second opened in 2019 – also in Chichibu.  They are currently bottling about 800,000 per year – definitely on the smaller end of Japanese distilleries. The total production amount of the 1st Distillery is 50,000 LPA.

The production facility in Chichibu, Saitama, Japan includes a head office, a production still house, a kiln house, and several warehouses for cask storage on site.

On our tour, we learned about and look forward to their first 2nd distillery release coming soon. On top of that – wait for it – their 3rd distillery is in construction in Hokkaido with a planned completion in 2025! What’s interesting is that this will be an all-grain-whisky distillery. This reminded us of Masataka Taketsuru beginning with Yamazaki Distillery in central mainland Japan, but with the goal (and later reality) of choosing a climate closer to Scotland when he founded Nikka Distillery in Hokkaido.

The Chichibu Distillery Office and Tasting Room

The main building at the distillery office is the office and private tasting room. Once again, this is NOT open to the public! A sign on the door tells you where you can buy bottles nearby and thru Japan.

In both the tasting room as well as in the production facility, we took off our road shoes and were given special on-site warehouse shoes for our visit.

This is another touch of the Japanese culture in the distillery operation.

The office and tasting room feels more like a private home than it does like a distillery tasting room. There’s a wooden stair that goes to a secret, undisclosed upper level.

The private gift shop is located behind the office and stair way.

Available for purchase are some pretty unique gifts.

These include a series of poker chips to go with Chichibu’s House of Cards series, as well as coasters, miniature casks, t-shirts, some golf balls and golf items, and finally special branded glasses.

One of the coolest displays in this room is the multiple-shelf whisky library, showing all products created to date.

On another shelf on a different wall, the current products are available for viewing.

The barrels along the wall are lined with the multitude of awards this famous distillery has won over the years.

What I appreciated most about this area was the local focus.

This includes images of the operation and also their ingredient selection process.

Getting to Chichibu Distillery

Before you try coming here on your own, I want to again state that this distillery is NOT open to the public, nor does it offer publicly available tours. In fact, getting our tour was almost impossible – we’re fortunate to have achieved it last minute. Should you be lucky and be invited, however, this guide may help. However, they do have a list of where to find bottles at the door.

There are three different ways to get to Chichibu Distillery, and none of them are easy! Before I even get into this part, it’s worth mentioning once again that the distillery is NOT open to the public.

The easiest way to get to the distillery is directly by car. However, chances are that you won’t have a car in Japan (it’s also not easy to get a car rental here). So, the next best way is a combination of trains and taxis from various cities nearby.

By Kumagaya and the Chichibu Main Line

This is the northern access route to the distillery area, and involves connecting at Kumagaya for a Chichibu Main Line train.

You can take a standard JR train from Tokyo’s Ueno station to Kumagaya – this takes approximately one hour in transit.

Alternatively, you can take the Shinkansen along the same route in just over 30 minutes, although it’s far more expensive.

I’ve posted reviews here of JR East Green Class and Gran Class on this route.

This station is a hub for many different JR and private railway lines. The station is a midpoint on the Chichibu mainline.

The trains run roughly every twenty minutes to half an hour.

The cost is under 1000 JPY from Kumagaya.

The line features some uniquely cool Anime themed trains, but unfortunately this is where the cool factor ends.

The ride on this line is only moderately comfortable – we found most trains to be exceptionally crowded for the hour long journey…

…not to mention being on a cushioned stool.

You’ll want to take the train to the Minano station, and then you can switch to a local taxi for the last mile to the distillery.

By Seibu Chichibu Railway from Ikebukuro Tokyo

In my opinion having tried all different methods to get to this area, the Seibu-Chichibu railway is the best way to get to Chichibu.

This is especially true if you can get on the Limited Express trains, leaving nearly every hour. The limited express trains leave from Ikebukuro Station in Tokyo

These awesome “Laview” trains offer extremely comfortable rotating and reclining seats.

They have massive windows, headrests and even power outlets.

The trains terminate at the Chichibu-Seibu station in Chichibu. This new station also features an Onsen in the building.

From this station, you’ll still need to take a cab to the distillery. The good news is that taxis are readily available and not too expensive.

By Taxi from Kumagaya

In our case, we made it to our tour by taxi from Kumagaya.

After a delayed train causing us to miss our 2nd train to Minano, we were faced with a difficult choice to take an hour taxi to quite possibly one of the hardest to reach distilleries in Japan.

With some difficulty in translation and finally showing the cab driver the location and directions

The total cost was 15,800 JPY for this route.

The ride time from Kumagaya was exactly one hour.

Exclusive Chichibu Distillery Tour

It was difficult to get here, but once we reached our destination, we couldn’t have been happier. 

We were greeted by Taichi Moriyama, the kindest tour guide one could ask for with exceptional English skills.

Taichi started by telling us about some of Chichibu’s base whisky products.

  • Ichiro’s Malt & Grain World Blended Whisky (White Label)
    • average age 10 years
  • Ichiro’s Malt & Grain World Blended Whisky “Limited Edition” (Blue Label)
    • average age over 10 years
  • Ichiro’s Malt & Grain World Blended Whisky “Classic Edition” (Black Label)
    • over 50% malt, average age 10 years

Then, our group made our way into the production facility.

We again had to take off our road shoes and change into special shoes for the facility. I wound my way through a maze of tanks, cables and pipes.

Malting and Ingredients

Chichibu’s first distillery uses predominantly locally sourced barley. Last season, they used 70% domestic barley and 30% sourced from UK, Germany and others.

One of their domestic varieties is a locally sourced barley called Golden Melon Barley from Saitama.

He opened a bag of barley and we were able to taste it.

The peat/unpeated breakdown was 70-80% unpeated local and 20% Scottish highland malt (with 50ppm at first distillery, and various levels at the second). 

Their grist typically follows the 2:7:1 breakdown of barley husk:medium:fine.

Taichi explained the details of the equipment, as well as a glimpse into the different layers of grist produced in this multi-filtered process.

We soon moved up the stairs to view the unique Chichibu mashing process.


As far as mashing goes, they have a 6 hour mashing process performed three-fold (at 64, 76 and 96 degrees respectively).

This leaves the wort at 20 degrees Celsius. 

Of particular note, they had an under-back which acted as the pressure control.

Most operations have an automatic mixer module in this stage, but Chichibu does this mashing process partially manually.

They uniquely use a long bamboo stick to manually stir and remove blockages from mash tun.

Taichi demonstrated to us how this is typically done in the mashing process.

After the mashing process is complete, this is drained into large bags and moved into the fermentation washbacks.

Fermentation Washbacks

This is in my opinion the prized feature of Chichibu Distillery. They use 8x lovely 2000L Mizunara Oak washbacks!

This is unique to Japan and also very unique to Ichiro’s operation.

Distillation is performed one washback at a time.

Along with the unique washbacks, 10 kg of yeast ferment for 8 days.

This is by far the longest fermentation time I’ve ever heard of!

Distillery yeast is used, and the unique lactic acid present in Mizunara wood imparts the characteristic Chichibu flavor through lactic acid fermentation.

We were provided with a tall ladder to glimpse the view of inside washback at 2 days into the 8 day fermentation. At this stage the product is called “wash.”

This was stunning view of the inside of the washbacks! The wash was creamy and foamy, with a gorgeous color.

By far, this is the best smelling wort I’ve ever smelled in any distillery visit!

Taichi closed up the washback lid, and now we moved to the next stage – distillation!


At the first distillery, there were 2 lovely Scotland-made copper pot stills. 

The left wash still takes 6 hours for its run yielding 700L for low wines and 200L for the heart. 

Among every distillery’s trade secrets the heart of the run are determined by four main factors: smell, ABV, temperature and time.

One day, we hope to visit the 2nd and 3rd distilleries for their statistics. 

We do know the 1st distillery is steam heated and 2nd is directly fired by gas. 

Their finished distillation ABV depends on the batches.

A fun note is that the spirit still, unlike Scotch Distilleries, did not have a lock! 

In fact Taichi opened and closed it to prove the point.  Only in Japan?

Trying New Make Spirit

On our walk down from the stills platform, we had 5 samples of new make spirit to scent. 

As a continuation from the mind-blowingly sweet scent of the washbacks, we again found fruity, floral flavors on the nose of each of the new make samples. 

As a first for me, some distilleries offer either/both a smell or taste of new make spirit, but Chichibu very kindly also offered 2 sets of head for comparison. 

Taking a very scientific approach, each glass had the minute marker of the run and ABV percentage taking a peek into the mind of Ichiro himself!

All the new make spirits were labeled, so it was easy to try and compare what we were sniffing.

First two were the head, followed by the heart, and finally one to show the tail.

The ability to smell (and taste, if you wanted) five different stages of the distillation process was another unique aspect of our tour I’ll never see anywhere else.

Production & Bottling

Taichi explained the remainder of the production and bottling process after this.

The entire run from milling to distillation takes 12 days in the winter, 9 in the summer. In winter, more fermentation time is required due to the lower temperature, creating more time necessity.

With this last stage covered, we put our shoes back on and moved out of the production facility. Also pictured is Emile, one of three chaps from our tour representing the Dutch Whisky Connection.

Warehouse and Cask Storage

The warehouse and cask storage “Warehouse 1” was our next stop. This is where the real magic happens.

Chichibu currently has 22,000 casks in all, among 7 warehouses.

Warehouses #’s1-6 are the dunnage style, and #’s 7 is a more modern racking style.

There are 900 casks in Warehouse 1. 

Across the board cask inventory is made up of 70% bourbon and 30% others (wine, sherry, rum, mizunara, etc). 

Their non Bourbon casks are sourced from all over the world. We saw several wine casks from France and even a Barbados Rum cask!

A small percentage of Mizunara hogsheads are used.

This makes Chichibu the only known distillery to possibly have both Mizunara washbacks and maturation casks…

…quite a feat!

The angel’s share is 3-5% per year with 38°C on the high end in summer and -10°C on low end in winter. 

This is just higher than the average of 2% in Scotland.

This makes for slightly quicker yields in maturation time.

The Kiln

The last building we were shown was the kiln.

The Kiln building is located all the way in the back of the distillery.

This is the point where this distillery started to feel like being in an 1800s Scotland distillery.

We walked into a wide square shaped room with a stairway to the upper level.

Taichi explained the manual smoking process employed in this stage.

A key observation was that a “local peat” is used for their onsite peated malt.

Exclusive Chichibu Distillery Bottle Tasting

The final and coolest part of the tour was our private bottle tasting.

A bottle of each of the core range mentioned above was prepared for our tasting. 

We were also told we could request a special bottling release or cask type if supplies were available for a “taste”. 

Having already expressed curiosity in Agave Spirits during the maturation warehouse, Taichi expertly took a mental note of that and appeared with an almost empty bottle of the Chichibu Edition 2023 – Agave Spirits Cask.  We were eternally grateful! Taichi privately provided us with the name of the Agave Spirit used and where it’s sourced from.

I resisted the temptation to pour the rest of the bottle into my glass, but humbly polled the rest of the tour group to evenly split the remaining heavenly liquid.

Here is a list of what was requested from all members of our tour group.

  • Chichibu Edition 2022 – Agave Spirits
    • Tasting notes: Harmonious marriage of agave and Chichibu’s fruity spirit
    • Phenomenal, most unique
    • Very sharp on the nose
    • Very spicy entry
    • Smooth light finish
  • Distillery only bottling – Bourbon 2nd distillery
    • Tasting notes: very fruity nose, vanilla
  • Distillery only bottling – Fino
    • Tasting notes: green apple palette 
  • Distillery only bottling – Oloroso –
    • Tasting notes: Full body sultana
  • Distillery only bottling – PX
    • Tasting notes: juicy stewed grapes
  • Red Wine Cask 2023
    • Tasting notes: full body red wine spice with Chichibu sweetness

One of the most remarkable tastings was the Red Wine Cask, with a full body red wine spice with Chichibu sweetness.

Quite the impressive spread!


The experience of tasting this and other specialty spirits at the distillery tasting was phenomenal, to say the least!

Getting Out of Chichibu Distillery

Between going back to Minano for the Chichibu mainline or going into Chichibu city to get the Seibu line, we elected for the Seibu line on the way back.

The taxi took 20 minutes to arrive; and, we also were able to try the famous Highlander Inn in town prior to heading back to Tokyo.

Final Thoughts

We would like to express our utmost gratitude to Yumi and Taichi for allowing us to partake in this truly stunning tour of our top of the bucket list distillery!

Exclusively and incredibly, we were able to get a private tour AND private (unlimited) tasting of this simply incredible, multiple award winning operation.

This is honestly thanks to Yumi, also one of the singers in the Chichibu Matsuri festival a few days later.

The Japanese Chichibu produces limited quantities of their blends in small batches at a time, making it extremely difficult to source despite its popularity.

I still haven’t found a good source for their rare bottles!

<Osman’s Note: This article was co-written with Nik M., whom has also covered de Garde’s 10th Anniversary among other articles. We appreciate his input!>

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