The Akuto family saga starts at the dawning of the 1700 century.
The Akuto family has been sake-brewers in the village of Chichibu since 1626 and Ichiro Akuto-san represents the family's 21st generation. This operation is still ongoing, at the original site, and in buildings partly stemming from the early days. The sakes produced at Chichibu Kikusui (former Akuto Honke link http://www.chichibu-kikusui.com/) are ranked among the best. Shochu distillation was later added to the range of products manufactured here.
The pictures to the left and right shows the exterior and the interior of the family's still ongoing Chichibu sake brewery and shochu distillery.
Ichiro's grandfather, Isouji Akuto, established in 1941 a second family sake brewery and shochu distillery. The location of preference became the city of Hanyu. Hanyu is a small rural town in the western part of the Saitama prefecture, north-west of Tokyo and 50 kilometers away from the village of Chichibu. The name of the city was adopted as the name of the distillery
In 1980 the family, headed by Yutaka Akuto, made a serious and risky decision by changing the production profile of Hanyu into a Scotch-styled single malt whisky distillery. Two steam-heated pot stills were obtained and water for the process was brought in by tankers from Chichibu.
A license to produce alcohol such as whisky was granted to Isouji Akuto in 1946. During the first era the whisky produced may be characterized as grain whisky and made in a continuous steel still which also were used for the production of other alcohols. Later, the steel still was replaced by a copper based one. The first attempts to produce whisky resulted in a blended whisky launched as the 'Golden Horse'. The product was a mixture of imported Scotch whisky and own produced grain whisky. During the forties, fifties and sixties this was the common way to make Japanese whisky among the smaller operators. Picture to the left shows Hanyu as of today.
The 'Golden Horse' trade mark was questioned in Japanese court by UK's DCL as hitch hiking on their well-known White Horse brand.
DCL lost its case.
The risk was the long time needed to roll out the first batch of true and high quality malt whiskies, true in the sense that the minimum three year of maturation, as prescribed in Europe, was observed. A long time to bind capital if the timing is not correct. And it wasn’t.
This, the second 'whisky' era, lasted from 1983 until March the year of 2000 when the company gave up its whisky business due to the weakened profitability. The economic shortcomings forced the family to halt production and sell out the Hanyu production unit. Not until 2004 was a solution found. The grandson to Isouji Akuto, and son to Yutaka Akuto, Ichiro Akuto, at the time working as a Brand manager and Sales representative for the beverage giant and largest whisky manufacturer in Japan, Suntory, was called in to assist and deal with the troubles occurred.
Ichiros first position was as a Sales manager and then as the President. On his lot fell the tough decision to separate and sell out Hanyu and its possessions to preserve the family's core business.
Ichiro is a 1988 graduate from Tokyo University of Agriculture with fermentation and distillation as majors. He studied the science and technology of making whisky at Karuizawa in 2006 and Benriach/Scotland in 2007.
The whisky distillery equipment was dismantled in 2004 and purchased by Ichiro with the hope to later in life lay foundation to a malt whisky distillery of his own. The equipment is still stored in the Chichibu town across the street from the family’s sake brewery Toa Shuzo as the machinery did not came to use because all equipment for the coming distillery (Chichibu) was purchased brand new.
The Hanyu premises became sold to a Kyoto based shochu producer in 2004. The new owner had no interest in neither continue whisky distillation nor save the circa 400 casks of premium malt whisky included in the purchase. Their initial plan was to reprocess the whisky into shochu. Luckily Ichiro Akuto once again stepped in and became the savior. He managed, with financial backup from sake producer Sasanokawa Shuzo, to repossess all the casks. Hence, the foundation for the so successful whisky series the Playing Card was laid. Sasanokawa Shuzo Co Ltd, happened to once in time have made whisky too.
Around 2005 the dream of this charismatic and dynamic whisky enthusiast, a malt whisky distillery of his own, materialized. Capital raised and a company was formed and a stunning distillery became erected in the outskirts of Ichiro's home town Chichibu. And license to distill was granted in 2008. At the helm of this enterprise is off course its creator, manager and part owner Ichiro Akuto-san. A remarkable dream that finally came true.
Chichibu's empty lot in February 2007.
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