Sabor is the most beautiful food magazine in the world. The first couple of issues were only in Dutch, but now it’s available in English for the iPad. I spent a day at the Chichibu Distillery for Sabor’s Japan special issue.
There’s an unmistakable aroma in the air. I’m standing in the grounds of Japan’s Chichibu whisky distillery, about 60 miles northwest of Tokyo in the lush Okuchichibu mountains, and I can smell caramel. Not the subtle notes you sometimes find in whisky. The rich, gloopy stuff you squirt on a latte.
I know the smell of a whisky distillery. Something like hot beer. Nothing like this.
I ask, delicately, why this distillery smells so syrupy.
Chief mashman Manami Momma points at a factory a few hundred yards away. It looks to be the only other business in the area.
‘They make artificial flavours. Sometimes we get Earl Grey wafting over. Sometimes coffee,’ she says.
It’s a striking juxtaposition. To the left, the Musashino Aromatic Chemical Laboratory dyeing the mountain air with E-number taste bombs. To the right, Japan’s newest whiskymaker, discreetly nurturing more natural flavours. Both harness science in the name of flavour, but only one will need a trophy cabinet. Only one will elicit gushing reviews. Only one will lure pilgrims like me.
Chichibu is one of eight working distilleries in Japan. That may seem plenty for this tiny archipelago, but the Japanese get through a lot of whisky. Only Scotland produces more single malt. Most of the work is done by five giants–Fuji Gotemba, Hakushu, Miyagikyo, Yamazaki and Yoichi–each of which can turn out millions of liters per year. Chichibu can stretch to around 90,000 liters.