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The Hanyu distillery was until recently one of the sadder stories in Japanese single malt whisky. This distillery had a troubled and sporadic history: although Hanyu produced some quite outstanding Japanese whisky during its lifetime the quality of the distillery’s spirit was never appreciated in the domestic market and only found its audience after the Hanyu distillery had been closed and dismantled.

The Akuto family have owned and operated a sake brewery in the mountain town of Chichibu since 1626. In 1941 Isouji Akuto, the 19th generation of the family’s Toa Shuzo company built a new brewery and a distillery nearby in Hanyu city, obtaining a distillation license five years later in 1946. 

Initial production at Hanyu was on a continuous still, making shochu and later grain whisky that was blended with imported Scottish malt whisky and sold as a Japanese blended whisky called Golden Horse. This was standard practice throughout the Japanese whisky industry until 2021’s decree outlawing the use of the term Japanese whisky for these hybrid blends.

Things at Hanyu got interesting in 1980 when a pair of pot stills was installed and the first serious attempts to make a Scotch style single malt whisky were made from around 1983 onwards.  In the end, from the twenty years that the pot stills were present at Hanyu, only a few vintages of Hanyu single malt whisky were ever bottled: from 1985, 1986, 1988, 1990, 1991, 1995, 1996 and 2000.

Unfortunately the whiskies from Hanyu were unappreciated in Japan, where by the late 1990s the demand for domestic Japanese whisky had flatlined - a problem that also defeated the Karuizawa distillery at the same time. 

Isouji Akuto’s grandson Ichiro Akuto was made chairman of the Toa Shuzo company after taking over from his father Yutaka Akuto following a spell as a marketing manager for Suntory. Sadly Ichiro was unable to solve the financial crisis affecting the company and was forced to sell Hanyu to protect the family’s 370-year-old sake brewery. 

The Hanyu distillery closed its doors in 2000 and the Toa Shuzo company was sold, along with Hanyu distillery and the Golden Horse brand, to the Kyoto-based King Jozo Group shochu company.

In 2004, Toa Shuzo’s new owners, who had hit financial trouble themselves and partnered with another company, Hinode Holdings, decided to concentrate on sake production and repurpose the Hanyu site for shochu production using the Hanyu continuous still. 

Thankfully Ichiro Akuto was able to retrieve some of Hanyu’s equipment, including a pot still and, more importantly, he also negotiated the purchase of the last 400 casks of Hanyu single malt whisky with the assistance of another sake company, Sasanokawa Shuzo. This was crucial, as King Jozo had plans to redistil the Hanyu stock for shochu production

From this bitter low point, the remaining Hanyu story is much brighter. The old Hanyu pot still retrieved by Ichiro Akuto was installed at the family’s sake brewery and repurposed to distil shochu with which the company fortified their Daiginjo and Honjozo sakes (this still is now on display outside Chichibu distillery). Meanwhile, the remaining casks of Hanyu single malt whisky, which nearly ended up being redistilled, have passed into legend.

In 2004, Ichiro Akuto founded a new company called Venture Whisky  and began bottling the preserved casks of Hanyu under the Ichiro’s Malt label. Soon, he hit upon a winning theme - the Card Series was born, with single casks or small batches of Hanyu released periodically bearing a different playing card on each label. 

The Card Series Hanyus appeared between 2005 and 2014 and are now some of the most valuable Japanese single malts ever released - a full collection of all 54 bottles (52 Cards and 2 Jokers) was sold for over $1.5m in 2020.

With the revenue from the Hanyu casks, whose fame spread quickly and which were soon winning international awards, Ichiro Akuto was able to realise his dream of building another distillery to replace Hanyu. This time he chose a site closer to his hometown, and in 2007 construction commenced on the Chichibu distillery, with distilling operations beginning in 2008.

There’s a final twist in the Hanyu tale, though - in late 2020 the Toa Shuzo company announced that they were going to rebuild the Hanyu distillery, with new copper pot stills based on the original blueprints. Work progressed quickly and in early 2021 it was revealed that the new Hanyu distillery had commenced distillation. 

Of course, without the involvement and expertise of the Akuto family it remains to be seen how successful the new Hanyu will be, but hopes are high that this classic Japanese single malt whisky distillery - once thought to be lost forever - may rise again.