One of the most well-known Japanese whisky brands, Nikka‘s origins date back to 1934 when Masataka Taketsuru built the Yoichi Distillery (named after the town in which it’s located) on the island of Hokkaido. Taketsuru (the son of a sake producer) had returned from an extended stay in Scotland, during which time he studied the craft of whisky-making while apprenticing at local distilleries—all while working toward a chemistry degree at the University of Glasgow. Before constructing Yoichi, Taketsuru would sign a 10-year contact with Kotobukiya Limited (Suntory) and oversee the development of their Yamazaki distillery. Then, with Scottish wife Rita, he moved north and focused his efforts on producing a whisky that tasted authentic—true to the Scotch he had fallen in love with during his time in Scotland. To this day, Nikka’s range—be that Pure Malt, Single Malt, Blended or Grain expressions—remains faithful to this mission. And the Yoichi distillery, which is open to visitors year round, offers a window into its past and present.
Beyond the stone architecture that blends traditional Japanese design and Scottish influence, one is immediately taken by the process on-site. After delving into the ingredients and peating process, the tour continues to an open still room, where six copper pot stills rest above a heating source. In this instance, that source is coal—shoveled in manually. It’s a testament to Taketsuru’s desire to adhere to traditional Scottish techniques (though, coal fire is no longer used in Scotland, it was for a very long time). This, coupled with the area’s climate, make the production process more in line with those in Scotland at the time of Taektsuru’s training.
In addition to the handful of ornamental barrels on site, whisky aging also takes place on the compound. Row upon row of warehouses hold casks filled with liquid. Only one is open to the public, offering a glimpse at the process, but strolling along the property conveys just how much product is maturing. As is the norm these days, Nikka ages their spirit in American ex-bourbon barrels, new American oak, sherry butts from Portugal and re-charred casks. In certain instances they also employ Japanese oak. The finished products oftentimes has substantial peat notes, though impacted by the wood of choice in aging. There’s a boldness to Nikka that makes it stand out—and has done so for a long time.
In the midst of it all, Taketsuru’s former home can be found at the Yoichi distillery. It was here that he and his wife returned after tending to the distillation and distillery maintenance. Today, one portion of the home is open to guests. Inside, one finds a chronicle of the couple, including personal items from their travels and domestic life. Taketsuru is often referred to as the grandfather of Japanese whisky—for both the development of Yoichi and his previous work with Suntory (which was the first dedicated whisky operation in Japan). His wife, however, contributed substantially to Nikka’s success—even investing money from teaching English lessons into the company. The main passage through the Yoichi distillery was named Rita Road after her.
The Yoichi distillery features two separate tasting rooms. One, situated in a more modern building located at the rear of the facility, offers a free dram of all three of Nikka’s core expressions. While it’s a nice concluding treat, it’s far less exciting than the Whisky Club, found in the museum portion of complex. Here, one can pay to taste an array of rare Nikka products—and those of competitors. Deep-diving into Nikka’s back catalogue of age statement products can come at a substantial cost but one will be hard-pressed to find such an experience anywhere else in the world. Further, the entire museum is dotted with bottles, design paraphernalia and advertising campaigns (including an infamous one starring Orson Welles) dating back decades. There’s no better way to have a visual-driven history lesson than with an uncommon Nikka whisky in hand.
Approximately 30 miles west of Sapporo, Nikka’s Yoichi distillery is located at Hokkaido Yoichigun Yoichimachi Kurokawacho 7-6. It’s open from 9AM to 5PM and, while tours are self-guided for English speakers, all of the interactive materials have English language options. Nikka’s whiskies, many of which have topped “best of” lists since the late ’80s, are available worldwide.
Hero image courtesy of Nikka, all other images by David Graver