Eat & Drink

Visit Nikka Distillery To Explore The Home Of Japanese Whisky

Just over a century ago, a young man left his native Japan and took off for the distant unknown shores of Scotland to learn the art of whisky production. It was here where he was schooled in the intricacies of producing both malt and grain whisky, and the blending of the two. Just two notebooks filled with detailed notes taken by the young man during this time would lay the foundation of Japanese whisky and the famous Nikka distillery.

Masataka Taketsuru was born in 1894, and little did anyone know back then what life would have in store for him. One day the little boy from Hiroshima would grow up to be renowned throughout his home country as “the godfather of Japanese whisky”.

Yoichi, the site of Nikka distillery, was originally chosen by Masataka himself as the ideal location to produce Japanese whisky. Close to the sea, surrounded by mountains on three sides, and in many ways similar to the Highlands in Scotland in both geography and in climate, Yoichi’s cold, clean air proved the ideal conditions for producing whisky.

Visiting Nikka Distillery

 

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First opened in 1934, Nikka whisky distillery still stands an imposing yet alluring figure amongst the beautiful natural backdrop of Yoichi. The building’s entrance kind of looks like a giant mouth keen on swallowing humans, so be ready.

The first thing that hits you when setting foot in Yoichi’s Nikka Whisky Distillery is the smell – the distinctly sweet, smoky aroma of Nikka whisky hangs in the air and combines perfectly with the sea breeze floating through. Indeed, Yoichi’s close proximity to the sea played an important role in Masataka choosing the site.

Today the salty sea air gives a briny hint to the whisky during the maturation process, leading to a tasty whisky, and a wonderfully alluring aroma at the distillery. This is where dreams are barrelled.

Masataka received his first practical training at Scotland’s Longmorn Distillery. It’s here where he was taught to implement a single pot still utilising direct coal fire, and it’s this technique he brought over to Japan – a technique still used to this day at the Yoichi distillery.

The Japanese whisky method

This traditional distilling technique is hardly seen in modern day whisky production, as it can prove a challenge to keep the live flames at the right consistent temperature. Though, under the watch of the right highly skilled craftsmen, the technique makes for the distinctly toasty, smoky-burnt flavour that Nikka single malt is renowned for.

A walk through the site of the Yoichi distillery is a fascinating walk through time. The facility is large, spanning a number of buildings, and full of interesting exhibits that showcase how far Japanese whisky production has come in the last century, and in turn shining an interesting perspective lens on the rapid industrialisation of the country as a whole.

The distillery stands as a testament to the will and determination of Masataka who, upon returning to Japan started his own independent company with the sole pursuit of producing his ideal whisky. In 1934, the company “Dai Nippon Kaju” was born. Translating literally to the “Great Japanese Juice Company”, the company initially made its coin by producing apple products whilst the first whiskys were maturing in casks. And to this day still produces some pretty great apple wine.

nikka distillery japanese whisky

Image: David Allegretti

This is the first bottle of whisky the company ever produced. And although I chalked it down to museum curators having the odd cheeky sip, turns out all that empty space is thanks to evaporation over time. The more you know.

The Nikka distillery museum provides an interesting snapshot of not only the life of the man who brought whisky to Japan, but to the Scottish woman he brought along with him. Whilst learning the art of whisky production, Masataka fell in love with Rita Cowan, who came with him back to his native Japan.

Whilst she was initially shunned, she eventually grew to not only be accepted, but respected amongst the wider Japanese community, thanks mostly to her willingness to learn Japanese customs and what was by many accounts a clear and all-encompassing love she shared with Masataka. Today there is even a whole road in Yoichi dedicated to her – the aptly named Rita Road. As well as this, Rita is the star of a recently released television drama series “Massan” based on the lives of her and Masataka.

Now, to sample Japanese whisky

nikka distillery japanese whisky

Image: David Allegretti

Once you’ve had your fill of whisky history, head on over to the “Nikka Kaikan” where you can sample a selection of whiskies and apple wine. And if anything particularly tickles your fancy then you’re in for a treat as the distillery is also home to the “Northland” gift shop; home to a vast array of exclusive gifts and whiskies.

The Yoichi Nikka Distillery can be reached in about an hour by car, and 70 minutes via train from Sapporo station. It’s open every day from 9am to 5pm. Admission is free. There is also another Nikka whisky distillery in Miyagikyo.