A wee dram in the highlands is one thing, but great Scotch whisky from the mountains of Japan? I was about to find out, entering the gated grounds of the Nikka Distillery in Yoichi, Hokkaido (Japan’s northernmost principal island) to learn about the Japanese distilling industry.
Japanese whisky’s star has been soaring in the spirits world lately. With many similarities to Scottish whiskies, even its name follows Scotch tradition by dropping the “e,” at least when spelled in English. If you have a penchant for detail, call it Japanese whisky, not Scotch, which must come from the land of heather and moors.
History of Japanese Whisky
In 1918, a young Japanese traveler, Masataka Taketsuru, journeyed alone to Scotland. He was the son of a “sake” brewery owner. Already an expert in the use of fermented rice to make the quintessential Japanese drink, he studied chemistry at a Japanese university.
However, Scotch whisky captured his imagination. Masataka wanted to learn the secrets of whisky-making, so he enrolled at the University of Glasgow, the first Japanese to study the science of whisky making. Additional chemistry courses, distillery apprenticeships and training as a blender led Masataka to the designation of a master blender.
He met and married a Scottish lassie, Jessie Roberta (Rita), returning to Japan with her in 1820. He went to work for a company trying to produce Scottish-like whisky, but he wasn’t pleased with the outcome.
Turns out he just needed a better environment. In 1934, Masataka established Nikka Whisky in Yoichi, Hokkaido.
He chose a site with a latitude similar to Scotland, surrounded by mountains bordering the Sea of Japan.
Nikka became one of Japan’s best producers, earning Masataka the title of “Father of Japanese Whisky.” In 2001, Nikka’s 10-year Yoichi single malt whisky was named the “Best of the Best” in a whisky magazine international tasting, beating entrants from the mother country for the first time.
Nikka Distillery offers free guided tours, only in Japanese. Multilingual self-guiding pamphlets let visitors follow the whisky production process tour. The site’s nine historic buildings mimic Scottish architecture and don’t look anything like traditional Japanese structures.
Yoichi’s climate augments the traditional distillation method of using coal, producing a rich, peaty malt. The whisky’s distinct aroma and body come from copper pot stills heated with finely powdered natural coal – the traditional method rarely used anywhere today. Japanese religious ribbons adorn the pot stills to provide blessings.
Visitors can peek inside Rita and Masakata’s home (sadly only Japanese signage) and tour a whisky museum highlighting Nikka’s history, production methods and awards.
A satisfying tour end brings free tasting of three varieties: Pure Malt Whisky Taketsuru, Blended Whisky Super Nikka and Apple Wine. The Whisky Club offers rare tastings for an additional price. The “Rita House” room, named after Masakata’s wife, offers English-style tea (scones and all).