Visiting a Japanese Whisky Distillery in Hokkaido ・ The Story of Nikka Whisky Yoichi Distillery
Over the years, whisky has become increasingly popular in Japan, as domestic Japanese distilleries have refined their processes and their products, and the highball (whisky soda) has become a staple of Japanese businessmen after a long day of work. Popular culture has caught on, and in recent years, the story of whisky has even become the topic of a popular Japanese TV show. The 2014~2015 NHK television drama “Massan” drew viewers’ attention to the life and legacy of the real 20th-century distiller Masataka Taketsuru, who found a love of Scotch and a Scottish wife while living abroad, and was determined to open his own distillery upon returning to Japan.
The whisky distillery that Taketsuru finally established was in Yoichi, Hokkaido, and the whisky came to be known as Nikka Whisky, as it’s called to this day. Nowadays, sightseers and whisky lovers can visit the Nikka Whisky Yoichi Distillery to learn about the ins and outs of Japanese whisky, and then taste it for themselves.
Like Scotland in Japan
Nikka Whisky is one of the two biggest brands of domestic whisky in Japan, alongside its more internationally-known big brother Suntory. The truth is that when Masataka Taketsuru came back to Japan, fired up and ready to promote the drink in his home country, his first step was to become factory manager of Suntory. At Suntory, he worked with founder Shinjiro Torii to make Japan’s first whisky at their Yamazaki distillery, in a part of Osaka just outside of Kyoto. The pair had a falling out, however, causing Taketsuru to leave the company and head to Yoichi, Hokkaido with his wife, ready to build his own distillery. Torii and Taketsuru’s disagreement was focused on the whisky itself: Torii believed that they should adjust their whisky to suit the palates of their Japanese customers, while Taketsuru insisted that they should maintain the flavors of traditional Scotch whisky. Those key distinctions are still clear in the whiskies produced by the two brands to this day, and each of the men clearly achieved their unique whisky goals.
Taketsuru chose Yoichi, Hokkaido as the location of his distillery because it seemed as close as he could get to Scotland. Hokkaido’s high latitude and resulting climate come with cold, humid weather throughout the year, which Taketsuru hoped would help him make whisky similar to what he had tasted during his years in Scotland.
The origin of the name Nikka is actually found in the earliest years of the distillery’s creation. Taketsuru started distilling his whisky at the new facility in Yoichi right away, but the process takes several years before any product is available. So in the meantime, Taketsuru needed to keep the lights on. He decided to make use of the local apples grown in Yoichi to make apple juice, and he used the profits to maintain factory operations. As an apple juice maker, the company took on the name “Dainippon Kaju Kabushikigaisha” (大日本果汁株式会社), AKA the “Great Japan Fruit Juice Company,” and the abbreviated nickname “Nikka” just stuck.
Visiting the Distillery
The free tasting lets you try three drinks: the Yoichi Single Malt, the Super Nikka, and their apple wine. No need to rush to drink it straight, though! They also have ice, water, and soda available as mixers, so everyone can really enjoy their drinks. Keeping with Yoichi Distillery tradition, there’s even apple juice available!
*The Japankuru team visited the distillery back in 2018, which is why you won’t see much in the way of COVID-19 safety precautions in our pictures or video!
Even in their modern distilleries, Nikka maintains a tradition of coal-fired distillation, which is said to be particularly hard to control, but it leaves the whisky with a bold hint of burnt, toasty flavor.
The apple wine, on the other hand, was comparatively mild and easy to drink. Whether you’re a die-hard Scotch whisky fanatic, or you’re just interested in this unique little sliver of Japanese history, the Nikka Whisky Yoichi Distillery is a fascinating destination for your next trip to Hokkaido.
▲ See more of the Japankuru team’s visit in the video above!