A Japanese whisky pilgrimage

Taste the 90-year legacy of Nikka Whisky at these essential stops

Yoichi, Japan, is in many ways similar to Scotland, which is why Masataka Taketsuru chose it as the site for the Nikka Whisky distillery. Photo courtesy of Nikka Whisky

In most parts of the world, the whisky made there (or the brandy, vodka, rum…) is the result of what grows and thrives in a particular place. The century-old Japanese whisky industry is entirely unique: It’s based on one person’s DNA, and his global quest for whisky excellence.

The grandfather of Japanese whisky founded two of its most famous labels more than 100 years ago: Suntory, in 1923; and Nikka, in 1934. In Nikka’s 90th anniversary year, the brand invited a select group of whisky-philes to trace its founder’s path across Japan. Here’s a taste of Nikka whisk-tory.

Masataka Taketsuru founded Nikka Whisky in 1934. Photo courtesy of Nikka Whisky

Home Base: Osaka

In 1918, 22-year-old Masataka Taketsuru was sent to Scotland by his employer, an Osaka industrial-alcohol-producing company called Settsu Shuzo. Taketsuru, who came from a sake-brewing family in the Hiroshima region and studied fermentation in Osaka, was hand-picked to learn the whisky-making trade and bring authentic Scottish customs back to start the Japanese whisky industry.

Visit: Bar K in Osaka, a tiny basement space (typical of many elite but pocket-sized Japanese bars) with a massive whisky selection and a focus on Japanese whisky.

Bonus visit: The hardcore Nikka fan tour would stop in San Francisco en route from Japan to Scotland, since Taketsuru hopped off his ship to briefly study winemaking.

Whisky slumbers in the barrel cellar. Photoscourtesy of Nikka Whisky

Home Room: Scotland

Until 1920, Taketsuru studied at the University of Glasgow and the city’s Royal Technical College and apprenticed at three Scotch distilleries (Longmorn in Speyside, Bo’ness in Falkirk and Hazelburn in Campbeltown). He brought more than in-depth Scotch production knowledge back to Japan: He married a Scottish woman, Rita, before he returned to Japan.

Visit: The Pot Still, an 800-bottle-strong whisky bar in Glasgow founded in the 1860s.

While waiting to fulfill his whisky dream, Taketsuru created a cidery that is still operational today. Charlene Rooke photo

Home of the Name: Hirosaki

Returning to Japan, Taketsuru discovered that his former employer couldn’t fund his whisky dreams in the austere, post-First World War environment. In 1923, he joined the company that would eventually become Suntory and was instrumental in founding the Yamazaki Distillery between Kyoto and Osaka.

But like every craft distiller with a dream, Taketsuru eventually figured out a way to finance his whisky program. In 1934, he founded the Dai Nippon Kaju (“great Japanese fruit juice”) company to make apple juice and cider, and it’s from this era that Nikka (“NIppon KAju”) gets its name.

Today, Nikka Hirosaki Cidery is located in the Aomori region and still produces delicious apple cider plus Nikka Apple Wine, a 22 per cent ABV tipple that’s the love child of apple brandy and aperitivo fortified wine.

Visit: Pub Grandpa, a dark and cozy Hirosaki haunt with a deep back bar of whisky.

At Nikka’s Yoichi distillery, the copper pot stills are still fired by coal, just as they were 90 years ago. Photos courtesy of Nikka Whisky

Home of Malt: Yoichi Distillery

On Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido, a peninsula west of Sapporo hemmed in by mountains and jutting into the Sea of Japan was the spot that most resembled Scotland, according to Taketsuru. In Yoichi, he founded the first Nikka distillery and lived on the distillery site overseeing production, with the first whiskies released around 1940.

Ninety years later, advance reservations for free visits are essential, busloads aren’t welcome and tours are mostly in Japanese, but a pilgrimage to Yoichi Distillery is still a must-see.

At Nikka’s Yoichi distillery, the copper pot stills are still fired by coal, just as they were 90 years ago. Photo courtesy of Nikka Whisky

The now-defunct floor malting Kiln House and the copper pot stillhouse are both still direct-fired by coal, meticulously shoveled by some of the army of blue-tracksuited Nikka workers who bustle around the very Scottish-looking distillery compound of red cupola-topped stone buildings. Tour guides wearing red coats and black bowler hats look like they’re straight out of the U.K. Two dozen dunnage-style stone warehouses smell of the finest angel’s share on earth, and a cooperage is busy re-charring, repairing and readying barrels, everything from new casks made of Japanese mizunara oak to massive sherry butts, American oak barrels and re-coopered Scottish-style hogshead casks.

At Yoichi, visitors can check out artifacts from Nikka Whisky’s 90-year history, then enjoy a rare, distillery-only dram in the tasting room. Charlene Rooke photo

The house where Masataka and Rita Taketsuru lived (she died in 1961, and he lived until 1979) has been lovingly preserved, including the chair where he sat and smoked a pipe every night, their tatami-mat bedroom and the closet with her fur coat and his monogrammed tweed jackets, even the Nikka-emblazoned mugs in their kitchen. (In a one-time corporate boardroom concealed above the entryway arch, more quirky artifacts are preserved, including a taxidermied Japanese marten named Ten that wandered into the barrel house decades ago and froze to death: It gave its life to whisky!)

Visit: Most Yoichi visitors stay in nearby Sapporo (about an hour’s drive), where the famous 1950s-vintage temple of Japanese bartending, Bar Yamazaki (named for its late founder, not the whisky), is virtually hidden in an anonymous tower. Have a more modern, but equally divine, cocktail evening at Bar Owl and Rooster (Vancouverites may recognize proprietor Hisatsugu Saito, who previously bartended in Canada and poped up recently at cocktail week), an amari- and absinthe-focused bar with immaculate cocktails and intriguing vintage and craft spirits.

A tour guide in a distinctly U.K.-inspired uniform leads visitors around the Yoichi distillery. Charlene Rooke photo

Modern Home: Yoichi restaurant, museum and tasting room

A modern building at Yoichi houses a restaurant where you can taste not only regional Japanese food, but Scottish specialties (from fish and chips to the shepherd’s pie the founder’s wife made), or a smoked snack plate that comes in a tajine-type dish shaped like a Nikka pot still. Taste several signature highballs made from Nikka whiskies and its traditional apple wine.

Charlene Rooke photo

The on-site museum, with fascinating exhibits (in Japanese and English) on the distillery’s history and flagship whiskies, culminates in a legendary tasting room. Choose your tasting-room samples wisely—distillery-only drams recently included Tsuru, a limited-edition 17-year-old blended whisky, as well as a single-cask 10-year-old Yoichi malt.

It’s also a cool opportunity to individually taste the three component bottlings (vanilla-oaked, sherried and peaty malts) that make up Yoichi Single Malt, or not-available-in-Canada bottlings like Nikka Session, blended from two Japanese malts plus Scottish Ben Nevis (also owned, like Nikka, by the Asahi group) whisky.

Visit: Rita’s Kitchen and the tasting-room in the Nikka Museum are the places to imbibe.

—by Charlene Rooke

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