Japan’s northernmost distillery
Nikka Whisky’s Yoichi distillery is producing some of the best single malts and blends in the world. (Tim Hornyak)
In Ian Fleming’s 1964 novel You Only Live Twice, martini sipper James Bond disparages Japanese whisky while on a mission in Tokyo. But today, Japanese distilleries are producing some of the best single malts and blends in the world.
On the northern island of Hokkaido, 50 km west of Sapporo, Nikka Whisky’s Yoichi distillery is the birthplace of the single malts that have helped propel Japanese whisky into connoisseurs’ top 10 lists. In 2008, Nikka's 1987 Yoichi was named the world's best single malt at the World Whiskies Awards.
Yoichi is probably the boldest, peatiest whisky in Japan, and those who wish to learn more can take a free tour of the distillery. It is set in a nondescript seaside town of the same name, the kind of place that might figure in a Haruki Murakami novel. Time seems to stand still within the distillery’s grey stone walls, where snow blankets the cask warehouses for much of the year.
Its old-school pot stills are giant brassy beasts -- topped by Shinto religious garlands -- and fired by powdered natural coal. This is an old-fashioned Scottish method that was adopted by founder Masataka Taketsuru, whose visit to Scotland from 1919 to 1920 laid the foundation for Japan’s whisky industry. Not far from the stills sits the quaint green-roofed home where Taketsuru lived with his Scottish wife Rita.
The highlight of the tour, which can be self-guided or led by a Japanese-speaking staff member, are the tasting bars. One, located in the modern Nikka Kaikan building, offers free sips of select Yoichi malts. The far more satisfying Whisky Club is a pub-style affair, set in a museum that narrates the history of Nikka Whisky and Taketsuru’s life; nearby are display casks that show how the aroma and colour of whisky changes over time. At the bar you can purchase glasses, starting from roughly 500 yen, of every Yoichi whisky produced on the premises -- including the powerful and rare Yoichi 20-year single malt.
If you want to take its salty, peaty ambrosia home with you, a bottle from the souvenir shop will set you back about 20,000 yen. Just be sure to sip a glass while kicking back with an old James Bond flick.