Tag Archives: Nikka Whisky

The Yoichi Journey

So…I actually made this trip in the summer of last year, but just never got around to writing anything about it. Nikka Whisky products are not available in the US at this time, so if you are not familiar with it we wrote a quick history about it here. Bear with me as I give a narrative of my trip to Yoichi. I really am not much of a story teller, but I’ll try my best.

I have a hard time describing Nikka Whisky sometimes…I don’t want to say that it is Japan’s second whisky producer or Japan’s other one either as both of those terms imply that it comes in second or is not up to par. And that is definitely not the case. So the best that I could come up with is this lengthy and long winded explanation” Nikka Whisky and Suntory are the two largest and most recognizable whisky producers in Japan. I guess that will have to work for now.

It is no secret that I thoroughly enjoy and delight in the whisky produced by Nikka.  So for some time I have wanted to make a trip out to Yoichi.  Yoichi is Nikka’s first and most prominent distillery. Be warned that a visit to Yoichi requires some planning even if you are visiting Japan. Since you usually fly into Narita, Haneda or Kansai it is a significant undertaking to get to Yoichi. Yoichi is a city located on the west coast of Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido. With some help I planned my visit to Yoichi several months in advance. This required booking airline tickets, a rental car and a hotel – if I was going that far, I was going to stay for more than one day. Also, lucky for me, my friend from Tokyo was able to take a couple of days off to travel with me.

My flight was leaving out of Haneda airport, and to get the most out of my time in Hokkaido my plane departed at 8:30am. Unfortunately for me from where I was staying it would take over an hour to get to the airport by train. This meant I had to catch the 6:30am train and wake up even earlier. But it is amazing how easy it is to wake up when you are leaving for a trip like this.

The train ride to Haneda was fairly uneventful and I arrived with plenty of time to meet up with my friend, grab a bite to eat and meander over to the gate. I looked out of the window and was surprised to see that we were taking a 747. Keep in mind that this was only an hour and a half flight. To my further surprise the plane was completely full.

We landed in Sapporo on time then jumped a shuttle to go pick up our rental car – a cool little compact hatch back with 4-wheel drive. We hopped into the car and set out to Yoichi. About half way through the hour trip we decided to take a pit stop for lunch at the port city of Otaru. Hokkaido is really known for its sea food and Otaru was supposed to have some of the best. Otaru is a bit of a tourist attraction itself, so it was pretty packed. After wondering through the city for awhile and taking a quick peak at the local brewery we settled on a restaurant. My belly and I were elated with the decision to stop to eat. See pictures:

 

 

 

 

After getting temporary satisfaction from solid food it was time to continue the quest for liquid satisfaction – so back on the road to Yoichi! The rest of the drive out wound us through several small towns and along the coast. Then finally we arrived at the distillery. I had seen many pictures of the distillery before so I immediately recognized the stone walls and red roof tops. I admit I was giddy with excitement and couldn’t wait to get onto the grounds.

 

 

 

 

We opted not to take the guided tour primarily because the self-guided tour provided the same access to the distillery and to be honest, the tour guides were only providing very basic information. I also wanted to move at my own pace and take my time. Before we started on the tour though we dropped into the cask store. This is where you can purchase Nikka’s single cask expressions as well as their key malts. Although they don’t state it explicitly these expressions appear to be available only at the distillery. You can call/fax in an order and have them shipped like I have done in the past but I have yet to see any for sale in any retail shop. You can check out what we thought about the single cask 5, 10, 15 and 25 as well as the Coffey Grain, Peaty and Salty and Woody and Vanillic.

 

 

 

 

Unfortunately for us they weren’t making any whisky that day so we weren’t able to see the distillery in action. We started off by taking a look around at the whisky museum. The museum is more of an over all show case of how whisky is made for visitors – not a functional part of the distillery. The expected pot still, spirit bank and cooperage tools were on display. There was a cool display to help explain the maturation of whisky. Three casks (unaged, 5 years old, and 15 years old were set up side by side, each with a clear section to see into the cask and flip up lid so you could smell the contents. But hands down the best part of the whisky museum was the tasting bar at the end. There you could purchase 15ml samples of pretty much every Nikka Whisky expression currently available and even a couple that aren’t anymore – think older Yoichi 20 Year Vintage series. I dove into a regular Yoichi 20 and then followed it up with a single cask Yoichi 20. The distillery visit could have ended there if I lacked a little more self-control, but I tore myself away from the bar to check out the rest of the sights.

 

 

 

 

 

Feeling a little more comfortable after sampling a couple of Yoichi malts we moved on to check out some of the storage buildings. These are decisively smaller than the massive facilities at Hakushu. Also, the casks are only stacked 2-3 high. There were only a couple of these storage facilities open to the public, so I am not sure if there are other larger facilities on the grounds.

 

 

 

 

We poked around to check out the kilning tower, milling house and tun room. Each was interesting but there was nothing all that remarkable about each of them. There was also a display set up to show the tools and explain what happens in the cooperage. Then we finally reached the still house where all seven of Yoichi’s direct fire pot stills reside. It was really cool to see that Nikka still uses the traditional direct coal fire method of heating the stills. The common practice for distilleries now is to use steam to heat there stills.

 

 

 

 

One of the last buildings of the tour told the story and history of Nikka Whisky. A narrative of Taketsuru’s experiences and journey towards establishing Nikka and the Yoichi distillery was displayed on large blue signs. There were also displays of older Nikka bottles as well as advertisements. And of course they displayed all of the awards that their whisky has won in international competitions.

 

 

 

 

With that the we headed to the formal tasting room. I was slightly disappointed with the options for sampling. An apple brandy – remember Nikka was originally founded as an apple juice company – and a straight forward Yoichi 10. I was hoping for something a little bit more interesting. After finishing up mine as well as my friend’s Yoichi 10, I passed on the brandy, we headed to the gift shop and then hopped back into the car back to Otaru to pick up some beer from the Otaru Beer company and then back to our hotel in Sapporo. Don’t worry I didn’t drive – I heeded the warning from the distillery.

 

 

 

 

The overall experience at Yoichi was a good one. Since this was my first visit to a distillery I didn’t really have much to compare it to though. It did seem to be reduced and simplified down quite a bit for the casual visitor. Almost like I was visiting the Disneyland of distilleries. I do plan on visiting again, hopefully in the winter to get a different perspective. I do have to say that I did enjoy seeing, feeling and experiencing where the whisky that I love to drink is made. Standing in the storage houses and taking in the smells really gave me a point of reference for all my future drams of Yoichi – and I am sure that there are plenty more to come! – Chris

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Nikka Yoichi 20y/o Vintage 1988

The 20 year Vintage expressions are an annual release and they relate to a specific year.  The one we are trying today is from whisky distilled in 1988, last year’s was from 1989 and this year’s is from 1990 (We’ll get to posting about those vintages eventually).   According to Nonjatta the releases used to be a lot smaller, ~500 bottles.  However, Nikka has upped the number of bottles available, 3500 for this release, probably in-part to the increase in popularity and demand.  Both of which are good things!

The Vintage 1987 is in part what put Nikka on the map internationally when it won the best single malt whisky for the 2008 Malt Whisky Awards (I tried this expression a couple of years ago, while a fabulous dram I didn’t think it was “that” good).  The 1987 sold out quickly, so when we caught wind that the 1988 was going to be released we made sure to reserve a bottle.  The expectations were high for this bottle so it had a lot to live up to!

Yoichi Vintage 1988 20 y/o 55% ABV
~19,999円/$250

Chris’ Impressions:

Color:  Light bronze orange

Nose:  Peat, light smoke, meaty, winter in Lake Tahoe with fire place smoke in the air, sandal wood, coastal saltiness.

Palate:  Smoke initially, drying, deep oak, dark fruits, slightly salty, lights up the tongue with some dark spices

Finish:  Long, dark fruit sweetness and salt

Comments:  This is some top notch stuff.  A complex twisting but beautifully weaved whisky.  There is a lot going on and you really have to sit with it for some time to take it all in.  It is also very unique – there aren’t really any other whiskies that have a similar flavor profile.  I wish we bought two bottles because this one is now empty.

Nate’s Impressions:

I sampled this as part of a blind tasting.  The other whiskies had been blends.  When I got to this one it did not take much to know that someone was trying to pull a fast one.  This whisky stands up and stands out.  Rose gold and amber, the color itself was warming.  The nose blew its cover revealing the single malt pedigree, and quite a distinctive one.  Peat, iodine, and salt tried to assert their places in the presence of a distinctive fresh-from-the-BBQ charred meat note.  And a ghostly trace of violet grappa appeared now and then.  A powerful yet mysterious nose that really took me in.  I might have been able to get more out of it but I needed to taste it, the lure was too strong.  Dark smoke paved the way for brown sugar and salted earth.  The smoke transformed into extinguishing embers.  Then some aged oak and a twisted take on a black pepper candy cane worked their way into the deep, darkening mix.  A tingling, a numbing, and in the course of a long finish I enjoyed a coating heat.  The finer attributes of age and how it can complicate and improve a whisky really stand out in the Nikka Yoichi 1988.  These were 20 years well spent.

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A Short History of Nikka Whisky

This is only a brief summary of the founding of Nikka whisky.  There are far more details and facts to this story but trying to write the entire history in a blog posting isn’t a very realistic task.  I do need to acknowledge Olive Checkland’s book Japanese Whisky, Scotch Blend for which most of the finer details and facts were derived from.  If you want to learn more about this story I suggest you give Checkland’s book a read, it is filled with great information.

The Beginning

Taketsuru Masataka was born in Takahara, Hiroshima Prefecture in 1894. He came from a long line of sake brewers, so he was introduced to the alcohol business at an early age. Taketsuru originally was training to be a chemist but then shifted courses when a brewing class was offered. Although he was not finished with his studies he was offered a position at the spirit company Settsu Shuzu by the owner Abe Kihei. What happened next was the start of the Japanese whisky industry.

In 1917 Abe decided that he wanted to send someone to Scotland to learn how to make genuine whisky. At the time, Japan wasn’t producing whisky but rather ersatz, a substitute/artificial spirit, as well as fortified wines. Fortunately for Taketsuru, he was chosen for the pioneering trip to Scotland to learn to make whisky. So in 1918 Taketsuru set off for  Scotland. With the ease of world travel these days it is difficult to fully appreciate the significance of making this trip. It was definitely not common for a Japanese national to travel all the way to Scotland. What made things even more challenging was that it appeared that Taketsuru had no concrete plan on how he was going to accomplish his task of learning to make whisky. But as we know now he succeeded.

To Scotland!

Taketsuru arrived in Glasgow in December 1918. He then headed north to Elgin in the Speyside region. What was more significant was that he was going to Elgin to meet J.A. Nettleton who wrote The Manufacture of Spirit as Conducted in the Distilleries of the United Kingdom, which is arguably the seminal book on whisky distillation.  Unfortunately for Taketsuru the fee to be tutored by Nettleton at the time was more than he could afford.  Instead Taketsuru headed to Longmorn where he was allowed to apprentice for five days.  At Longmorn Taketsuru was able to gain invaluable practical whisky making experience.  After that Taketsuru spent two weeks at the now closed grain distillery of Bo’ness.  Then last Taketsuru spent five months working at the Campbeltown distillery of Hazelburn.  It must also be noted that while immersing himself in whisky, Taketsuru met and ultimately married Rita Cowen.  The story of Taketsuru and Rita is an interesting and inspiring one.  There was a great article in the Japan Times about them.

Back to Japan

Taketsuru returned back to Japan at the end of 1920 and back to his employer Settsu Shuzu.  His experience in Scotland had changed him significantly and he was now determined to make authentic Scotch whisky.  Unfortunately this determination ran counter to Settsu Shuzu’s plans for him.  They wanted Taketsuru to continue making ersatz.  Frustrated, Taketsuru ultimately left Settsu Shuzu.

Suntory

Then in 1923 Taketsuru was asked by Torii Shinjiro  to come to his new whisky making company, Suntory, to help with establishing Japan’s first whisky distillery.  Taketsuru wanted the location of the distillery to be up in northern Japan in Hokkaido.  He believed that the climate and conditions were similar to Scotland and would produce the best results.  Torii on the other hand wanted the distillery in southern Japan at Yamazaki, close to Kyoto and that was were it was ultimately built.  Taketsuru spent several years helping to build the Yamazaki distillery and then working as the distillery manager.  Then in 1928 Suntory purchased a brewery in Yokohama.  It is not exactly clear why, but Taketsuru was sent to manage the beer company.  Slowly, Taketsuru was relieved of his duties at Yamazaki.  As a result, in 1934 Taketsuru left Suntory to go out on his own and start his own whisky company.

Nikka Whisky

Taketsuru was going to establish his distillery were he had always wanted to:  Hokkaido, specifically in the town of Yoichi.  The northern island had many attributes similar to climate of Scotland, including the cold winters.  There was  slight issue with setting up his whisky company.  Although, Taketsuru’s real motive was to start his own whisky distilling company, it would have been insulting to Torii to immediately do so.  So the original company established by Taketsuru was Dai Nihon Kaju Kabushiki Kaisha – The Great Japan Juice Company.  That’s right, Taketsuru started a juice company, specifically an apple juice company.  However, the company diversified into cider as well as apple brandy. It was later in 1952 that from Nihon Kaju the Nikka name we know now was born.

Taketsuru experienced significant difficulties with the business side of running the company.  Yoichi was difficult to access and it was not easy or cheap to transport products to the main island of Japan.  The company took fairly significant losses for the first several years.  Finally, in 1940 Nikka released its first whisky into the market.  From there the company began to flourish.  Surprisingly it, along with Suntory, did well during the war years – supplying the military with whisky.

Nikka continued to grow and expanded by building another distillery at Sendai – Miyagikyo and at Nishinomiya – a grain distillery.  Nikka has even expanded and completed the cycle for Taketsuru by returning to Scotland and purchasing the Ben Nevis distillery.  Nikka continues to grow even today by gaining more recognition outside of Japan as a serious whisky producer .  For the rest of this week we will share our impressions of some of this great whisky company’s expressions.  Thanks for reading!

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Nikka Woody and Vanillic

Oh the amount of sophomoric humor that we could launch into from the name of this malt…I will refrain however, in a more than likely futile attempt to maintain any semblance of dignity this blog might have.  Nikka is the second of Japan’s large distilleries that rivals Suntory.  And what has become an all too common theme, Nikka is not available in the United States at this time.  Nikka has two distilleries:  Yoichi (余市), located in the city of Yoichi on the northern island of Hokkaido and Miyagikyou (宮城峡)  in the northern part of the Japanese main island of Honshu.

Nikka Malts

Nikka has a  line up of Yoichi 12 year old whiskies that used to be called the Key Malt Series.  They have since been re-branded, but the names still carry over.  They are all aged for 12 years and impart different flavors.  Today I am siping on the Woody and Vanillic expression.   They do not provide too much information about the spirit, other than it is at least 12 years old and is bottled at 55%ABV.  Sorry the picture has a couple of the other expressions in it, I will review those shortly.

Color:  Dark amber

Nose:  Pears, sarsaparilla, apple juice, fairly heavy oak, vibrant and lively…something good is happening here.

Palate:  Really strong initially, the oak kicks in hard – but not over oaky for my tastes, a lot of malt, I think I taste where they get the vanilla from (might just be a placebo – will have to taste blind), mushroom/earthy tones, a little bit of salt in there too.

Finish:  Short, its like it evaporated but leaves traces of the oak,  mushrooms and the alcohol heat.

Comment:  The nose really set this up but the palate faltered some and the finish really let me down.  It could be so much more!  Decent dram.

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