The reason I went to Sapporo was because it was near the home of Nikka‘s first whiskey distillery.
You must excuse me as I write this, but I may interchangeably refer to Nikka’s whiskey as scotch. Obviously it isn’t “scotch” not having been aged in Scotland for 3 years and one day, however it would appear at least some peat comes from Scotland, so… they’re not messing around. Ultimately, when it comes down to it, “whiskey” has a pretty broad range of flavors, and calling it scotch helps narrow it down, because, well, Nikka’s whiskey tastes like scotch.
On my way there it became quickly apparent that things were going to be even closer to what seems like home. Shores were rocky, the sky was mostly cloudy, with just hints of blue coming through. Arriving at the station also told me that this was not a big place. Yoichi is a fairly small town, with the tallest buildings being the bookstore and the “Phachinko” place, both of which were on the street coming off the train station.
About 200 meters, directly in front of the station, beyond those two buildings on the sides, the street Y’ed. At the Y, on the other side of the street, under a clearing of sky, I saw what I was looking for.
I signed in, acquired my map and informational packet (what I would do to have a portable scanner) and began my exploration. Immediately after emerging from the reception, you see the stack of 5 barrels to your right, and to your left, a flag pole, and the proper sign.
Oddly enough, the first building you really see, is not the first step of your tour. Just as you pass through the arched portal, the five barrels sit in front of the kilning tower, which is the first step in making whiskey. Stepping back for a moment or three, and I do mean literally, to the left behind you lies the guide lobby/waiting room. This houses some of the information and history you will encounter through the facility, as well as some examples of what they make, have made, or won awards for.
From here, rather than the actual locational order, I think I’ll go by production order, since they don’t quite line up.
The kilning tower is where the malted barley is introduced to the peat by means of what amounts to smoking. The barley is up above, and is dried with the smoke from the burning peat below.
Once I moved beyond this building and the distillery, a distinct aroma came about, carried on the slow air currents. The entire facility smelled faintly of scotch, some areas stronger than others, but as long as you were outside… It was wonderful.
Next up, the milling and mash buildings are just beyond the kilning tower, presuming you ignore the building almost immediately to the left of the kilning tower.
Here the malt is crushed up, mixed with water to get enzymes making sugar from the starch, and then yeast is added to break the sugar in the wort into our good friend C2H6O. For the fans of beer, this all probably sounds quite familiar, because it is pretty much how one makes beer, minus the hops.
Walking backwards, we go to step four: distillation. Here the redolence is the strongest, likely the source of the scotch smell. It didn’t look as though much was occurring at the kilning towers, but the distilling building was quite busy.
The double distilling process used at Nikka transforms the 7%, yellowish, peat smoked barley ‘beer’ into a clear and nearly transparent 60ish% alcohol. While I was there, the technician saw I was taking pictures, and while doing some temperature control on still number one, stood aside and let me get some pretty pictures of fire, which was really nice of him.
It should be noted, double distilling isn’t the only route, for instance Irish styles use triple distilling, but the Scottish method is double.
Okay, we’ve now distilled a 60-70% alcohol. Were this many other kinds of alcohol, now you would add water until it was about 40-50% maybe add some natural or artificial flavors and call it good. For whiskey, it’s about time to build some barrels.
Nikka’s main barrel guy is apparently recognized as one of the world’s 15 best, so they have that going for them. Really briefly, you start out with probably oak. Cut that into planks, warm them, bend them, and then carefully shave the sides to ensure they will mesh with the next plank. The rings are setup, and planks are carefully selected to match one another.
An important, but perhaps not obvious step is inserting reeds. Reeds are driven between each plank which prevent leakage. I guess that’s kind of important.
Once everything is in place, the inside is flame treated giving it a nice charring. It is from the char that the alcohol acquires the flavors of the barrel. Pour in the whiskey, cap it off and now you have a beautiful newborn whiskey barrel. Good to go!
I then visited the open part of the former residence of the founders of Nikka, saw some of the garden and local crops used for various things Nikka makes, and then realizing my time was growing short due to my lingering about, I decided to skip the free tastings, and ran into the museum where they had special tastings.
Here I decided to actually try the whiskey I had previously purchased in Kyoto (the Miagikyo 12 year single malt, seen on the right), for only slightly more than they would have charged me, but I also tried something incredibly special.
For those unfamiliar, non-gimmick whiskey has about 3-4 major types with a few subtypes, two of which are quite rare. If you want more info, here’s wiki.
Blended whiskey is the cheap stuff, this will be quite common and is usually quite consistent bottle to bottle year to year, this can be a mix of malt and grain whiskey and almost always comes from multiple distilleries. These can be quite aged, but often if you’re buying blended, you aren’t buying aged. They’re not by definition bad, but they typically aren’t that that good.
Single Malt is whiskey all made from a single batch of malt, barreled at the same time from the same distillery. Multiple casks are opened, sampled, and mixed together and diluted down to 40-50% alcohol providing a well balanced whiskey that exemplifies that distillery’s flavors for that year’s batch. Sometimes you will see “cask strength,” this simply means there was no dilution, and it is likely to be at about 60% alcohol.
Single Cask/Barrel is where things get interesting. Here no dilution occurs, and no mixing, even within the batch occurs. Flavors can vary wildly between barrels and so bottles are marked with the barrel’s identification. These are typically quite rare, and basically something you will only ever taste the one time.
I had a taste (I think it was 15mL) of a Yoichi 25 year-old single cask whiskey. It cost 900 yen (a fair 300 yen markup from the bottle yen/mL), which is remarkably cheap for what it is.
It was quite amazing. Had I not already purchased some “scotch” and become frustrated with the difficulties in getting it home, I would have purchased one of the 25 single casks, which only come in 500mL bottles, but they are ~57% alcohol… and $250 is steep enough.
Nikka only sells the single cask bottles directly from their distilleries, so it’s not something I could even go to Canadia for and then pay double. Nope, this is clearly on the list of “Next time.” Unless I still have money and get one in Scotland at the end of this insane adventure.
The bar was also pretty pretty.
After that – after the barley is malted, and the malt is smoked, and that turned to wort that is then fermented, and the distillation poured into a barrel for years of aging, after I drank that 25 year-old whiskey – after that, it’s just a love story.*
Masataka Taketsuru was born to a family already quite familiar with alcohol, as they had for about 150 years been making sake in Hiroshima, however it would seem this was not enough for him. He wanted to create a whiskey industry in Japan.
In 1918 he would go to Scotland to study chemistry and secret away knowledge of the Scottish whiskey making process. He did so simply by working at many distilleries during his time abroad. It seemed as secretive as the process may have been kept, people were taken by his passion and allowed him to learn their ways.
It seemed his ambition and passion was infectious, and soon despite objections from both families a more traditional romance blossomed with the Scottish born Jessie Roberta “Rita” Cowan. Their passions and then goals aligned. In the autumn they were married, and in 1920 moved to Japan (via New York and Seattle) to attempt this crazy dream.
Fourteen years would pass before that dream would come to fruition. After returning in 1920 Masataka was asked to join a company that was interested in making whiskey. During this time he would return to Scotland to refresh and gain more knowledge. However he was convinced Yoichi was the ideal, and at the time possibly only location to make Scottish style whiskey due to the similar environment. The president of the company he worked at disagreed. There was a falling out, Rita and Masataka would go their own way.
In 1934 they established Great Nippon Juice Company, short on money they could afford only a single pot still, making it a bit difficult. During the aging process the company would sell apple jellies, juices, wines, and ketchup. Six years later, the first whiskey left the distillery, the entire staff saw it off.
As time went on, whiskey became more popular in Japan allowing expansion. Nikka would eventually build a second distillery to the south on the main island Honshu in a fairly remote town called Miyagikyo. Thanks to two people and one crazy dream, the Japanese whiskey industry now wins awards the world over.
They now rest together on a hill which reminded them of one from Rita’s home town.
After leaving Nikka, I wondered around Yoichi a bit more, but as it was after 5PM, everything was closed. There’s some sort of space museum as well as two bridges just a few blocks apart which cross a river leading out to the ocean. On my way back to the train station I also saw a playground that, I can’t help but think, I’ve seen somewhere else.
*With apologies to Neal Stephenson