The Hokkaido locals are very proud of Nikka Whisky. Everywhere you go, you can buy bottles of it. When you walk on the street of Sapporo, you’ll see a striking giant neon light of a Scotsman in traditional garb–he’s the mascot of Nikka, not Nikka himself. In fact Nikka is founded by a Japanese man.
The history of Nikka Whisky is interesting so I’ll delve a bit into it first because talking about my experience at the distillery. TAKETSURU Masataka was born into a sake-brewing family in 1894 in Hiroshima. Hiroshima, which is at the southern part of Japan, is far from Hokkaido (which is the north, like Jon Snow’s North). Why did Taketsuru leave his family and establish a distillery so far away?
Long answer: he, a chemist, went to University of Glasgow in 1918 and became the first Japanese to study the art of making whisky. In 1920, he married a white woman, Jessie Roberta Cowan, much to the displeasure of both sides of the family.
In the same year, he returned to Japan to work for Kotobukiya, which would later become *DRUM ROLL* the mega corporation Suntory. At Kotobukiya, he was pivotal in helping set up a whisky distillery.
Eventually, in 1934, he set up his first own whisky distillery at Yoichi, Hokkaido where it still stands. Although the area was rather ulu then, he considered it the ideal site for making whisky because the conditions are similar to the Scottish town where he had studied.
In 1940, the first batch of whisky went on the market.
So here we are at the Nikka Whisky Distillery at Yoichi Hokkaido (7-6 Kurokawa-cho, Yoichi-cho, Yoichi-gun,Hokkaido 046-0003, Tel : +81 135 23 3131).
For a whisky aficionado like myself, it is really a great treat! But, for non Whisky drinkers, be warned: There is nothing much to see. There are a few outdoor buildings (bring your raincoats or umbrella in case it rains) that show the process of whisky making.
Yoichi still uses the traditional method of direct heating distillation, that is hardly used today even in Scotland. As a result, this distillery produces–I quote from its website–“rich, peaty and masculine malt.”
There are also tours in Japanese from 9a.m. to 3.30 p.m every half-hourly. No tours in English, but we can tour the place ourselves, guided by a pamphlet (9am-5pm). I really wish there is an English tour so that I get to understand the process and gain some knowledge. When I was there, it felt I was only sightseeing without learning and having an appreciation of the brewing process.
After the tour or before (nobody is going to police your movement), you can get three shots of FREE WHISKY! That day, we were treated to Taketsuru Pure Malt, which is a blended malt that is gentle and well-balanced; Super Nikka, produced since 1962, which is too peaty for me; and Apple Wine, very easy to drink and could add soda to make it more fun.
If you happen to be driving for your Hokkaido trip, I recommend this place as a pit-stop between Niseko and Otaru. (Please have a designated driver.) I really enjoyed this visit, but I can understand that non-whisky drinkers may not. But really, how many tourist attractions are there that allow free tours and provide free alcoholic beverages?
You may be interested in…
–What to Eat at Niseko Hokkaido
–Hilton Niseko Village Review, Hokkaido: Naked in Nature! Wild Wild Wet!
–Michelin Bib Gourmand Ramen in Hokkaido: Ippontei 一本亭 at Lake Toya and Ramen Shingetsu ラーメン 信月 at Sapporo
–Asari しゃぶしゃぶあさり, Hakodate Hokkaido: Sukiyaki Chef-Owner Says, “I Want to Open a Shop in Singapore!”
Written by Dr. A. Nathanael Ho.