THE BIRTH OF NIKKA YOICHI JAPANESE WHISKY
NIKKA WHISKY DISTILLERY, YOICHI HOKKAIDO JAPAN
Back in 1920 Yoichi was a northern town not quite on the coast and of seemingly little importance to mainland Japan. Where most see nothing though, sometimes one will see opportunity. Today Nikka is recognized by whisky connoisseurs for both its rising stature as a producer of one of the world’s finest whiskies and as a producer with deep roots connecting the Northern island of Japan to the Scottish Isles. How this came to be is the remarkable story of how luck, self-belief and an artisan’s vision melded together to create an extraordinary success story. This is Masataka Tetsuru‘s story which is also the story of the birth of Japanese whisky.
The father of Japanese whisky was not born with the olfactory sensory gifts one may associate with a producer of exceptional tastes- this would come about later in his life and by chance. At the age of 8 he fell down the stairs, breaking his nose. The injury required seven stitches but once healed, had left Masataka with a heightened olfactory sense. A random act of the universe had given him a new sensory skill that would alter his life course in an extraordinary way.
Born in 1894 as the third son of a Hiroshima saké brewer, Masataka became well-versed in devotion and energy required to operate the family sake business. While studying at Osaka Technical School (now Osaka University) under Dr. Sentara Tsuboi he took a course in zymurgy – a branch of chemistry that deals with fermentation processes, as in brewing. Masataka’s gaze slowly drifted away from the more traditional sake and into the new and excting market for western-style drinks before being drafted.
It was an interest he shared with Settsu Shuzu, a liquor company with big dreams including producing the first Japanese whisky. Introduced to Settsu Shuzu President Kihei Abe by a school alumunus they hired Masataka. Since the secrets of great Scotch were not something to be found within Japan – in 1918 the company sent Masataka overseas to gain this knowledge at the Glasgow Royal Institute of Technology. Studious and fully engaged he was meticulous in his note-taking. Following university study Masataka completed his mission with on the job training in the art of whisky blending and distilling. It was these notes that would eventually become the blueprint for the future of whisky making for all of Japan. A detailed and enjoyable visual display of all historical records – both written and photographic – is available for viewing in the Nikka Distillery Museum in Yoichi.
MEETING RITA COWAN
Masataka Taketsuru had come to Scotland to study the art of whisky-making, majoring in chemistry at Glasgow University before becoming an apprentice at Longmorn Distillery in Speyside and later at Hazelburn Distillery in Campbeltown. In 1919 Masataka took up lodging in the village of Kirkintilloch, Scotland where he crossed paths with a local girl named Rita Cowan. Rita was a sensitive soul, enchanted by poetry yet with the strength of character that one is forced to develop in the rugged Northern climate of Scotland. Their mutual attraction grew through socializing and playing music together. Masataka was invited to spend Christmas dinner with the Cowan family. The meal ended with the serving of a traditional Christmas pudding that held fortune-telling gems within its moist-cake exterior. In Masataka’s slice of cake was a six pence coin, a symbol of a prosperous future. Rita received a silver thimble indicating she would soon become a bride. Within a year they were engaged though her family objected to her marrying Masataka. Unperturbed, Masataka and Rita married in a simple ceremony at the local registry office. It was a love story of two souls born at distance but bonded by a common thread. Together they cast aside family resistance and set forth on an improbable journey that would change one culture forever. Despite not speaking a word of Japanese and her poor health the pair left Liverpool by ship for Japan in 1920.
LIFE AFTER THE WAR
Upon arriving Rita launched herself into Japanese culture speaking only Japanese and following local traditions, but her life was to change for the worse during World War Two. Kept under surveillance as an enemy alien she was unable to move about freely. According to Urs Matthias Zachmann, head of Asian Studies at the University of Edinburgh “Their house was searched because they had an antenna on the rooftop and the special police thought that she might be a spy, contacting British or Russian forces. Rita endured and soon enough the Yoichi distillery began to prosper as Japanese consumers’ demanded for genuine whisky grew as a result of a wartime import ban. Rita died at the age of 63 in 1961 but her legacy as the pillar of strength that allowed a single-minded artisan’s dream to bloom lives on. Today the main street in Yoichi is named Rita Road.
BIRTH OF OF JAPANESE WHISKY
YAMAZAKI DISTILLERY, OSAKA
His stay in Scotland had taught Masataka the secrets of making whisky successfully however, during the two years since Masataka departed to Scotland the Japanese economy had fallen into recession. Financial hardships weakened Settsu Shuzu leaving their ambitious plans for branching out into whisky in the dust. His position within the company now weakened, Masataka left the company. In the in term he taught applied chemistry at a junior high school while Rita helped support Masataka by teaching the piano and English to friends made through at church.
In 1923 Kotobukiya Company sent a letter to Scotland requesting for an expert in distilling whisky to be sent to their Kyoto-based headquarters. The letter received a reply: “that person is already in Japan – His name is Masataka Taketsuru”. Soon after a visit from the President Masataka received an offer from Kotobukiya, a company which would later evolve into modern liquor giant Suntory and Japan’s first malt whisky producer. Its President, Mr. Shinjiro Torii set forth plans to produce a Scottish style of whisky with a unique Japanese flavor. Masataka was tasked with finding a site on which to build Japan’s first whisky plant. Yoichi was his recommended choice but it was over ruled by the President. Instead, Yamazaki – located between Osaka and Kyoto – was chosen for the obvious financial benefits of being closer to the larger cities. Naturally this did not sit well with Masataka given his artisan approach to whisky production that placed a higher value on quality than convenience or financial gains. Having grown in a family sake business such values were perhaps difficult to displace.
A second source of friction arose when the idea of fusing Scottish traditions to Japanese taste rubbed the puritanical tendencies of Taketsuru the wrong way. He preferred to remain consistently faithful to the Scottish techniques he had studied in detail and was particularly unimpressed by the imitation liquors that dominated the current Japanese market. Although the financial results of the Yamazaki Distillery proved it was a success , the philosophical rift between Mr. Torii and Masataka had soon made their partnership untenable. Masataka left the Yamazaki Whisky Distillery with the ambition to begin his own whisky production in Yoichi. It was time to pursue his dream uninhibited.
BIRTH OF NIKKA DISTILLERY
Yoichi was a world away from the bustling urban city of Kyoto. Based on the northernmost main island of Japan, Hokkaido, it offered a much more isolated way of life. Living conditions were secondary for Masataka though as he saw Yoichi as the perfect location to build a distillery given its climate and geography. Yoichi is a small eponymous coastal city benefiting from a variable and humid climate. Yoichi is located 50km west of Sapporo, and is well known for its snow festival. As Masataka had identified earlier in his career, Yoichi was ideal site for the construction of his dream. It was to be a distillery built in the purest Scottish tradition with slower heating coal-fired stills. The local peat bogs would be the original source of Yoichi’s subtle smoky notes which, combined with the wisping sea air imprints an identifiable original character on Masataka Taketsuru’s whiskies. Hokkaido spring water is also exceptionally pure and imparts both purity and sensuous texture distilled and brewed beverages.
“He chose Yoichi because it looked a lot like Scotland, felt like Scotland and the temperature was much the same as here.”
COLIN ROSS, BEN NEVIS DISTILLERY
In 1934, Masataka established the Great Nippon Juice Company together with investment from acquaintances Yasue Yanagisawa, Matahiro Shibakawa and Shotaro Kaga. Normally two pot stills are required for distilling whisky but, due to a lack of funds, the first whisky produced by Masataka came from just one pot still. While the whisky matured the company survived the lean times by producing and selling apple jellies, juices and wines.
The inaugural vintage of Nikka whisky arrived six years after it began in 1940. Over time Japanese consumers began to develop a taste for the authentic and high quality taste of Nikka Whisky. The company first began to use the name Nikka Whisky in 1952. Combining NI-ppon and KA-ju. Its growing success allowed Nikka to establish a second distillery in 1969 on the main island of Honshu.
STEEPED IN TRADITION
To this day, the distillation process has remained very traditional. At Yoichi, the pot stills continue to be heated by coal fire, a practice which even the Scottish Whiskey makers have since given up as it is more challenging to control. Coal-fired stills supply very strong direct heat that slightly burns the contents resting on the bottom of the still. Controlled effectively it can give a whisky a powerful, even spicy character. The small onion-shaped stills have relatively straight sides, which combined with a descending neck, allows heavier elements to pass into the spirit. This unique attribute gives the Yoichi whisky a richness and unctuous texture and further definition of its style.
A SPECIAL TASTE
The success of any whisky is of course not in its history but in its tasting. Nestled among the buildings devoted to the various stages of whisky production on the Yoichi site, are several spots where the famous drink can be sampled. The most frequented of these would doubtless be the free taster bar, situated above the restaurant. This large sunny room offers a view over the surrounding landscape while providing visitors with a choice of whiskies, apple wine and juice.
However, to really sample Nikka’s finest, it is worth stopping at the museum bar. It is here that shots can be purchased of the more specialised blends and malts. Nikka whisky has a strong peaty scent and a flavour that resembles the Islay malts of Scotland such as Lagavulin or Laphroaig. For those who appreciate the smokey taste, the first stop at this bar should be the ‘Peaty and Salty’ single malt. There are also the rarer ‘single cask’ malts available which consist not only of a single year, but are also drawn from a single barrel. Since every barrel lends a slightly different flavour to the drink, each single cask malt has its own unique flavour.
For a connoisseur the umbrella term “Japanese Whisky” does a disservice to Yoichi Whisky because it remains the only whisky with the soul a traditional Single Malt. Here we refer to a taste that goes beyond descriptions such as delicious, refined and pure. Yoichi whisky tells a story of a place and time – and a rich tradition with roots that run deep into the annals of human endeavour – that words alone cannot do just. In a twisted piece of justice it only seems fair that the only place to taste the very best Yoichi whisky is – Yoichi. It is a long way from major population cities in a country a long way from most others. But for the whisky connoisseur it ought to be a definitive stopover on their journey to experiencing the world’s great whiskies.
VERY RARE WHISKY FROM YOICHI DISTILLERY
25 YEAR OLD SINGLE MALT
25 year old single malt that is a never-ending deep bass note of marzipan, apricots & amber caramel lightly kissed by whispering smoke. A texture so velvety smooth one could be tempted to draw parallels to a ChevalBlanc 1990. A succulent finish of bitter orange dipped in salt caramel completed the experience.
On the right a 1980’s blend – representing each year of the decade. This is a miraculous savoury circus act that somehow maintains perfect balance throughout. Concentrated brown sugar nose gives way to a palate of remarkable grace & finesse. As you fall through the endless waves of unfolding butterscotch, dried fruit & smoke a barely distinguishable acidity refreshes and nudges your palate forward towards Valhalla. Only 6000 bottles made. Available only at Nikka Yoichi Distillery
The distinctive tasting Single Cask Malts are not easily found outside the Yoichi distillery whereas whiskies with the Nikka label have a more uniform tastel. Smaller volume bottles of these whiskies are available to purchase in limited quantities (1 or 2 botttles).
In the summer season more of the buildings involved in the total whisky production are open although the museum, bar, restaurant and gift shop are open year round. The museum contains information both in Japanese and English and the restaurant serves decent food at a reasonable price. Aside from the Distillery the town of Yoichi has the appearance of one is steep decline with many vacant stores and shops lining the main street. With this in mind consider planning for lunch a few stops away in Otaru where many restaurants and its famous fish market await a few blocks away from Otaru Station.
7-6 Kurokawa-cho, Yoichi-cho, Yoichi-gun, Hokkaido 046-0003
Opening hours : 10:00 ~ 17：00
Holidays : New Year (25th Dec ~ 7th Jan), factory & extra holidays
Massan, an upcoming TV series by Japanese national broadcaster NHK, will portray the life of Masataka and Rita, the couple who introduced whisky to Japan.