Japanese whisky

Nikka’s Hokkaido distillery is the temple of Japanese whisky. However fascinating, the brand is lost in a time-warp

Hokkaido is the crystal jewel in Japan’s crown. I confess it’s one of my favourite parts of the country.

Besides winter sports, flowers (Furano & Makkari) and of course food in abundance, Hokkaido is home to one of Japan’s first whisky distilleries. Established in 1934, Nikka whisky is produced in Yoichi, a small town to the west of Otaru, a fishing and ferry port.

Japanese alcohol
Nikka whisky distillery, Yoichi, Hokkaido, Japan

Nikka’s founder, Masataka Taketsuru, chose the location as there is an abundance of pure water; Yoichi is similar to Scotland, he said. 

Japanese whisky history

Nikka’s production follows Scottish methods. Masataka learnt his trade in Scotland, and married a Scottish lady, Rika.

Early in February I joined a free one-hour tour of the distillery. Tours were fully booked and culminated in a tasting of 3 different whiskies.

The distillery is unusually old. This may seem a strange statement but most buildings in Japan are built to last only 40 years or so.

The production process does not appear to have changed over time. There is a kilning tower to dry the barley, distillation takes place in pot stills, which are still coal heated incidentally. The tour guide claimed only coal gives the highest heat. The whisky is double distilled to increase concentration.

Nikka’s production process

Warehousing is done in casks. 

“You make good casks, I’ll make good whisky,” said the founder to the barrel cooper. 

Japanese whisky casks

Each cask contains around 500kg however around half evaporates during storage, intoned the guide.

Then there was the tasting room. It was a 1970s rewind with old advertising, posters and decor. Japanese whisky is booming yet Nikka is hung over in a 70s time warp, I thought.

The brand logo reminds me of Henry VIII. I am not sure whether this is intentional. Perhaps some readers who are more knowledgable can correct me?

Nikka whisky logo

Nikka was acquired by Asahi beer back in 1954. This was long before Japanese whisky developed a strong international following. Asahi used to report sales for its liquors separately but no longer does so.

Nikka advertising reel

I have a feeling that Nikka is a brand urgently needing some tender, love and care. It has everything that appeals to sophisticated aficionados : provenance, authenticity and heritage.

I am also wondering if the ‘King of Blenders’ tag is suitable. I am not a whisky expert but in my opinion pure malts are better than blends. Is this tag devaluing the brand?

The distillery had a factory shop too. There were a few items which are not sold elsewhere which I bought to savour the memory.

Japanese whisky exclusive products

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: