Despite my Scottish heritage Scotch is not my drop. Pure malt? Blend? As blasphemous as this will sound to the connoisseur my taste buds wouldn’t tell the difference. Which is a pity given that during my recent visit to Hokkaido I was fortunate enough to visit the famous and picturesque Nikka Distillery – renowned for its world-award-winning pure malt – in Yoichi. The founding of Nikka has a love story to go with it too, currently the subject of the romantic TV drama series Massan on NHK (Nippon Hoso Kyokai – Japan Broadcasting Corporation), so in “famous destination”-crazy Japan that’s the perfect combination for a hot tourist spot.
The 1930s-era distillery sits in manicured grounds.
The Shinto gods keep a watchful eye on the distilling whisky.
The distillery was set up in 1934 by Masataka Taketsuru, the third son of a sake brewer, who abandoned his predestined path to study western beverages. In a serendipitous combination of timing and fate this fitted into the vision of a Japanese liquor company looking to start producing a Japanese whisky. They hired Taketsuru and sent him to study at the University of Glasgow. There he boarded with a local family – with a daughter. Takesuru married Jessie (Rita) Roberta Cowan and the couple returned to Japan. Because of the difficult financial times Takesuru had to leave his original company, joining what was later to become Suntory to set up the Yamazaki Distillery in Osaka Prefecture to produce a Japanese malt whisky.
But Takesusu, with Rita as his invaluable helpmate, had a dream to stay true to the Scottish whisky tradition and found in Yoichi Prefecture the perfect combination of climate and clear water to achieve his goal. To create an additional income stream while his whisky was being developed he established the Dai Nippon Kaju Company – the Big Japan Juice Company – including apple juice from the abundant local orchards on the product list. Nikka was derived from Ni and ka.
Nikka Whisky has gone on to garner high international acclaim including a World’ s Best award for its Taketsuru 17 Year Old Pure Malt in 2012 at the World Whiskies Awards hosted by Paragraph Publishing, publishers of British specialty magazine Whisky Magazine. In further acknowledgement of Masataka Taketsuru’s legacy, earlier this month whisky expert Jim Murray awarded 97.5 marks out of 100 to a single malt from the distillery Taketsuru set up for Suntory at Yamazaki. The score recorded by the Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013 equalled the record for this category. As the Guardian newspaper said “Scottish drinkers could be forgiven for crying into their drams”.
Native Hokkaido miniature apples.
From mighty oaks…
..whisky barrels are made.
The Yoichi Nikka Distillery sits in charming, manicured gardens amid pines, oaks (handy for making casks), native Hokkaido apples and numerous other tree and shrub varieties – and a parking lot full of tour buses. Visitors are introduced to the distilling process and a museum tells the story of both the whisky’s development and the life story of the cherished founders. Generous provision is made for product tasting.
Outside Masataka and Rita’s cottage in the distillery grounds.
Masataka Taketsuru surveys his empire.
It seemed fitting that featuring on NHK television the evening of my visit was an episode of Massan, starring American actress Charlotte Kate Fox as the heroine, Massan being Rita’s nickname for her husband. Perhaps SBS could be coaxed into buying it – if they can muster sufficient funds after paying their “efficiency dividend”. I reckon one particular Japanese whisky company would be a certain advertiser!