Masataka Taketsuru. Does that name ring a bell? Maybe you might have heard of Taketsuru before, that famous line of whisky from Nikka. Japanese whisky is currently dominated by two giants, Nikka and Suntory. How then does Masataka Taketsuru fit into this picture? He was the pioneer and the father of Japanese whisky. And did I mentioned, in his quest for the perfect scotch, he left for Scotland as a young man, working in many distilleries to gain the experience needed to start his own distillery in Japan.
Yoichi, nestled in the easterly region of Hokkaido, Japan’s second largest and most northern of the four main island. Its climate was what Masataka Taketsuru felt most comparable to Scotland. My trip to Yoichi Distillery started off in Sapporo, getting to Yoichi was a scenic 30 minutes ride on JR to Otaru, a seaside Japanese town famed for many sushi restaurants. At Otaru, I took a smaller transfer train to Yoichi which was just a 15 minutes ride through mountains and thick forest.
Upon arrival, you immediately know that Yoichi is only dedicated to one thing, and one thing only. Whisky. I remembered that I went on a Wednesday and was surprised by the number of people who visited the distillery. At the main entrance, a kind staff told me that the tour would be self-guided and she handed me a map in English which listed the various places of interest. I was kind of disappointed because I expected the distillery tour to be one that you can actually the entire process of making whisky and the distillery workers in action. Seems like the whole setup is a bit too commercialized and they were just trying to pack as many visitors as possible.
The distillery tour only allowed us to see the whisky making process behind glass panels and barricades. In my personal opinion, the most interest portion of the tour are the giant copper stills that are heated by direct coal fire where the distillery workers must shovel coal into the furnace every now and then.
You are also allowed to visit the aging warehouse, Mashing room, Tun house, blending room and Masataka’s former house. After which you are directed to a museum dedicated to the life of Masataka Taketsuru.
Born to a third-generation Sake brewing family, Masataka was expected to follow in his father’s footsteps. However, he grew fond of the scottish tipple. Before starting Yoichi distillery, he worked for Kotobukiya, the predecessor of Suntory. The President of Kotobukiya at that time sent Masataka packing to Scotland to learn the fine art of scotch-making. During that time, most of the scotch drunk in Japan were poor quality imitations coloured to look like the real thing. The year was 1918, Masataka enrolled in the University of Glasgow and took up lodgings with a local Scottish family. Legend goes that at a Christmas party, Masataka pulled a sixpence from the christmas pudding, foretelling a bright future. His future wife, Rita Cowan pulled a ring which hinted at a future they would have together.
At the Yoichi museum, every corner will be peppered with little stories about the life of Masataka and Rita. You can imagine the parental and cultural objections they faced as a couple back then. Even so, when Masataka returned to Japan, Rita followed and supported her husband wholeheartedly. The testament to how much Rita played a part in helping Masataka and Nikka could be seen in the many buildings honorably named after her in Yoichi.
The Museum also has a paid tasting bar which offers more exotic whiskies compared to the free sampling bar down the road. Of the samples(all 15 ml) I tried, I had the Nikka 1980s(1500 yen), 1990s(700 yen) and 2000s(300 yen) which comprised of malts from that decade and all bottled in 2015. (e.g. the 1980s would contain malts from 1980-1989 meaning the malts are from 35-26 years old). The 1980s and 2000s are my definite pick, the 1990s was a bit of a letdown as they overdid the sherry on that one. I also wanted to try the Taketsuru 25 and the Yoichi Single Cask but the kind bartender told me that Yoichi is currently facing a shortage of stock. It seems that the whole of Japan is caught up in Massan(how Masataka is affectionately called) fever after NHK aired a drama about Masataka and Rita’s life. From August, Yochi will stop selling age-statement Yoichi and Miyagikyo whiskies to allow stocks to replenish.
Opposite the museum is the Single Cask Shop which used to sell Yoichi whisky straight from the cask. However, the shortage of stock means that this shop will be indefinitely closed till further notice. Shame.
On to the free sampling area, a massive two storey hall with a heck load of tour buses packed outside. Here, you can try the Yochi 10 years old, Nikka apple brandy and Nikka blended whisky all for free. They also offer free Oolong tea and apple juice for the teetotalers out there. Skip right to the Yochi 10, thats the one you’ll want.
At the distillery store, the human traffic there is just madness. Long snaking lines with every one from young guys to old grandmas snapping up every whisky they can find on the shelves. They are all out of Yoichi 10 years to 20 years and Taketsuru 17 and 21. The only distillery edition bottles your left with are the 2000s, 1990s, 1980s and Yoichi 12 Peaty/Salty and Sherry/Sweet. Even for the bottles still on the shelves, not all are available in the larger sizes of 500ml, the 1990s is and Peaty/Salty are only available as 180ml bottles. The distillery store also sells some Yoichi souvenirs like coasters and whisky-infused confectionery and pastries. But I say to hell with that, I WANT my whiskies!
I left the store with six heavy bottles and a lighter wallet. Had a fantastic lunch at the seafood market near the train station. Now if there’s something else you gotta try in Yoich besides whisky, ask for the Yoichi-caught Uni rice bowl at the fish market. I guess it wasn’t such a wasted trip after all
On a side note, I applaud Nikka for being forthcoming in the discontinuation of the age-statement Single Malts. I guess there really care about preserving the quality of their product that they chose to forgo selling extra stock right in the middle of a whisky fever. Keep up the good work, hopefully we’ll get to taste more of that lovely dram in the future.
Please read this Nonjatta article for the exact bottlings which are going to be discontinued here.