Trip to Yoichi: Birthplace of Nikka Whisky

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.

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You know when a town is crazy about whisky when they start selling these

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.

Giant stills which are heated by direct coal fire

Giant stills which are heated by direct coal fire

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.

Yoichi's ageing warehouses

Yoichi’s ageing warehouses

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.

Yoichi Decade Malts

Yoichi Decade Malts

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.

Yoichi's free sampling area

Yoichi’s free sampling area

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

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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.

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Glenlivet Nadurra 16 Cask Strength

Sweet! individually hand-wrapped

Sweet! individually hand-wrapped

My first cask-strength whisky that I bought and I drank. Cask-strength whiskies are a different monster altogether. Most cask-strength whiskies are bottled over 50% abv and the Glenlivet Nadurra 16 is no exception.

I remembered asking my friend to help me get it at Changi DFS on his way back from a trip a year ago. It was quite value for money(around $70+ at that time) and I was looking for a higher abv whisky because I was curious to whether it would just kill my taste buds or might it actually taste good.

I revisited this whisky today after a few months break and I’m glad to say that it still packed a punch similar to when I had my very first sip.

Aged 16 years in first-fill ex-bourbon cask and bottled at natural cask strength, meaning no water was added to the whisky to dilute it, the Nadurra (natural in Gaelic) is truly a taste to behold. My bottle was also peppered with little snippets of information such as Batch No. 0712U, bottled at 55.5% abv on 07/12. Apart from the decent packaging, the whisky bottle itself came hand-wrapped in a nice waxed-paper with the George & J.G.Smith Logo.

It is also non-chill filtered, allowing the whisky to retain a fuller body and richer texture by retaining more natural oils from the casks. Normally, whiskies are chill-filtered to prevent them from turning cloudy under low temperatures or when ice is added. Should you want to experiment, place a small glass of Nadurra in the fridge and you will see what I mean.

Now for the tasting.

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Colour: Rich golden honey

Nose: The first whiff brings a distinctive note of oak and vanilla that is reminiscence of bourbon. Really sweet and strong alcohol. Follows with a floral and nutty aroma with a slight hint of apples.

Palate: Upfront vanilla and butterscotch, really chewy and luscious if that can be a word to describe whisky. Moves on to a malty-cereal backbone and finally a burst of tangy green fruits. Pears and green apples.

Finish: Long long finish, at first bitter almond, oak and strong hazelnut. After 3 minutes, the bitterness dissipated and eased onto macadamia, especially when I moved my tongue around my mouth (not kidding here). At the 5 minute mark, something odd. I started tasting raisins.

A truly exceptional dram, unforgettable. If this has to be your first cask-strength whisky, I’d say go for it, all out. The Nadurra is also bottled at a lower 48% abv and sold at Changi DFS for those who prefer something lighter. But why bother when the real deal is right here.

Cheers!

Johnnie Walker Blue Label

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This as you can see right here, is the iconic Johnnie Walker Blue Label, the 4.5L cannon version. However, what we tried today isn’t current. This version of the JW Blue is quite old, but it is still very, very good. The JW Blue Label is the premium, top-of-the-line offering by Johnnie Walker, however it is a NAS. (No age statement)

A little bit about NAS. Quite controversial as traditionally, scotch is sold according to how old is. Example being the 12, 15, 18 and 21. But, that does not mean all NAS whiskies are bad. NAS whiskies allows the master blender more freedom to achieve consistency and quality in order to get the same product every single time a la Johnnie Walker Blue Label. Sometimes, it can be even better than the equivalent 12 or 15. (Hakushu Master Distiller’s Edition is better than 12, my personal opinion) . However, do be cautious as nowadays many distilleries are churning out NAS whiskies to sell more as they do not have stock to keep up with the demand of their traditional age statement whiskies thus not all are as great and consistent as the venerable Blue Label.

Johnnie Walker claims their Blue Label is the smoothest blended whisky ever made. Using a recipe dating back to the 19th Century and utilizing rare casks from distilleries, current and past (only 1 in 10000 casks makes the cut). We should find out if it really is the legend of a whisky (blended).

Credits to my friend, Benedict who supplied this bottle while at his place. Do admire the collection behind this bottle, for there are numerous cognacs and whiskies which I will hopefully get to drink someday. Sigh, my first world problems.

Now, to the tasting!

Appearance: Golden amber liquid. Oily, thick and viscous. Coats the glass thoroughly.

Nose: Huge initial burst of vanilla, oak and some smoke. Creamy and Buttery. Wild Floral Honey and Orange Marmalade. A final touch of smokey peat and it ends.

Mouth: Smooth. Very smooth. I can imagine why people would down this willingly in the club. Can I fault it for being too smooth? Honey followed by light floral undertones, and a slight sherried sweetness. A touch of chewy toffee and raisins. Eases subtlety to reveal an enjoyable smoke and peat background. Conceived with balance and executed perfectly.

TL:DR, A really really smooth and very enjoyable whisky. The focus of it is still on the smoothness and drink-ability. Not the complexity or layers of flavors, but it has enough to keep you more than satisfied. A 85/100 because of how it is simply enjoyable. No fuss at all. Price-wise, you’ll have to decide for yourself, a decent 1.0L bottle goes for $237 in Changi DFS.

Cheers!

Dalwhinnie 15

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The Dalwhinnie 15. Dalwhinnie distillery has the highest elevation of any distillery in Scotland. Situated 354m above sea level in an area where the average temperature does not pass 16 C and -2 C. It is owned by beverage giant, Diageo and marketed as part of the Classic Malts range. It is known as the Gentle Dram and rightfully so. A Highland malt with a Lowland personality and a touch of Islay. It uses the local spring water during the making of the whisky but does not process its own malt.

I bought this in Changi DFS back from my trip to Bali for a whooping SGD$91.40. I had a hard time choosing between Dalwhinnie 15 and the Scapa 16. The Scapa and Oban, in its slick looking hard tin packaging was right there staring me in the eye to buy it back rather than the Dalwhinnie 15 in its cruddy old box. The box still disturbs me to this day when I hold it and goes soft and flaplike a cardboard box in the monsoon season. When I returned home, I downed a glass of my sad, sad purchase alongside a Stella Artois before crashing in for the night. Luckily, it did not turn out to be as bad as I’d imagined when I revisited it again with Jo. Though the box…that box… Let’s move on.

I personally prefer Lowland malts as they bring a crisp and refreshing palate. Most of the common aromas associated with the Lowlands are fresh cut grass, meadows of heather or flowers and fruit orchards. The sweetness is something else. Not so cloyingly sweet as a sherry-cask matured whisky but good enough to satisfy the sweet tooth, somewhat like the honey aloe-vera liang-teh . Its like stepping into the countryside without the travelling and getting to sample all the fine fruits in the orchards. Another really good example is the Glenkinichie 12 which I will touch upon another day.

Now, to the tasting!

Appearance: Light Golden, similar to Hay. Quite thick and clings but returns quickly.

Nose: Mainly Honey, a Tinge of Oak, Very Aromatic and Creamy. Heather is very prominent. Floods your senses with them fruity smelling benzenes. Reveals raisins, nectarines and apricots. Some custard, caramel and ends with some smoke.

Mouth: Long initial. Creamy Honey and Heather. Like drinking thick nectar with a nutty touch of hazelnuts or walnuts.  Moves quickly to the fruits ( I am guessing nectarines and apricots), vanilla and a spicy touch of cardamoms. Ends long in smoke, heather and some spice.

TL:DR, A fine whisky. To me, this is an 8.5/10. Sweet and approachable. Does not rush you and ends well. A whisky for Lowland lovers who likes the occasional peat and an excellent introductory single-malt to people used to drinking only blends. You should buy this if you want to experience a Highland malt with a Lowland character that comes with enough peat to keep you satisfied.

Cheers!