With the arrival of Western spirits into Japan following the Iwakura trade mission of 1872, began an obsession with whisky. It started off in the laboratories, where chemist would attempt to imitate the single malts of Scotland, leading to a young chemist named Masataka Taketsuru to be sent to Glasgow University to study chemistry. Following apprenticeships at Hazelburn and Longmorn, as well as a marriage to Scottish native Rita Cowan. A move back to Japan beckoned, where Taketsuru was hired by Shinjoro Torii of Kotobukiya distillery to head up Japan’s first dedicated whisky distillery, Yamazaki. After a decade working together, Taketusur left to found his own distillery, Nikka.
Nikka has two distilleries in Japan: Miyagiko, the first distillery, located in Hunshu, west of Sendai, which was chosen for the quality of water where the Nikkawa and Hirose rivers meet; and Yoichi, on the northern island of Hokkaido, which Taketsuru felt had conditions similar to those found in Scotland. Nikka produce both grain and malt whiskies using both column and pot stills. While most distillation takes place at Miyagiko, Yoichi is a prominent part of the Nikka brand where heated malts are made using their coal-fired pot stills.
Nikka comprises two distilleries: Miyagikyo in the northeast of the main island of Honshu, and Yoichi on the north island of Hokkaido. Both employ pot still and column still distillation, with the latter specifically using the patent Coffey still. Likewise, both distilleries distil malted barley and grain, producing from them a range of whiskies, vodka and gin—the latter flavoured with typical Japanese botanicals such as shiso and yuzu. Drawing on the traditional knowledge of distillation that Taketsuru gathered from his time in Scotland with cutting edge technology, Nikka whiskies offer something novice and connoisseurs alike.
Miyagikyo: The first of Nikka’s two malt distilleries lies in northeast of Honshu, around 45 minutes west of Sendai. The location was originally chosen because of the fresh water available where the Nikkawa and Hirose rivers meet. Here, whisky is made from both grain and malt – the latter usually unpeated, but medium and heavily peated malts are made occasionally. The intention with the Miyagikyo was to produce spirits that exhibited a lightness of touch. While the main stills are of a similar design to those used at Longmorn, there are also Glasgow-designed Coffey stills that produce three different grain spirits: corn, corn/barley mix, and an all malt distillate. These are rich, amazingly balanced, and delicious. Their single malts are relatively peachy, with a distinct oiliness, light raisin and a touch of citrus.
Yoichi: Most of Japan’s whisky production is spread out across mainland Honshu, with clear and speedy routes into Tokyo. Yoichi, however, is on the northern island Hokkaido. Why build a distillery this far north? Taketsuru felt is was the perfect confluence of access to high quality ingredients and, even more importantly, a reliable source of high quality water. In 1934 he and Rita headed north to fulfil his dream which, in 1940, turned out as a heavily peated whisky that most would not consider “Japanese.” Yoichi is unusual in that the wash stills are fired by coal, which takes great skill to control the flame to ensure continuity. The whiskies produced here are peated, with a tongue-coating oiliness; starting off sweet in youth, building to leather, linseed oil and smoke. Although by no means a copy, there is a sense of Campbeltown there.
Nikka Blends: Utilising the malt and grain produced between the two sites, Nikka’s blends offer the malt drinker an entry point into the world they rejected. Nikka From The Barrel shows what is possible in blending, with punchy fruit up front that dries into a kind of mossy character on the palate. Nikka Super, on the other hand, is light, clean and citrusy. A new addition to the export portfolio, Nikka Days, takes the style of Super but adds a subtle peat element, thus blending together the two classic Nikka styles.