So…I actually made this trip in the summer of last year, but just never got around to writing anything about it. Nikka Whisky products are not available in the US at this time, so if you are not familiar with it we wrote a quick history about it here. Bear with me as I give a narrative of my trip to Yoichi. I really am not much of a story teller, but I’ll try my best.
I have a hard time describing Nikka Whisky sometimes…I don’t want to say that it is Japan’s second whisky producer or Japan’s other one either as both of those terms imply that it comes in second or is not up to par. And that is definitely not the case. So the best that I could come up with is this lengthy and long winded explanation” Nikka Whisky and Suntory are the two largest and most recognizable whisky producers in Japan. I guess that will have to work for now.
It is no secret that I thoroughly enjoy and delight in the whisky produced by Nikka. So for some time I have wanted to make a trip out to Yoichi. Yoichi is Nikka’s first and most prominent distillery. Be warned that a visit to Yoichi requires some planning even if you are visiting Japan. Since you usually fly into Narita, Haneda or Kansai it is a significant undertaking to get to Yoichi. Yoichi is a city located on the west coast of Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido. With some help I planned my visit to Yoichi several months in advance. This required booking airline tickets, a rental car and a hotel – if I was going that far, I was going to stay for more than one day. Also, lucky for me, my friend from Tokyo was able to take a couple of days off to travel with me.
My flight was leaving out of Haneda airport, and to get the most out of my time in Hokkaido my plane departed at 8:30am. Unfortunately for me from where I was staying it would take over an hour to get to the airport by train. This meant I had to catch the 6:30am train and wake up even earlier. But it is amazing how easy it is to wake up when you are leaving for a trip like this.
The train ride to Haneda was fairly uneventful and I arrived with plenty of time to meet up with my friend, grab a bite to eat and meander over to the gate. I looked out of the window and was surprised to see that we were taking a 747. Keep in mind that this was only an hour and a half flight. To my further surprise the plane was completely full.
We landed in Sapporo on time then jumped a shuttle to go pick up our rental car – a cool little compact hatch back with 4-wheel drive. We hopped into the car and set out to Yoichi. About half way through the hour trip we decided to take a pit stop for lunch at the port city of Otaru. Hokkaido is really known for its sea food and Otaru was supposed to have some of the best. Otaru is a bit of a tourist attraction itself, so it was pretty packed. After wondering through the city for awhile and taking a quick peak at the local brewery we settled on a restaurant. My belly and I were elated with the decision to stop to eat. See pictures:
After getting temporary satisfaction from solid food it was time to continue the quest for liquid satisfaction – so back on the road to Yoichi! The rest of the drive out wound us through several small towns and along the coast. Then finally we arrived at the distillery. I had seen many pictures of the distillery before so I immediately recognized the stone walls and red roof tops. I admit I was giddy with excitement and couldn’t wait to get onto the grounds.
We opted not to take the guided tour primarily because the self-guided tour provided the same access to the distillery and to be honest, the tour guides were only providing very basic information. I also wanted to move at my own pace and take my time. Before we started on the tour though we dropped into the cask store. This is where you can purchase Nikka’s single cask expressions as well as their key malts. Although they don’t state it explicitly these expressions appear to be available only at the distillery. You can call/fax in an order and have them shipped like I have done in the past but I have yet to see any for sale in any retail shop. You can check out what we thought about the single cask 5, 10, 15 and 25 as well as the Coffey Grain, Peaty and Salty and Woody and Vanillic.
Unfortunately for us they weren’t making any whisky that day so we weren’t able to see the distillery in action. We started off by taking a look around at the whisky museum. The museum is more of an over all show case of how whisky is made for visitors – not a functional part of the distillery. The expected pot still, spirit bank and cooperage tools were on display. There was a cool display to help explain the maturation of whisky. Three casks (unaged, 5 years old, and 15 years old were set up side by side, each with a clear section to see into the cask and flip up lid so you could smell the contents. But hands down the best part of the whisky museum was the tasting bar at the end. There you could purchase 15ml samples of pretty much every Nikka Whisky expression currently available and even a couple that aren’t anymore – think older Yoichi 20 Year Vintage series. I dove into a regular Yoichi 20 and then followed it up with a single cask Yoichi 20. The distillery visit could have ended there if I lacked a little more self-control, but I tore myself away from the bar to check out the rest of the sights.
Feeling a little more comfortable after sampling a couple of Yoichi malts we moved on to check out some of the storage buildings. These are decisively smaller than the massive facilities at Hakushu. Also, the casks are only stacked 2-3 high. There were only a couple of these storage facilities open to the public, so I am not sure if there are other larger facilities on the grounds.
We poked around to check out the kilning tower, milling house and tun room. Each was interesting but there was nothing all that remarkable about each of them. There was also a display set up to show the tools and explain what happens in the cooperage. Then we finally reached the still house where all seven of Yoichi’s direct fire pot stills reside. It was really cool to see that Nikka still uses the traditional direct coal fire method of heating the stills. The common practice for distilleries now is to use steam to heat there stills.
One of the last buildings of the tour told the story and history of Nikka Whisky. A narrative of Taketsuru’s experiences and journey towards establishing Nikka and the Yoichi distillery was displayed on large blue signs. There were also displays of older Nikka bottles as well as advertisements. And of course they displayed all of the awards that their whisky has won in international competitions.
With that the we headed to the formal tasting room. I was slightly disappointed with the options for sampling. An apple brandy – remember Nikka was originally founded as an apple juice company – and a straight forward Yoichi 10. I was hoping for something a little bit more interesting. After finishing up mine as well as my friend’s Yoichi 10, I passed on the brandy, we headed to the gift shop and then hopped back into the car back to Otaru to pick up some beer from the Otaru Beer company and then back to our hotel in Sapporo. Don’t worry I didn’t drive – I heeded the warning from the distillery.
The overall experience at Yoichi was a good one. Since this was my first visit to a distillery I didn’t really have much to compare it to though. It did seem to be reduced and simplified down quite a bit for the casual visitor. Almost like I was visiting the Disneyland of distilleries. I do plan on visiting again, hopefully in the winter to get a different perspective. I do have to say that I did enjoy seeing, feeling and experiencing where the whisky that I love to drink is made. Standing in the storage houses and taking in the smells really gave me a point of reference for all my future drams of Yoichi – and I am sure that there are plenty more to come! – Chris