Yoichi is a small coastal town located in the bottom part of Shakotan peninsula in western Hokkaido and is about 30 minutes by car from Otaru. The area is noted for its fruit production, especially apples. In addition, it offers the ideal climate at the right latitude for whisky production.
When I was in Hokkaido with my family, we visited the Nikka Whisky distillery in Yoichi. It didn’t take much convincing as my dad and sister are always up for wine/whisky/sake tasting!
The guided tours were only in Japanese, so we explored the grounds of the distillery on our own. We were surrounded by tall green trees and it felt like we were in someone’s private (and enormous) garden!
There was enough information in English to help us understand what we were looking at as we wandered from hut to hut. In particular, I enjoyed the visit to the whisky museum which narrates the story behind the distillery and its founder, Masataka Taketsuru, who is regarded as the father of Japanese whisky.
Before visiting the Nikka Whisky Yoichi Distillery, I had no idea the role that its founder had played in the Japanese whisky industry. Taketsuru had studied whisky making techniques in Scotland, which was also where he met his wife, Jessie Roberta “Rita” Cowan. His dream was to build a distillery in Japan that would produce whisky comparable to what was made in Scotland. Before founding Yoichi Distillery in 1934, he worked a few years for Kotobukiya – which was to become Suntory – and was instrumental in setting up Japan’s first whisky plant, the Yamazaki Distillery near Kyoto in the early 1920s.
Another highlight of our visit was the whisky tasting. We got to try three different whisky, and the servings were quite generous! You can also sample some Yoichi apple juice – did you know that the company first started out producing apple juice and apple brandy in the 1930s? If you are driving, you are advised to drink with caution and to identify yourself with a brightly colored sticker. Since I was the designated driver for the afternoon, I had (several) sips of each whisky plus a big glass of apple juice.
We were spoilt for choice in the souvenir shop. I wish that I could have bought several bottles of Nikka whisky. Alas, luggage space was a constraint. So I settled for two small bottles (180ml each).
Now that I’ll be returning to Hokkaido, including Otaru, this summer, I might stop by the Yoichi Distillery. I’ve also made notes to check out whisky distilleries on Honshu island such as the one in Yamazaki that Taketsuru helped to set up.
Recommendations and tips on sampling whisky in Japanese will be much welcomed. For instance, if you know of a beautiful Art Deco bar serving great whisky or one with exceptional views, please drop me a line.
P.S. I was tickled to see an advertisement for Nikka Whisky with a young Rod Stewart and a busty blonde woman in a low-cut dress at the museum. How cliche! This reminded me of Bill Murray’s character in Lost in Translation filming a TV advertisement for Suntory where he was asked to imitate Roger Moore in James Bond. The other 007, Sean Connery, had in fact worked on Suntory TV spots back in 1992.