The story of Japanese whisky, and how Scottish tradition inspired it

Known as the ‘father of Japanese whisky’, Masataka Taketsuru mastered the whisky-making craft in Scotland before introducing this rich heritage to his homeland. The distilleries he founded are custodians of age-old traditions.

Direct coal-fired distillation, once a common practice in Scotland, has disappeared from the northern country in favour of efficiency. Yet, the Yoichi Distillery still employs this traditional technique, with the high temperatures involved allowing for a distinctively toasty single malt.

Photograph by Nikka WhiskyNational
By Brad Japhe
Published 30 Jun 2022, 10:00 BST

Red-tinted, pagoda-style rooftops stretch skyward atop stone buildings at the Yoichi Distillery, on Japan’s island of Hokkaido. Between the 90-year-old edifices, rows of carefully manicured greenery punctuate the serenity of the grounds. But it’s what’s inside these walls that deserves most attention — the crafting of whisky with long-standing ties to Scottish traditions.

Here, in 1934, Masataka Taketsuru founded the first of two distilleries that would introduce Scotch traditions to the country. Born to a family of sake brewers, the businessman’s devotion to time-honoured Scottish techniques dates back to the two years he spent living in the UK, studying organic chemistry at the University of Glasgow and apprenticing at three distilleries.

Upon his return to Japan, Taketsuru sought to recreate the liquid gold he so admired. Microclimates played a big role in the process, as did the chosen distillation techniques. Decades after his passing, whisky making at Yoichi continues to adhere to his vision.

“Yoichi Distillery is located less than a mile from the coast,” says its chief blender Hiromi Ozaki, “and the sea breeze from Ishikari Bay delivers a briny hint to the whisky.” It’s a description that will ring familiar to lovers of the fuller-bodied malts of Scotland's Hebridean islands.

So will the methods of production. Direct coal-fired distillation was a common practice in Scotland when Taketsuru was a student there, and while the process has all but disappeared from the northern country, at Yoichi the flame still burns. The high temperatures involved mean the wash inside the pot stills is lightly burned, which allows for a distinctively toasty single malt — a distillate that arguably remains more loyal to traditional Scotch than many modern Scottish blends.

The Nikka Museum at Yoichi Distillery, open for visitors, underwent an extensive expansion in 2021.

Photograph by Nikka Whisky

Miyagikyo Distillery was purpose-built in 1969 near Sendai, the capital city of Miyagi Prefecture, to add a wider variety of malt whiskies to his toolkit. Sitting in a glen at the confluence of two rivers, Miyagikyo’s grandiose, red-brick building contrasts with a backdrop of rolling, green hills. “Everything from its location to the shape of its pot stills and heating method were designed to contrast with Yoichi Distillery,” says Ozaki.

While in the UK, Taketsuru learned to distil grain using a piece of equipment named after Irish distiller Aeneas Coffey. It was considered a relic of the previous century, even at the time, but Taketsuru found it added robust flavours and aromas. These so-called Coffey stills, now a main feature of Miyagikyo Distillery, continue to be the key to a bold, rich distillate.

What both distilleries have in common is moderate humidity. “It saves evaporation — the angel’s share [whisky lost through the barrel to evaporation] at both distilleries is 2% annually, which is almost the same as Scotland,” Ozaki says. “In turn, this allows for slower maturation, which adds depth and complexity to whisky.”

That’s not to say Taketsuru didn't keep up with the times. Ever a disciplined craftsman, he was also driven by curiosity and open-mindedness. “His philosophy has been passed on to every craftsman at Nikka Whisky,” Ozaki says. “We stay true to tradition but pursue innovation to deliver more excitement to spirits lovers around the world.”

Plan your trip

Yoichi Distillery, part of Nikka Whisky, is open to visitors. An hour’s drive west of Sapporo city, the distillery’s buildings have been listed as Tangible Cultural Properties (structures with a high historic, artistic or academic value) by the Japanese government and house a whisky museum, which underwent an extensive expansion in 2021; a tasting bar; and a distillery shop.

Nikka Whisky sells a wide range. Single malt connoisseurs should try the Yoichi and Miyagikyo distilleries’ namesake offerings, while cocktail-lovers will find much to enjoy in the Nikka Coffey series. A highlight of the brand is Nikka Whisky From The Barrel, which was named the World’s Best Whisky by the Whisky Advocate Magazine in 2018.

For more information, visit nikka.com

Published in Issue 16 (summer 2022) of Food by National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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