The Distillery That Turned Apple Juice Into Japanese Whisky - Yoichi Distillery
Distillery Spotlight: Yoichi Distillery
Region: Yoichi, Shiribeshi Subprefecture, Hokkaido, Japan
Note: Our Distillery Spotlight articles discuss how each distillery's unique process results in the distinctive flavour profiles of their whisky. To find out more about each step of the whisky-making process, check out our Basics Series article on how to distil the elixir of life.
Japan’s whisky landscape is pretty much dominated by a handful of distilling giants, Suntory being the obvious one, and Nikka the other, which always seems to be mentioned as an afterthought. Yet they actually share very similar set ups, Nikka has its own set of distilleries, Yoichi and Miyagikyo, as well as its own blended expressions Nikka and Taketsuru, much akin to Suntory’s own Yamazaki, Hakushu and Hibiki.
While it is certainly true that Nikka has increasingly gained public acceptance as a good Japanese whisky staple that is more accessible and wallet friendly than what Suntory offers, somehow it always seems like Nikka remains the mysterious sibling that stands in Suntory’s shadow. Well there’s good reason for that as we’ll find out!
This is how you save on your marketing budget, just use the same label across the full range. (Image Source: Japanese-Whisky)
In a galaxy long, long ago…
Nikka was started by Masataka Taketsuru, a Japanese chemist who came from a family of Sake brewers, and had left Japan to study Chemistry in Glasgow, Scotland. This was in a bid to take the path less travelled and learn the art of whiskymaking.
Masataka Taketsuru and his Scottish wife, Rita (Image Source: Wikipedia)
Whilst there, his life unfolded much like an 80’s romcom. He had apprenticed in the Longmorn Distillery (now owned by Pernod Ricard, maker of Chivas blended whisky and Absolut vodka), fell in love and married a Scot by the name of Rita, and later sailed back to Japan in hopes of honing his craft.
Longmorn Distillery today. (Image Source: Whiskyphiles)
When he got back, he was hired by none other than Kotobukiya, better known as Suntory. Together they established the Yamazaki Distillery. You heard that right! Nikka’s founder was also the founder of Yamazaki. Told you they were pretty much twins.
A split in the road
As fate would have it, their first whisky, Suntory White Label, was a flop as its Scotch-style whisky was too rough for the Japanese palate that was more used to delicate and refined Sake and Shochu. Much like yet another stereotypical soap opera, Masataka parted ways with Kotobukiya as he remained a firm believer in developing a Scotch-styled whisky, while Kotobukiya wanted to adapt whiskies that would better fit the Japanese palate.
Suntory's earlier whiskies made under Masataka's watch did not fly off the shelves. (Image Source: The Japanese Bar)
Kotobukiya would go on to change its name to Suntory; and produce the much adored Kakubin that was light and refreshing, designed to be used in popular Highball cocktails.
Meanwhile, Masataka was to forge his own path…
A new dawn
Scotland had left a deep and fond imprint on Masataka, and hence he had sought to build his distillery somewhere remarkably similar. That place would be Hokkaido and the year would be 1934.
Located at the northernmost part of Japan's collection of islands, Hokkaido was actually one of the last to be developed. The incredible temperate weather to snowy winters, gorgeous scenery and bountiful abundance of natural resources made Hokkaido the perfect candidate for Masataka.
Hokkaido’s climate was very similar to the Scottish highlands, with cool and crisp clean air, was humid and had access to fresh water. As an added bonus, his Scottish wife had found herself right at home amidst the Hokkaido mountain ranges, where she spent her days golfing.
Masataka chose Hokkaido for its similarities to the Scottish Highland.
As maturation is a key process in whiskymaking, distilleries don’t simply churn out whisky right off the get go. As fast as whisky can be distilled, the years taken for the whisky to mature and achieve its optimal palate cannot be sped up, that is unless you happen to have a time machine.
Wait. Your title said something about turning apple juice into whiskies and now time machines? Where is this going?
Alright! Alright! I’m getting to it! Geez.
So while distillers wait for their whiskies to mature, they often produce other products to be sold in the interim (which is a number of years), for example gin, which need not be matured. However, Hokkaido is not just famous for skiing, seafood and the Yoichi Distillery, it also happens to be the first place in Japan to grow apples!
And so in 1934, Masataka had started the Dai Nippon Kaju or Great Japan Juice. This was subsequently followed by all manners of fruit products, from apple jellies, to apple sauce and even apple wine.
Many of Nikka's products today will spot an a(pple)-ffinity to a particular fruit, paying homage to Hokkaido and Masataka.
With apples as a front, Masataka was slowly assembling the Yoichi Distillery, having sourced pot stills from the same supplier used by Yamazaki Distillery.
However, this was a period fraught with hardship for the dreamy Masataka, with apple juice sales performing poorly and even spoiling due to shipment delays, as well as local unrest that threatened the distillery’s livelihood.
Turning Apple Juice to Whisky
After half a decade of struggling, Nikka was ready with its first whisky. It was through the first two syllables of the Dai Nippon Kaju that the name Nikka came about. Which is why I said apple juice was responsible for Nikka whiskies.
This could come at no better time, as Japan was facing shortages of Western-made whiskies due to Japan’s accelerating war efforts. This stirred domestic demand for local whiskies, which mean Nikka was gaining exposure.
Yet, little did Masataka know that the distillery was about to undergo its hardest challenge: World War II.
During the war, Yoichi was appointed a key supplier for the Imperial Japanese Navy, which entitled the distillery to barley rations. And as the war ravaged on, Masataka could only do his best to protect the whiskies maturing in the storehouses. This proved to be a worthy effort as Nikka’s whiskies had become fully matured by the end of the war and was now ready to be sold.
Fast forward to post-war and Nikka had now undergone some reshuffling that meant that it was now part of the Asahi Group (as in Asahi beer) and was now officially known as Nikka Whisky. This provided Nikka much needed resources to continue perfecting its whiskies. Even today, Nikka Whisky continues to be part of the Asahi family.
And that kids, is how Nikka Whisky came to be, and is also why you’ll curiously see many links to apples in Nikka’s products.
So what does Yoichi taste like?
Given that Masataka was willing to go it alone when Suntory did not continue to produce his vision of the perfect whisky (the Scotch style), it’s safe to say Yoichi’s whiskies are going to be pretty similar to old school Scotch.
One of the most traditions held most dear to Masataka was the use of direct coal-fired distillation, which he had observed and learnt to use in Longmorn Distillery. Today, this practice has mostly disappeared due to the difficulties in controlling the resulting temperature across long periods of distillation.
As far as I am aware, the only distillery who will incorporate direct-firing of stills is none other than Chichibu Distillery in their new second distillery. Speaking on the benefits of using this practice, Ichiro mentions to Whisky Magazine, “It’s a very traditional way, and this, I suspect, will have the biggest impact on the character of the spirit. I am expecting a more robust, more complex spirit.”
While not the most environmentally friendly, it is this practice that is responsible for Yoichi’s strong aromas and toasty burnt flavors.
Being close to the sea has also allowed sea breezes to fill the airs in which Yoichi’s whiskies are produced and matured, giving the malt a briny hint of sea spray.
Overall, Yoichi’s distinctive style is one of a rich, peaty, masculine malt with strong toasty aromas, just the way Masataka likes it.
With Yoichi you’d expect the following notes:
- Gold (Young)
- Mahogany (Older)
- Smokey, Sea Spray Briny-ness
- Citrus Zest (Orange, Lemon, Grapefruit)
- Liquorice Bitterness, Cacao Nibs
- Spices of Nutmeg, Ginger, Woody Oak
- Fruity (Ripened Red Apples, Peaches)
- Light Floral Touches (Carnations, Plumeria, Jasmine, Honey)
- Strong, Thick Body, Light Oily-ness
- Peat Smoke, Ashy
- Sweet Fruits (Apples, Melons, Kiwis, Peaches)
- Nutty Bitter Notes (Almond, Walnut), Herbal (Older Bottles)
- Bittersweet Cacao Nibs and Liquorice
- Chilli (Bird’s Eye Chilli)
- Long Firm Finish
- Rich, Thick Texture
- Peaty Herbaceous Bitter Aftertaste
- Light Sea Salt Flakes and Dark Chocolate
Old school Scotch fans will fawn for Yoichi, it is very similar to Laphroaig, Lagavulin and more vintage Glenfiddich and Ardbeg. This comes down mostly to the distillery keeping its very traditional style of whiskymaking which ironically, doesn’t exist much in Scotland anymore. It is almost like a blast to the past if you’re interested in tasting how Scotch used to be made in the 60s and 70s.
Old Nikka bottles share a very familiar shape to another early Japanese whisky don't you think? (Image Source: Whisky Auctioneer)
That said don’t fret if this is not for you, we must admit it can be fairly inaccessible to palates just starting out and is not the easiest to drink if you’re mostly used to more delicate lighter flavors. While it is Japanese whiskey, it is nothing like the likes of Hibiki. You must remember that at heart it is very much the Scottish Highlands.
For those who like something heavier or have tried the suite of Japanese whiskies and want something different and of great heritage, this is definitely one to try to broaden your realm of what the country has to offer. If you like barbequed meats, burgers, roast pigs, coffee, dark chocolate, curries and the wok-hey hawker foods provide, this might just the right whisky for you!
A bottle of Yoichi would go great with this plate of char kway teow. (Image Source: Eat What Tonight)
It’s a great malt that has stayed very true to its history and focuses on what their founder envisages as the perfect whisky.
A great entry point to Yoichi’s whiskies are their flavor sets that come in a set of three, including 1. Woody & Vanillic, 2. Sherry & Sweet, and 3. Peaty & Salty.
(Image Source: Nomunication)
They’ve also injected some fun and have a whole series of different wood-finished Yoichi’s to try.
But that said, Yoichi prices have steadily climb since they were overwhelmed with such strong demand and had to cut many beloved expressions in the core range. So if you can find one in the wild, well what are you waiting for? Grab it!
Entry Level: Yoichi Single Malt NAS, Taketsuru NAS, Yoichi Set (Woody & Vanillic, Sherry & Sweet, Peaty & Salty)
Moderate: Yoichi 10 Year Old, Yoichi Apple Brandy Wood Finish, Yoichi Bourbon Wood Finish
Top Shelf: Yoichi 15 Year Old, Yoichi Rum Wood Finish, Yoichi Sherry Wood Finish