S6E1 - Yoichi Distillery

A brand new series kicks off with a slightly different style of episode, we start with a documentary piece on Stu's trip to the Yoichi distillery in Japan in November last year. This is followed by a tasting of the Single Malt Yoichi Whisky, and a comparison to the distillery exclusive "Peaty & Salty" expression.

As always, we score the whisky for the Dramier League table, and play some Japanese music to go with the Japanese whisky. Have a listen to the episode on all good podcast apps, and here:

The music played on the episode can be found in this Spotify playlist:

...and here is a transcript of the documentary element of this episode:

I travelled to Japan with my wife in November 2018 to explore the incredible culture and cost some Japanese distilleries to find out more about the whiskies which I had grown to love from the Far East. We landed in Tokyo, and spent 4 crazy days wondering around a city of non stop lights and noise from all angles, it’s crazy, exciting and intimidating.

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We fell in love with it but felt completely exhausted after days of exploring and jet lag, so it was a welcome relief to catch a flight to Hokkaido - the most northern of Japan’s main islands. Japan is an island of extreme’s, technology juxtoposed with tradition, temples next to skyscrapers, innovation crossed with historic attitudes, and these competing extremes are reflected in the difference between a manic and buzzing Tokyo, compared to the quiet and serene Hokkaido. This calm island with landscape reminiscent of parts of Scotland, is where we would find Nikka’s Yoichi distillery, nestled in a small town on the west coast of Hokkaido.

The Yoichi distillery is located by the sea in the small town of Yoichi in Hokkaido, which has distinctly Scottish feel, and the island even has its own peat from the nearby Ishikari valley.

The distillery is beautiful, the .leach of the indivdual parts of the distillery are housed in traditional Japanese buildings looking like Pagodas and surrounded by fields, trees and gardens. It is here we found out about the fascinating character of Masataka Taketsuru, his loyal wife Rita, and their labour of love at the Yoichi distillery.

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Masataka Taketsuru was 19 when he moved to Scotland to learn about the craft of creating scotch whisky. He spent 18 months in Scotland - working at 3 distilleries in that time and painstakingly documenting the process of distilling and maturing whisky, but perhaps just as significantly met the love of his life, Rita Cowan. After her fiancé died in world war 1, Takestsuru was a chance of a different life and new world. Taketsuru offered to stay in Glasgow with Rita, but knowing his passion was in Japan, Rita insisted they move to Japan - against the best wishes of her family. So Taketsuru and Rita returned to Japan, complete with an in depth knowledge of making that spirit we all know and love... whisky

The Japanese whisky industry has two major players, Suntory created by Shinjiro Torii (the last two syllables of company and founder being the same is no coincidence)... and Nikka founded by the aforementioned Masataka Taketsuru. However, Taketsuru started his career working for Suntory and helping to set up Japan’s first ever whisky distillery, Yamazaki, in 1923. Taketsuru left to set up his own distillery in Yoichi in 1933 due to “creative differences”, and Nikka was born. This may not have been possible were it not for the influence of his Scottish wife, Rita, once again. She was instrumental (quite literally) in raising the funds to set up the Yoichi distillery, as she taught Piano in Kyoto to the children of the eventual wealthy investors of the distillery.

The distillery may be a trek to get to, but once you’re there you are rewarded with free entry to the distillery, as you make your way around each building at your own pace. One of the most fascinating sights is not far from the entrance, where the distillery workers are shovelling coal into their coal fired pot stills, a traditional method which we believe is now unique to the distillery, as all other distilleries worldwide have moved onto more modern methods. `insert sound of coal shovelling` The skill required to keep the still at the correct temperature using a coal fire is a difficult one to master. The reward for doing so though, is a extra element of flavour which is now unique to Yoichi and Nikka. The coal fire give variations in temperatures and hot spots, which gives additional roasted flavours. But the skill is to stop it from burning.

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The distillery also has a small warehouse, fascinating museum, and whisky bar complete with an opportunity to buy a dram of many hard to find expressions of Japanese whisky. Unfortunately for me, I was the designated driver due to an “admin error” in my wife’s international drivers permit... note to anyone visiting Japan who is planning to drive ... make sure you get the drivers permit in the UK before you go, and make sure they’ve stamped the right bloody things on it! We were close to resorting to my wife driving me to the distillery on the back of a motorbike... which in fairness, may appeal to some of you out there! Perhaps the only disappointing part of the distillery tour was the tasting at the end. This is perhaps due to the fact it is completely free ... which is remarkable in fairness so I shouldn’t complain... but the opportunity to pay for some more interesting expressions with someone to talk you through the tasting would have been welcome. You have to resort to the pricey whisky bar if you want to geek out! The gift shop has some interesting distillery only versions of the Yoichi single malt, including a sherried version, and the “peaty and salty” version I picked up. These are much sought after given you can only get them at the distillery and I can highly recommend them.

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We finished our tour reflecting on the incredible impact of Rita Cowan on this distillery and her husband. Growing up in an age where women could easily take a back seat, it’s fascinating to hear how important Rita was to the success of Nikka, and how much she sacrificed for the ambitions of her husband. 

Rita’s story is so popular, that there has even been a recent fictionalised soap opera of her relationship with Taketsuru, broadcast on Japan’s main TV station, called asadora. Many fans of Rita make an annual pilgrimage to the distillery to pay their respects. 

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So there it is. Yoichi distillery. A place that has a fascinating story, of love, loyalty, ambition and tradition. Given my love of whisky, it was worth the ambitious long trip to the far north of Japan to experience it, and I encourage any Japanese whisky fan out there to do the same if you get the opportunity. Surrounded by serenity in Hokkaido, it is a truly unique experience. We raise a glass to Masataka Taketsuru, and his inspirational Scottish wife, Rita Cowan.