Japanese whisky’s popularity has soared in recent years, thanks to numerous awards, an increase of global awareness and a steady release of quality products.
Among the major whisky players in Japan, Nikka manages to continuously pick up international awards for their whisky products and distillery management skills.
On our last trip to Japan, Malaysia Tatler paid a visit to Nikka’s Miyagikyo distillery in Sendai to learn about award-winning techniques and whiskies. Here’s what we took away after taking the tour:
1. Nikka’s Founder Is The Father Of Japanese Whisky
Born in 1894 into a family of fine sake producers, Masataka Taketsuru chose to instead dedicate his life to making whisky. He travelled to Scotland in 1918 to pursue his dreams.
Taketsuru studied chemistry at the University of Glasgow and apprenticed at distilleries to learn whisky making first hand, later marrying a Scottish lady named Rita and returning to Japan after two years. He would join Kotobukiya Limited (which would then turn into drinks giant Suntory) three years after his return, tasked to build the Yamazaki distillery and produce Japan’s first authentic whisky.
He left a decade later to find the Dainipponkaju company in 1934, which would later change to The Nikka Whisky Distilling Co. At this new company, Nikka whisky was born and Taketsuru would spend his life pursuing the art of whisky making.
Sounds like a story that demands a TV drama doesn't it? Well, apparently the Japanese thought so too.
2. Whisky Is A Part Of Japanese Culture
At the beginning of the tour, our bubbly guide showed us a video that included a short clip of Massan, a popular daily morning drama series broadcasted by Japanese national public network NHK from September 2014 until March 2015.
The fictional TV series was based on the lives of Taketsuru and his wife Rita. The couple played an important role in the industry and are celebrated for their contributions to Japanese whisky.
Whisky news alert: rare Macallan collection sold for RM4.4 million
In Japan today, whisky is one of the most consumed alcohol. A global demand for the spirit, increasing appreciation and the growing popularity of highball cocktails (whisky and soda water with or without a lemon squeeze) put Japanese whiskies on the map.
3. Where You Build Your Distillery Matters
Swipe right to see more of Miyagikyo distillery
The second distillery to be established by Nikka (the first is in Hokkaido), Miyagikyo was hand-picked by Taketsuru because of its clean air, ideal humidity levels (for storage) and abundance of clean underground water filtered through a layer of peat.
Our guide recalled the story of Taketsuru travelling in the area one day and falling in love with the distillery's surroundings. It had all the right ingredients, leading him to declare Miyagikyo as a perfect site for whisky making.
When we toured the place in the summer, we found out that he was absolutely right about everything.
The founder’s instinct in selecting the distillery's location, rich with natural resources, was essential to making quality whisky.
4. Knowledge Is Part Of Heritage
Miyagikyo's bright firehouse brick red coloured buildings, everything from the storage houses to the kilns, were chosen by the founder as a tribute to the Scottish distilleries he studied at.
As Nikka was founded from his desire to make genuine Japanese whisky built upon Scottish expertise, Taketsuru’s gratitude of his education in Scotland is deeply rooted in Nikka’s heritage.
5. Japanese Whiskies Are Sophisticated And Complex
Japanese whiskies can be every bit as complex and elegant as their Scottish counterparts. At the end of our tour, we were given two whiskies and a wine to taste.
Apple Wine, a Nikka core product since 1938, was sweet, rich in apple flavour and with a mild alcohol kick. This was an important product for the company and showcased the whisky maker's ability to diversify beyond whiskies.
Fun fact: Nikka also currently produces gin and vodka.
The two whiskies on the other hand, were both well balanced yet robust in flavour. Super Nikka launched in 1962 and featured a slight smokiness and chocolate notes while Pure Malt Taketsuru is younger (released in 2015). Nosing it gave off aromas of dried citrus fruits while tasting it revealed spicy and sweet notes with a long finish and a hint of umami at the end.
Would you like some Japanese whisky? Read our review of Ikki bar