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A taste of Scotland in Japan: Nikka Whisky

By Elizabeth Tasker

One of the few times I have ever felt truly homesick in Japan was when visiting the Yoichi Distillery, the first home of Nikka Whisky. Situated about an hour’s train ride from Sapporo in Hokkaido, Yoichi encompasses both the hoppy scents and the mountainous landscape of the Scottish Highland distilleries.

This combination is not coincidental; upon searching Japan for a location to practice the arts he had studied in Scotland, Masataka Taketsuru claimed no other place had the right climate and clear waters needed for serious whisky production. Since in the first half of the 1900s, Hokkaido was considered a barren wasteland, this crazy talk almost cost Taketsuru his financial backers.

Nevertheless, Taketsuru was persuasive and in 1934, the production of one of Japan’s finest whiskies began. Yet Taketsuru’s own story does not begin here, but rather 16 years earlier when he left Japan for Scotland.

The third son of a sake brewer, Taketsuru’s original ambition was to continue the family business. However, in sympathy with all those who have ever changed their major, Taketsuru’s studies at (what is now) Osaka University, diverted him into the area of western drinks. This interest was shared by Settsu Shuzu, a liquor company who had plans to produce a Japanese whisky. To this end, they hired Taketsuru and – since the secrets of great Scotch were not something casually dispatched in a letter - sent him to study at the University of Glasgow.

While Taketsuru evidently learned much about whisky production in Scotland, the museum at Yoichi Distillery dwells less on this and more on his relationship with his future wife, Jessie (Rita) Roberta Cowen.

Legend has it that love bloomed between the couple due to the great British tradition of burying chockable items in celebratory food. Taketsuru was sharing Christmas dinner with the Cowen family when he extracted a 6 pence from the Christmas pudding, traditionally foretelling a prosperous future to those who can avoid swallowing said item. Rita, meanwhile, found a silver thimble, declaring her a bride-to-be. Despite such omnipotence arising from their cooking, the Cowen family strongly opposed the match which caused Rita and Taketsuru to forfeit a church wedding in favour of a plainer registry signing. The newly wed couple then left Scotland to return to Japan.

Unfortunately, the intervening two years since Taketsuru’s departure had not treated the Japanese economy kindly and he returned to find his country in recession. The resulting financial hardships crushed Settsu Shuzu’s ambitious plans for branching out into a new liquor, causing Taketsuru to leave their employment and join the Kotobukiya company which would later become Suntory, Japan’s first malt whisky producer.

Situated in the Osaka Prefecture in 1923, Kotobukiya built the Yamazaki Distillery to produce its malt whisky. Its owner, Shinjiro Torii, wished to produce a Scottish style of whisky that had a unique Japanese flavour. This didn’t sit well with Taketsuru, who wanted to remain faithful to the Scottish techniques. Despite the success of the Yamazaki Distillery, the rift between Torii and Taketsuru caused Taketsuru to leave and begin his own whisky production in Yoichi. nikka_dist

During this time, Rita had taken up Japan’s most popular job for foreigners in teaching English. It was her contacts through this work that made it possible for Taketsuru to gain the financial support needed to begin his own distillery. Even allowing for the importance of this act, Rita’s prominence in the Yoichi Distillery museum and exhibits is surprising. Several information boards in the museum are devoted to her life and their married home (also on the same site) contains many pictures of her both with and without her husband. Perhaps this interest stems from the fact that while foreigners living in Japan are something of a novelty today, the appearance of a Scottish woman in Hokkaido in the first half of the 20th century is nothing short of astonishing.

That said, Rita’s presence in Japan was not always warmly received. When war broke out, Rita became a target of suspicion and dislike, both from her neighbours and Japan’s security departments. While her marriage and subsequent nationalisation allowed to remain in Japan, Rita was nevertheless frequently shadowed by Japan’s special police even on such mundane errands as delivering her husband’s lunch.

Despite this difficult period, Rita appears to have thrived in Hokkaido with photos showing her tumbling through the snow on skis, relaxing with her husband and meeting friends. There is little doubt that Rita was a woman of quite some spirit.

The success of any whisky is of course not in its history but in its tasting. Nestled among the buildings devoted to the various stages of whisky production on the Yoichi site, are several spots where the famous drink can be sampled. The most frequented of these would doubtless be the free taster bar, situated above the restaurant. This large sunny room offers a view over the surrounding landscape while providing visitors with a choice of whiskies, apple wine and juice.

However, to really sample Nikka’s finest, it is worth stopping at the museum bar. It is here that shots can be purchased of the more specialised blends and malts. Nikka whisky has a strong peaty scent and a flavour that resembles the Islay malts of Scotland such as Lagavulin or Laphroaig. For those who appreciate the smokey taste, the first stop at this bar should be the ‘Peaty and Salty’ single malt. There are also the rarer ‘single cask’ malts available which consist not only of a single year, but are also drawn from a single barrel. Since every barrel lends a slightly different flavour to the drink, each single cask malt has its own unique flavour.

As such, single cask malts are not easily found outside the distillery, since a more uniform taste is required for the Nikka label. Bottles of these whiskies are also available to purchase, with the distillery seeming to take a particular delight in packaging their most prized products in the plainest of bottles. Perhaps this is protection for the buyer who will not feel forced to share such an unassuming container with guests or maybe Nikka simply feels such drinks speak for their own quality.

Designated drivers are not forgotten at Yoichi. Juice and water is available at the taster bar and drivers are requested to adorn themselves with one of the ‘designated driver’ yellow stickers. This act is slightly amusing, not because drinking and driving should not be taken seriously, but because if a person is old enough to do the latter, a sticker probably isn’t going to prevent him/her making an irresponsible decision.

For visitors thinking of Yoichi, it is worth considering the summer is a slightly better time to go. More of the buildings involved in the whisky production are open during the warmer months, although the museum, bar, restaurant and several other locations are open year round. The museum contains information both in Japanese and English and the restaurant serves good food which is reasonably priced.

I was about half-way through my large plate of rice and sea urchin when I did pause to note that in the food at least, Yoichi was not Scotland.

The Nikka website 7-6 Kurokawa-cho, Yoichi-cho, Yoichi-gun, Hokkaido 046-0003 Opening hours : 10:00 ~ 17:00 Holidays : New Year (25th Dec ~ 7th Jan), factory & extra holidays

© GaijinPot

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Living in Tokyo years ago, I was very lucky to have the opportunity to teach English to the then President of Whisky and grandson of Masataka Taketsuru. He talked a lot about his grandfather, a quite amazing man.

As the article above explains, Mr Taketsuru's dream was to create a genuine scotch and so he went to Scotland to study whisky making. Returning to Japan, he worked with Mr Torii (Torii-san = Suntory) but Mr Taketsuru wasn't satisfied with low standards and so went his own way.

If it was to be a genuine scotch, he thought, it would have to be made in Hokkaido, so he built his distillery in Yoichi. But here, Mr Taketsuru explained, was the problem. Whisky takes years to mature, so, while it's aging, how do you pay the rent and salaries?

Located in the north, Hokkaido is an excellent place for growing apples. Much of the equipment used for making whisky can also be used for making apple juice and Mr Taketsuru made apple juice and apple cider. Appropriately, he called the company he formed in 1934 "Dai Nippon Kaju." (Dai = great, Nippon = Japan, Kaju = fruit juice), the Great Japanese Fruit Juice Company. Then, later, as whisky became the main business, he abbreviated "Nippon Kaju" to Nikka.

And that's how it came to be known as Nikka whisky.

Nikka, although more of a scotch than a bourbon, is really quite unique. It has a flavour of its own. Another one of my students was a doctor in Hokkaido. He had an amazing collection of whiskies. Amongst them was a 34 year old Nikka. He gave me a taste. It was incredible. Like drinking poetry. One tiny sip produced an explosion of flavour.

But it had the same Nikka stamp as other, cheaper and younger Nikka's.

It was a Nikka, there was no doubt about it.

Mr Taketsuru created something unique.

A remarkable man.

15 ( +15 / -0 )

Taketsuru is delicious, as are a few other of the premium local whiskies.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

Thanks, Marcelito.

As a result of Taketsuru's perseverance and reluctance to compromise, Japanese whisky is counted as one of the world's whiskies. Not an imitation, but a whisky in its own right:

3.1 American whiskeys

3.2 Australian whiskies

3.3 Canadian whiskies

3.4 Danish whiskies

3.5 English whiskies

3.6 Finnish whiskies

3.7 German whiskies

3.8 Indian whiskies

3.9 Irish whiskeys

3.10 Japanese whiskies

3.11 Scotch whiskies

3.12 Welsh whiskies


2 ( +2 / -0 )

Nice story, Nice comments.

Here is what I see... (or don't):

Tales about

A few French guys who got it together and opened a 'French' restaurant in Takasaki or perhaps Saitama city, bringing their handed down recipes from generations and culture. No. We have Japanese that 'emulate' another country's thing after a few years of 'study' and call it 'French'

Tales about

A 'Little Italy' in maybe Tokyo Otsuka; Italian import cheese, wine and specialty meats offered from the passing along of grandfather to father to son, and the skills that have been refined for generations. But No. We have Japanese that 'emulate' fake Italian restaurants, fill olive oil bottles with sugar water, put a faux red/white table cloth down and play the Italian anthem in the background and put corn on, er, what they call 'pizza' where sugar of the corn destroys the components of the the tomatoes and thus the sauce - this after a few years of 'study' - they call it 'Italian.'

Tales about

Disneyland conforming and respecting the vision of Walt Disney. Not. (There are articles on the conflict with the bastardization of Disney's vision by we-know-better Japanese, who perhaps visited Disney land during a home stay.

Tales about... the list goes on.

Scotch is called scotch for what reason? Scotch is from scotland.

• I asked associates why this 'non authentic' version was allowed to pass. The question led to two answers.

Foreigners are not as clean as Japanese. Food in japan tastes better than (get this) in the other countries.

Sorry... nice story, blah blah... but the truth of the matter is: 'We Japanese' are clueless.

-5 ( +5 / -10 )


I understand what you are saying. Japan is prone to "gokko," (dress up and make believe). Italian food means spaghetti and pizza, Chinese is ramen, gyoza and cha-han, French is a kind of variant of kaiseki, everything very artistically laid out and with tiny portions of bread daintily served in a hot serviette - oh, and red wine just a tad above freezing.

But in Mr Taketsuru's case, I don't think this applies.

He wasn't play-acting.

He was a man with a dream who worked all his life to make the dream come true.

He deserves recognition.

4 ( +5 / -1 )

My father changed his mind about Japanese whisky after I gave him a bottle of Suntory's Yamazaki. He was adamant that only the Irish and Scots could make decent whisky ( he described bourbon as 'shithouse cleaner'). The only beef I have is bars and izakaya selling Yamazaki highballs. Whisky that good should never be polluted with soda.

5 ( +6 / -1 )

My father changed his mind about Japanese whisky after I gave him a bottle of Suntory's Yamazaki.

Which is light years better than many of the rot-gut stuff produced by Nikka, which seems to be a favorite of the homeless drunks.

-2 ( +2 / -4 )

Good story and interesting addition from Bertie.

Just for other's interest - you can get a fairly good whisky in Thailand. Name slips my mind now but I think it came with a camouflage green lable.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Japan is pretty reasonable for whisky and brandy. Some older Japanese tell me of the days when Johnnie Black and Old Parr were much sought after souvenirs from foreign trips due to their cost in Japan - nowadays you can pick them up for about ¥3,000 or less.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I love the smell of nikkas

0 ( +3 / -3 )

Oh boy. Nikka is the BEST single malt whiskey I have ever tasted. The 15 year old is like drinking liquid honey.

-1 ( +1 / -2 )


Nikka has some great whiskies. Note the spelling though, Nikka is basically a scotch, so it's spelled "Whisky," without the "e."

0 ( +1 / -1 )


Sorry Bertie it can never be "basically a scotch" no matter how good it tastes?

Yes, you are right, of course.

I didn't explain myself clearly. I meant "scotch" as in "Cheddar" or "Hokkaido Camembert."

Perhaps I should have written "scotch-type."

Wikipedia has this to say:

The model for Japanese whiskies is the single malt Scotch, although there are also examples of Japanese blended whiskies. The base is a mash of malted barley, dried in kilns fired with a little peat (although considerably less than in Scotland), and distilled using the pot still method. For some time exports of Japanese whisky suffered from the belief in the West that whisky made in the Scotch style, but not produced in Scotland, was inferior, and until fairly recently, the market for Japanese whiskies was almost entirely domestic. In recent years, Japanese whiskies have won prestigious international awards and now enjoy a reputation as a high quality product.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

I didn't know Hokkaido or anywhere else in Japan has peat. Some Japanese whisky is pretty awesome, though.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Suntory Taketsuru 17 years old - probably the best whiskey I have ever tasted. Superb.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

"Suntory Taketsuru 17 years old - probably the best whiskey I have ever tasted. Superb."

A couple of years ago in Metropolis one whiskey reviewer said this whiskey is "like licking a fat covered frying pan," but another reviewer disgareed, saying it's "amazing quaffable," and "mint chocolate dominates."

I tried it, and by golly, it does indeed taste a bit like mint chocolate! But it's pretty expensive.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

we can say Japanese Whisky is inspired by Scottish techniques..

I tried some Hibiki 17 when I was visiting Japan a few weeks ago, pretty good stuff. Wish it more readily available in Canada.. the best I was able to come across was Nikka Pure Malt at the local LCBO and it was like $70!

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Nikka, although more of a scotch than a bourbon, is really quite unique

It is either unique or it is not. Something cannot be quite unique since unique means one of a kind. (and to me, it is not)

-3 ( +2 / -5 )

I have to try it then!, Let's Whiskey!

3 ( +3 / -0 )

"Let's Whiskey!"

Hee hee!

1 ( +2 / -1 )

Legally, Scotch can only be applied to whisky distilled in Scotland and matured there for at least three years and a day apparently.

I was more interested in Rita (the name she took in Japan) whose photo and further biographical information can be seen here. http://www.scotchmaltwhisky.co.uk/nikkawhisky.htm

0 ( +1 / -1 )

You should post this in the Wikipedia.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Well, with all this hair splitting going on, I wonder if we might call Nikka whisky "scotch-inspired?"

I remember going to a small Japanese restaurant in LA and asking for yakitori.

The waitress replied, "Certainly sir. Would you like beef yakitori or chicken yakitori?"

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Thanks for the well written article, Elizabeth. And Bertie, wow, what a coincidence, the first to post - perhaps the first to read this article, and your experience. To have taught the grandson. But, can you imagine if zichi had been his English teacher?

I personally like the small bottled Nikka's that you can buy at the Japanese 7/11's. Never had a high end Nikka. Have done a couple bottles of Bowmore, tho. Pricey and smokey. Good stuff. I asked the store clerk (in LA) if it was Japanese. Because who would bow more?

Hey tapi0ca, sorry you're having such a bad time Japan. I don't think the Japanese forget where the o-tehon (model/example) came from. Or what the original is like. The idea is just learning from what you like and giving it your twist. I think the corn pizzas are for kids. Sweet and pretty. When in Japan, it's a must for me to have a tuna salad and potato pizza (from St Cones). Also the crabmeat and something pizza, again from SC. Can't remember if they have tomato sauce on either. But, they are good. To me, anyway. Search and make your own decisions. Tastes change with age.

And as for Masataka to have gone to Scotland and Rita to come back with him to Japan in the early 1900's is just pretty ballsy. How did they communicate?

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I wounder why the Nikka Taketsuru 21 is not on here, they won best whisky review of the month when I tasted it and in my opinion is one of the best!


Has anyone else tasted the Taketsuru 21?

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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