I am forever haunted by the memory of one of my first experiences with Japanese Whisky. Early into my stay in Hakodate a 4 litre plastic bottle of Nikka Black, bought for some absurdly low price, turned 4 grown men and respective girlfriends into a broken, weeping mass of humanity.
That day put me off Japanese Whisky for a while and on moving to Niseko and first hearing about the "amazing" Whisky produced in nearby Yoichi I dismissed it as the same food and beverage jingoism seen in such claims as Kutchan having the best potatoes in the land and Hakodate’s squid being the most succulent in all Hokkaido.
How wildly wrong I was.
Stuck at Yoichi train station with some friends after a missed connection we wandered around outside to pass the time and found ourselves staring at the entranceway to the Whisky factory just over the road and decided to take a tour.
The factory was founded by Masataka Taketsuru in 1920, after traveling to Scotland for many years (no mean feat at the time) to study the art of Whisky making. Combining the knowledge learned from the distillers with his education in chemistry Taketsuru returned to Japan a master blender and with a Scottish wife, Rita in tow. Choosing Yoichi because of the similar geography to the distilleries where he studied in Scotland he set up Hokkaidos first Whisky distillery. The Whisky produced by this distillery has grown in prominence since its founding in 1934 and recent years has seen it take it's place at the very head of the table in terms of reputation. Crowned The World’s Best Single Malt in 2008, the 1987 "Yoichi" Single Malt quickly became a favorite of mine after sampling and the 10 year version is available at the gift shopped very reasonably priced for the quality. It is an incredibly complex Whisky with a mild peaty flavor, and that is far as my limited vocabulary of tasting will allow me to describe it. Yoichi now collects awards for fun and has won in all the major categories for malts and blended varieties.
Entry to the distillery, and the guided tour itself is free, you don't have to take the guided tour though and are free to explore at your own leisure, but if you speak Japanese (there is presently no English option) it is well worth it to get a sense of the seriousness of which Taketsuru and his followers took their art and to get a sense of the beautiful history of the place.
The tour ends at the tasting rooms and you are given a chance to sample the produce for free. Drivers are given a badge to wear on entry and are served complimentary soft drinks. The free samples serve as a great ploy to feel in a buying mood as you pass the shop on the way out and we merrily trotted back to the station with newly purchased bottles clanking away in our bags, the surprise hit of the bunch being not Whisky but Yoichi Apple Brandy, a very moorish tipple. As we sat waiting for our train we reflected on just how impressed by the passion that has been put into the distillery and the product itself and we toasted to the banishment of memories of plastic jugs of evil Whisky.