Yoichi distillery is located on the island of Hokkaido. It is the most northerly whisky distillery in Japan.
The distillery was established by Masataka Taketsuro “the father of Japanese whisky”. He chose the island of Hokkaido because the landscape was similar to Scotland.
Yoichi is capable of producing several different styles of spirit. Single malt bottlings are boldly flavoured with lots of fruit and smoke. The whisky often exhibits a briny note, possibly as a result of seaside maturation.
Taketsuro insisted on direct-fired pot stills. The method remains in use today, despite being phased out almost everywhere else.
The four wash stills are fired using finely powdered natural coal. The spirit stills are steam heated. All but one still is connected to a traditional worm tub condenser. The sixth uses a more conventional shell and tube design.
This seemingly random setup allows for flexibility in production. Japanese distillers do not trade with one another the way they do in Scotland. Instead, they must rely on producing everything needed for their blends in-house. Yoichi produces different spirits depending on what is needed for Nikka whiskies.
Fermentation takes around 72 hours but this too can vary, depending on the desired character. Different yeast strains are used for different styles.
American white oak bourbon casks are used to mature the majority of spirit. However, European oak sherry casks are sometimes used to finish certain expressions. Onsite coopers revitalise casks by de-charring and re-charring the inner staves.
The rising popularity of Japanese whisky caused Nikka to trim the Yoichi bottling range. 10, 12, 15 and 20-year-old bottlings were replaced by a no-age-statement offering. As a result of discontinuation, the popular 10-year-old has gone from £60 to over £500 a bottle.
Masataka Taketsuru was born in 1894, 60km from Hiroshima. He was born into an old family that had been making sake for centuries and Masataka intended to go into the family business. In 1918, he travelled to Scotland and enrolled at Glasgow University, majoring in chemistry.
During his time in Scotland, Taketsuru became increasingly drawn to Scotch whisky. Upon finishing his studies he sought work experience at distilleries like Longmorn, Craigellachie and Hazelburn.
Whilst living in Scotland, Taketsuru met and married Jessie Roberta (Rita) Cowan. In 1920, the happy couple returned to Japan where Masataka took employment with Kotobukiya Ltd. There, he was charged with creating Japan’s first whisky distillery.
Life in Japan wasn’t always easy for Rita. During the Pacific War, she was kept under close surveillance and neighbours ignored her in the street. Attitudes have since changed. A TV series based on the couple's lives aired on Japanese TV between 2014 and 2015. There is even a street in Yoichi called Rita Road.
Masataka chose the island of Hokkaido as the location for his distillery. Its mountainous landscape and proximity to the sea, coupled with an abundance of peat made the area comparable to Scotland. His new distillery began producing in 1934, using the traditional methods he had learned during his time there.
Masataka passed away in 1979. He is buried beside his devoted wife Rita, at Yoichi. Though the man is gone, however, his legacy lives on. No one individual has had a bigger influence on Japanese whisky. Even today, production at Yoichi is carried out exactly as the founder specified.