Nikka Distillery Tour: Behind the Scenes at Hokkaido’s Most Famous Whisky Producer
If I’m in a country famous for its whisky production, I’m gonna make it a point to visit a distillery. This took me to Talisker in Scotland and Yamazaki last time I was in Japan. For this trip, we were heading to the Northern part of the country, namely Hokkaido, where Nikka is frequently the dram of choice. And that means a visit (and a tasting) were definitely in order.
Nikka is kind of a funny whisky brand, at least by Scotch standards. It has a goofy, cartoonish Scottish man for a mascot/logo (the “King of Blenders”) appearing proudly on its low-end products right alongside the minimal, Japanese-sleek branding of its higher end bottles. And boy, is there a gulf between both ends of Nikka Whisky spectrum — the low end plonk is barely drinkable, while the upper shelf ranges from quite good to practically trancendent (I include the excellent Nikka From the Barrel in that latter asessment).
Regardless of the brands eccentricities, I was more than a little excited to check out the distillery. Here’s what I thought of the Nikka Distillery Tour experience:
What to Expect on the Nikka Distillery Tour
Staying in Sapporo? The good news is, like most places in Japan, getting to Nikka is (relatively) easy via public transit. We took the JR line from Sapporo to Otaru (a charming seaside town where we enjoyed delicious seafood bowls) before catching a 20 min bus to Nikka distillery. Everyone at the bus station was very friendly and helpful and navigating this was a cinch. On the way back you can grab a bus straight back to Sapporo if that’s where you’re headed.
TIP: Book your distillery tour in advance. We saw folks turned away at the entrance, while we were ushered in like VIPs.
Once you hop off the bus, you’ll find yourself in an even smaller town. But don’t despair, Nikka Distillery is essentially giftwrapped in a small town that grew organically around it. However you leave the bus stop you’re practically guaranteed to bump into the castle walls or gate. And yes you read that correctly.
Once you get past the portcullis, you’ll be assigned to your group. Here’s some bad news for Anglophiles — the tour is not offered in English. There’s an app with an English audio guide, but based on the peals of laughter the guide received from the Japanese-speaking members of our group, there was clearly quite a lot of context missing.
The tour (and tasting) are 100% free, which is awesome. But the Nikka Distillery Tour definitely lacks some of the high gloss you would expect from a paid tour. For instance, 95% of it is outdoors, with just a peek or two into the buildings where actual whisky production occurs. Luckily the grounds are manicured and feel more like a private park than an industrial area.
Couple of neat facts about Nikka I learned on the tour. Masataka Taketsuru, the founder of Nikka, travelled to Scotland in 1918 to learn the secrets of whisky distilling. He returned with not only a mastery of the Scottish craft, but a Scottish wife, Rita. Their love is reflected in many photos around the distillery, the house they shared together which was moved onto the grounds, and the eatery which is still called “Rita’s Kitchen.”
It goes without saying that a Japanese man marrying a European woman in the early 1900s would have been highly unsusual to say the least, and seeing the enduring product of their unlikely union was even more enjoyable than the whisky itself.
Another cool(?) thing Nikka does is heat its copper stills with coal. This is an incredibly outdated practice because its tedious, expensive, and more difficult to maintain consistent temperatures. But as our audio guide explained, the distillery workers are highly trained to maintain intense precision. And Nikka swears the use of coal imparts a distinct smokiness to their whisky unattainable otherwise. This humble reviewer remains dubious, but the insistence on tradition is enjoyable to witness as a tourist.
Nikka Whisky Tasting
For a whisky tasting, Nikka’s offering is kinda “meh.” For a FREE whisky tasting? I mean, don’t expect me to lodge a complaint! Two small whisky pourings, their Yoichi Single Malt and their Super Nikka are accompanied by a (revolting) apple wine. The Yoichi is lovely, and the Super Nikka entirely palatable. The apple wine tastes like melted life savers (if that’s your thing).
The entire tasting is accompanied with access to still and sparkling water on tap, along with buckets of ice cubes. Highball (whisky and soda by default in Japan) creation is highly encouraged, and even the Single Malt is recommended to be taken with some water, though I opted to try it neat.
Tasting leave you craving more? The “Whisky Museum” which was notably excluded from the free tour has a paid tasting area where you can sample from the wide selection of Nikka’s catalogue. I highly recommend the Single Malt Miyagikyu, which was good enough I tracked down a bottle to bring home.
I say “tracked down” because woefully, if you’re expecting to grab your dream bottle of Nikka whisky at the distillery, keep dreaming. Like elsewhere in Japan, the gift shop here was picked through thoroughly with only the least desirable bottles and token Scotch offerings remaining on the shelves.
So — should you go? If you’ve got a week to burn in/around Sapporo, I’d say go for it. It’s a free tour, and it feels a bit like it. But the distillery is gorgeous, the history interesting, and most of the whisky damn good. Just steer clear of that apple wine.