Spirit of romance

Dram fine: Nikka Yoichi whisky distillery in Yoichi, Hokkaido.
Dram fine: Nikka Yoichi whisky distillery in Yoichi, Hokkaido. Photo: Alamy

He stole the secret of whisky and a wife - and his drop is among the best, writes Stephen Phelan.

Almost 100 years ago, a young apprentice from a Japanese sake company was sent to Scotland to study the art and science of whisky making. Masataka Taketsuru travelled the highlands and islands and took menial work at various distilleries - learning by getting his hands dirty. He also took a local wife, marrying Rita Cowan in Campbeltown before returning with her to Japan in 1921.

"So he stole the secret of Scotch, and he stole a Scottish woman," says my guide Naofumi Kamiguchi, laughing, as we drive north from Sapporo through the depths of Japanese winter. We are on our way to Yoichi, where Taketsuru later founded his country's first dedicated whisky company, Nikka, and built his own distillery on the frozen coast of Hokkaido Island.

En route, the land and seascapes resemble some of Scotland's most spectacular shorelines - wind-buffed stacks and cliffs dropping into a cold-metal ocean.

This might help explain Taketsuru's choice of location, but Kamiguchi tells me that "he wasn't just being sentimental". Apparently, the weather and water of the region provide the closest approximate conditions for replicating Scotch - though that word tends to be reserved for the stuff made in Scotland itself. Like Chile or Australia on the map of wine-growing nations, Japan is very much "the new world" in whisky terms, and Yoichi feels like the very edge of it. The distillery rises out of the ice like the Fortress of Solitude, and I'm trying to remember if Superman drinks alcohol. Surely he at least keeps a bottle handy for guests. Lois Lane always seemed the type to pour herself a neat single malt after a hard day's reporting.

Kamiguchi walks and talks me through the facility, from the mill to the kilning tower. He knows the place well. Now a sharp-dressed executive in Nikka's Tokyo-based publicity department, he started his career as a technician here at Yoichi, cleaning out the residue from the pot stills like the boss once did in Scotland. When he first took the job in the mid-1970s, Japanese whisky was booming, and there were 150 staff on this site. Today, there are fewer than 20 running the distillery, with another 30 or so working in the gift shop and visitor centre. As the market has contracted, production has been scaled back, and the factory partly repurposed as a tourist attraction. At the same time, he tells me, the product itself has continued to improve, from the crude, diluted substitute "Scotch" of less than a century ago to the superior blends and malts of recent years, at least two of which have bested every "old world" whisky at major industry awards.

Much of this is down to gradual refinements in the process, with the oldest Scottish formulas filtered through increasingly advanced Japanese methods. Every variable, says Kamiguchi, from fermentation to maturation, can now be converted to data and fed into a computer for optimal results. As much as I love whisky, I zone out on some of the technical details. I'm enjoying the more elemental contrast of the coal fires under the pot stills and the falling snow outside, the whistles, clanks, and grindings set against the surrounding hush, the modern mechanical precision that must leave a little room for ancient credulities.

There are Shinto symbols known as "Shimekazari" hanging from the mash tuns to ward off the bad spirits and protect the good one being manufactured here. In the tasting room, we sample all four varieties of Yoichi's standard single malt, my own favourite being the so-called "woody and vanilla", which smells like a church and tastes pleasantly of trees, infused by the Japanese cedars on the mountains above the distillery. According to Kamiguchi, some aficionados come to try and buy straight from the source. Blended whisky is less popular than it once was, but specialist single malts are now a lucrative niche market. More tourists, however, come here for the love story.

It is told in the visitor centre, in English and Japanese, amid the used casks and posters for old Nikka ad campaigns - one of which features an ageing Orson Welles, another a young and rascally Rod Stewart with a blonde on his arm. But a larger proportion of the wall space is devoted to the romance between Masataka Taketsuru and his Scottish wife, as if it were Yoichi's strongest selling point. There are bagpipes and verses from Robert Burns hanging as exhibits in Rita Cowan's honour, and faded photographs with captions that tell her story - outcast from a family that did not approve of her marriage, she left Scotland with her new husband and never saw home again, living the rest of her life in the coldest and remotest part of a strange and sometimes hostile country.

While Taketsuru struggled to transplant the Scotch tradition into Japan through the shortages and animosities of two world wars, Rita was suspected of being a foreign spy, even as she made close friends among the local villagers and native Ainu people. Neither of them lived to taste the Yoichi 1987 vintage that was voted best single malt at the World Whisky Awards just a few years ago. There are no bottles left in circulation, but Kamiguchi offers me a dram from the Nikka's in-house stock. Feeling warm and sentimental, we raise our glasses to Mr and Mrs Taketsuru, buried together behind the distillery, under deep white snow, reddish evening clouds, and a rising yellow winter moon.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

Japan Airlines and ANA fly to Sapporo from Tokyo and other major Japanese cities. (jal.com, ana.co.jp). From Sapporo, take a Japan Railways train to Otaru and change to the Kutchan line for Yoichi (jrhokkaido.co.jp). The Nikka Yoichi distillery is a short walk from the station, and admission is free.

STAYING THERE

The Hotel Piano has rooms from 10,000 yen (about $100) per standard room per night (kiroro.co.jp/en/stay/piano).

MORE INFORMATION

nikka.com/eng/distilleries/

FIVE GREAT WHISKY TOURS

OLD JAMESON, NEAR DUBLIN, IRELAND

Tour the Jameson's 230-year-old distillery. (jamesonwhiskey.com/us/tours)

MAKER'S MARK, LOUISVILLE, KENTUCKY

The most comprehensive distillery tourin the region. (makersmark.com/sections/12-distillery)

KAVALAN, TAIWAN

Whisky Magazine voted the neo-classical distillery as the world's best whisky visitor attraction. (kavalanwhisky.com/en)

GLENORA, NOVA SCOTIA, CANADA

The Glenora distillery offers tours and tastings, and accommodation. (glenoradistillery.com)

AMRUT, BANGALORE, INDIA

Uses water from the Himalayas to produce award-winning whiskies - distillery tours by appointment. (amrutdistilleries.com)

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