Nikka Whisky celebrates 90 years of love, fiery passion and leadership

This year marks Nikka’s 90th anniversary, making it the perfect time to reflect on its past and the future

It is easy to find oneself hypnotised as you wander through Nikka’s Yoichi Distillery. Built in 1934 with red-tinted, pagoda-style rooftops atop stone buildings and rows of carefully manicured greenery, it is a place that can be counted on for nostalgia, delicious whisky, and a relaxing stroll through ‘Scotland’.

To put it simply, this is Masataka Taketsuru’s baby. Regarded as the ‘father of Japanese whisky’, the late Nikka founder sailed to Scotland in 1918 to earn a degree in chemistry and engineering, only to fall in love with whisky, its craft, and a girl named Rita Cowan. He would apprentice at distilleries like Longmorn and Hazelburn, and become the only Japanese to know the trade at the time. She would become his wife, and play a pivotal role in supporting his vision and establishing the company. In fact, many consider Cowan to be the ‘mother of Japanese whisky’ and have founded a fan club as tribute. If not for her encouragement, he wouldn’t have returned to Japan to pursue his passion for whisky making; if not for her constant support, Nikka probably wouldn’t exist.

Founder Masataka Taketsuru and his wife Rita Cowan are considered to be the ‘father and mother of Japanese whisky’. Photo by Nikka

Not just a father, but a leader

For a man so inspired by Scotch whisky, Yoichi was the perfect first location to begin the Nikka legacy. Rich in nature and surrounded by the sea and mountains, this area of west Hokkaido came closest to the climate Taketsuru experienced in Campbeltown, Scotland. Through the connections Cowan had teaching piano and English, investors were found and in two years, the Yoichi Distillery was brought to life, fuelled by hot coal, the river and salty sea breeze.

Decades after his passing, Nikka continues to remain true to his vision. Tradition is valued as much as innovation. To this date, direct coal-fired distillation is still a practice at Yoichi, allowing for a distinctively toasty single malt that’s arguably more loyal to traditional Scotch than most modern Scottish blends.

To this date, direct coal-fired distillation is still a practice at Yoichi. Photo by Nikka

Nikka isn’t just a pioneer, but a leader in Japanese whisky. As I discovered on a recent trip to Japan, Nikka is all about reaching consumers who care about their whisky and cocktails. “Masataka wanted people to be able to taste real whisky at a comfortable price. Instead of competing with bigger companies, we try to reach the people by being accessible,” says Takayuki Eguchi, Nikka’s Australian market representative who’s also in charge of acquisitions.

“Nikka impresses me with its honesty and how it has remained faithful to its origins,” says Diego Araud, the marketing director at La Maison Du Whisky. “In the past years, some whisky geeks have felt a little bit ‘betrayed’ when they discovered Scotch was used in some of Nikka’s most iconic expressions, such as Nikka From The Barrel.

Nikka From The Barrel. Photo by Nikka

“There are reasons for that, but short-changing whisky drinkers is definitely not one of them. I have known Nikka Whisky to be a trustworthy whisky maker with quality and drinking satisfaction always in mind. This is their main preoccupation before thinking of any marketing stunt—something I respect in a world where many corners are cut.”

For instance, the Nikka Perfect Serve is an annual contest that taps on the innovative minds of bartenders, one’s gateway to the beautiful world of whisky. Centred around the Japanese philosophy, ichigo ichie (one moment, one encounter), it was created in 2010 by brand hospitality advocate, Stanislav Vadrna, along with Nikka and La Maison Du Whisky. Bartenders across the world compete to create unique experiences around personalised cocktails or whisky introduced in intriguing ways, and the top two winners will be invited to experience Japan’s bar scene and visit Nikka’s distilleries.

Additionally, when Japanese whisky’s meteoric rise happened around 2008, intense global demand drank the supply dry by around 2015. Companies like Suntory make it up by releasing exclusive limited editions for collectors, but Nikka is holding back.

“We want to reserve quality whisky for the non-aged statements,” Eguchi continues. “We don’t exchange casks or information with other companies, which is why we need to make variety. This is the reason Masataka built the Miyagikyo Distillery—to contrast Yoichi with a more fruity and elegant style.”

Nikka Yoichi Single Malt. Photo by Nikka

Happy 90th, Nikka

2024 marks a good year for Nikka to reflect on its heritage and the future. Emiko Kaji, general manager of global marketing and sales, elaborates on this milestone “not only for Nikka but for the history of the Japanese whisky industry.”

“It is a memorable year to appreciate the support we have had from fans around the world, and to look back on past achievements,” she says. “Since the Single Cask Yoichi 10 Years Old won Whisky Magazine’s Best of the Best tasting competition (2001), we have gradually built a global presence but did not expect the high demand and love that we see today.”

It’s also the year new labelling standards, set by the Japan Spirits & Liqueurs Makers Association (JSLMA), are implemented to ensure that provenance is respected. After years of regulatory standstill, when the definition of Japanese whisky was looser than a man on the run, consumers are going to have a clear picture of what goes into their whisky.

Nikka Coffey Grain Whisky, a bestseller in the USA. Photo Nikka

Production, from fermentation to bottling, is to be done in Japan, closing off existing loopholes and weeding out disingenuous brands capitalising on Japanese identity. Like an Asian turning their hair blonde won’t make them white, slapping Japanese iconography on any bottle of whisky won’t make it Japanese either. Fortunately, Nikka has stayed ahead of the curve by already signifying the products that aren’t exclusively Japanese, like Nikka From The Barrel, a bestseller in Singapore.

In the next 10 years, diehard fans can look forward to an increased availability of aged expressions returning to Nikka’s portfolio. Both Yoichi 10 Years Old and the upcoming Miyagikyo 10 Years Old will be part of the core range, and perhaps more expressions with older liquids will come along. Araud believes that the new Yoichi release is a recipe that surpasses the older expression, which Nikka removed in 2015.

Masataka Taketsuru and all the apples in the world, before they were turned into juice, jellies and wines. Photo by Nikka

Apart from whisky, one can also look forward to Nikka’s range of apple products, especially the Dry Sparkling Cider. Only available domestically, it will eventually be exported (there is no official date yet) and, once that happens, the rest of the world can feel a bit more connected to the Nikka origin story. When Taketsuru waited for the first whiskies to mature, apples were turned into juice, jellies and wines. The fruit sustained Nikka in its early days and is often associated with Cowan to pay homage to her support for her husband.

Join a free guided tour at the Yoichi Distillery and get to know the full story behind Nikka Whisky. Photo by Nikka

Pay a visit

For obvious reasons, begin your Nikka journey at Yoichi. An hour’s drive from Sapporo, the distillery covers everything, from production to history and complimentary tastings. Join a free guided tour in Japanese or plug in an audio guide, you’ll get to see the actual work that goes into your favourite whisky. There’s also the Nikka Museum, a comprehensive exhibit that deep dives into whisky making, Taketsuru’s life and more.

The best part of the tour is the Taketsuru Residence, where you’ll walk down love’s memory lane. Built in 1935 in the suburbs of Yoichi, it was relocated to the distillery in 2002 and preserved as a cultural and historical landmark. Everything has been left as they once were: Taketsuru’s armchair, his tatami room and the bottle of whisky he enriched himself with each day; Cowan’s piano, the books Taketsuru gifted her, and the kitchen, where she mastered the art of Japanese cuisine. Like the couple, the house is a neat blend of Japanese and Scottish architecture, so everyone feels at home, especially Cowan.

The Miyagikyo Distillery. Photo by Nikka

If you are interested in Nikka’s fruitier whiskies, Miyagikyo Distillery also offers tours. Built in 1969 near Sendai, the capital city of Miyagi Prefecture, the distillery sits in a glen at the confluence of two rivers, with red-brick buildings contrasting with the rolling, green hills in the back. The whiskies, made in Coffey stills, are rising in popularity by the day; the Nikka Coffey Grain Whisky, for instance, is well-loved in the USA.

Inside La Maison Du Whisky. Photo by La Maison Du Whisky

Closer to home, the very limited Yoichi 10 Years Old can be found all-year-round at La Maison Du Whisky, an official distributor of Nikka Whisky in Singapore. They also carry the 17 and 21 Years Old Taketsuru Pure Malt, and a few single casks that are impossible to get in most parts of the world. If you’re making a trip to Japan, Bar Trench in Tokyo and Bar Owl & Rooster in Sapporo make spectacular cocktails with Nikka products and plenty more.

Nikka

This story first appeared in the June 2024 issue. Purchase it as a print or digital copy, or consider subscribing to us here