There’s a difference to the light. Clear, sharp. The sky is blue but it is a chill blue. The trees on the roadside hills are thin-trunked, their ranches making fine tracings on the sky.The ground seems thin. There are spruce and fir covered mountains in the distance, and a cold sea beside us as we drive through tunnels carved through cliffs that rear like breaching whales from the ocean.A northern landscape. (Sorry Antipodean friends, but I write from a northern perspective).There’s a smoor of snow on the hills. A place of ferries, heavy-booted people, where you can see your breath in front of you. It’s good to be going north, and west for that matter and is a relief to have this space after the concreted confines of Tokyo.Sorry. Should have said that to begin with. This is Japan, not the road to Skye.Specifically, this is Hokkaido. If you think of Japan as being like a dragon arcing out across the sea, then the island of Hokkaido is its head.Our destination is Nikka’s distillery in the small town of Yoichi on its western coast. At least my head was clearing.It’s bad enough having to get up at 6.30am to go to the airport for a day trip, doubly so when you haven’t got to bed till the small hours, triply so when you wake up in such a panic that you pack your suitcase and try to check out.“Just bring yourself, Dave,” says the affable Nikka’s Naofumi Kamiguchi.“You’re back here tonight.”I’d wanted to visit Yoichi ever since I’d first tasted the 10 year old single barrel, cask strength at the inaugural Best of the Best tasting. We’d known of the quality of Japanese whisky, but this was the first time the majority of us had tried it against some of the best of the rest.The fact it got the highest aggregate score was the equivalent in whisky terms as when Stag’s Leap Cabernet from the Napa Valley beat the top Bordeaux châteaux in a blind tasting.Now Alastair Robertson from Talisker, La Maison du Whisky’s Thiérry Bénitah and I are here to try and discover its secrets. We hiss through the slush to an archway just off the main street.In front of us, red-roofed, thick stone walls glistening with melting snow is the still. Different, yet strangely familiar.The comparison might seem glib, might even seem ever so slightly patronising but Yoichi’s founder Masataka Taketsuru would have been pleased to hear it.He chose this site in 1934 because it reminded him of Scotland. There was peat , there was oak, and the Hokkaido climate, which by now we are experiencing in full, was similar to that of Scotland.This choice was governed by experience not blind homage. This was a man, born into a sake-brewing dynasty, who in 1918 had left Japan to study chemistry and whisky-making at Glasgow University and who spent time apprenticeship at a host of distilleries (Craigellachie, Hazelburn and Lagavulin among them).He returned with a Scottish wife and a determination to make Japanese whisky. Taketsuru’s inclination was always to head north to Hokkaido but his employer, Kotobukiya (now Suntory) felt it made more economic sense to base Japan’s first distillery close to the major urban centres on Honshu, so Yamazaki was built, with Taketsuru in charge.The dream of a northern distillery never left him however and in 1934 he set up on his own and headed to Hokkaido (the island’s name means ‘North Sea Road’). Six years later the first whiskies from the distillery appeared.The likelihood is they were perfumed with Japanese peat. Sadly, malting doesn’t take place on site any more, so the days of Yoichi using peat from the Ishikari plains have gone.We handle some samples left by the kiln door, trying to balance its texture with memories of Islay and Skye. It seems more fibrous, straw like. A fast-burner with plenty of smoke.Neither is Japanese barley used. It’s too expensive. Amazingly, it is cheaper to ship it from the United Kingdom.We crunch through the snow to the stillhouse with master distiller Hiroaki Yamaji. There are four wash stills, all coal fired, and two spirit stills, heated by steam. The lye pipes arc out to worm tubs (apart from one spirit still which has a condenser).The clues suggest Taketsuru was aiming to make a big whisky, especially when you factor in the peat. So what style do they make these days?“This year we’re only making one,” says Mr Yamaji blithely, before reeling off the fact that he can make peated, non-peated, lightly-peated, light flavour, standard flavour and heavy/concentrated flavour. He smiles broadly.“This isn’t a Scottish distillery,” he says. “We make quite a number of styles as we need to make different types of whisky for our own use.”So there is no one technique at Yoichi?“We have as many techniques as there are different styles. Or maybe more, as ‘blending’ is a combination of styles!” So, the ferment times are normally 72 hours, but can vary, as will the yeast. (Why is it only the Scots that are convinced that yeast has no impact on flavour?)The peating levels will rise and fall depending on what is being made, but the distillation is always slow.“This is incredible,” says Alastair, shaking his head and grinning at once. “I have enough trouble making one style!”This approach is perfectly normal for Japan where distillers have never exchanged their whiskies.The result is that each distillery needs to produce as complex a mix of whiskies as possible — a fact which is underlined when we go through the warehouses. Though US white oak is used predominantly, the barrels can be new, ex-bourbon or refills.There’s also European oak and barrels which have been revitalised by decharring and recharring. The only thing that’s missing is Japanese oak.The malts may come in a variety of styles and wood types but at their core is a rich-bodied sweetness – even with the new make. You can pick and choose which style you prefer, but this sweetness is constant.By now it’s so cold that my fingers can barely grip the pen. And there’s the point. It wasn’t just the peat, or the water that appealed to Taketsuru, it was the temperature which is more or less the same as Scotland’s, meaning that maturation rates are similar – the inference being that Honshu’s more humid conditions may have a different effect on the spirit.Great distilleries have a presence to them. They seem to grow from the landscape. I know the style of the spirit is all to do with the weird alchemy between vapour, copper, yeast and peat, but this mysterious sense of place, the spirit of the spirit if you like, remains true.Talisker has it, so has Yoichi. Taketsuru knew this.“Whisky-making is an act of co-operative creation between the blessings of nature and the wisdom of man,” he once said.Don’t get me wrong. He was a scientist and no doubt the main reasons for choosing this small port were technical, but I like to think that this corner of Hokkaido spoke to him more deeply.He was making good whisky, great whisky, at Yamazaki so why was the pull of the remote north so strong?The Ainu people who were the original occupants of Hokkaido believe that the land is alive, that everything is imbued with spirit. Even from a technical point of view Taketsuru believed much the same.That the natural world: barley, peat, oak, water and air fuse together under man’s control to make this drink. How can whisky fail to speak of the land?The distillery isn’t a museum to his vision. Rather, it is living, evolving.The make-up of the 270,000 people a year who visit this place is changing.
“In the old days only men came to visit us,” said Kamaguchi.“Recently young people, young ladies are coming here.”That’s given Nikka a chance to widen the range of its whiskies, to target a new malt hungry audience.There’s now 10 single malts exclusive to the distillery, a fact which results in Thierry having a mild Gallic panic attack and buying half the shop.My tips? Try the peaty 1989 single cask, all dry birch smoke, smoked mackerel and sweet fruits and the substantial chewy single cask 20-year-old. World class whiskies.It’s over too soon. We herd back to the airport with a bottle of that legendary 10-year-old as a soul warmer.Next time I will take the suitcase and stay.Thanks to Mana Kondo and Naofumi Kamaguchi for help with translation.