A bullet train from Tokyo takes me into Sendai and after a brief stop to get a taste of beef tongue ramen, a local delicacy in this part of Japan (and a tasty one at that), I’m off on another train towards Nikka’s famous Miyagikyo distillery.
This is certainly no Shinkansen (bullet train), slowly climbing its way into a bright green mountain range. The mountains here, like many in Japan, are coated top to bottom in lush trees with a low mist settled on the canopy – it obviously rains a lot here. ‘Beautiful’ doesn’t even begin to describe my surroundings.
Stepping off the train, some of the freshest air I’ve tasted in some time (I’ve been staying in Tokyo) fills my lungs and energises my mind at the same time. It’s cooler up here than it is in Sendai City or Tokyo and I’m all the better for it.
My eyes are drawn to a map outside the train station showing the Sakunami Onsen, a spa complete with hot springs. My mind wanders, what a place this would be to spend a free day – how relaxed and alone you would feel, completely detached from the bustling streets of Sendai no more than an hour away. Then I spot Mt.Gorilla to my left, admiring for a few minutes before deciding that it does in fact resemble a real gorilla.
Despite the temptation, the hot springs and scenic surroundings will have to wait, there’s only one reason that I’m here today and that’s whisky, the stuff made at Nikka’s Miyagikyo distillery in particular. I jump in a taxi and in just 5 minutes I arrive.
The first thing that struck me about Nikka’s second distillery, built in 1969, some 35 years after Yoichi, is the sheer scale of the operation here. Red brick buildings jut out from the surrounding greenery and the tallest ones tower above many of the trees in the area. Standing at the front and turning 360 I spot a kiln, warehouses, the stillroom, a crystal clear pond complete with a number of swans and yet more warehouses spread out around me.
Walking around the distillery is as educational as it is beautiful. We start at the kiln, a towering red building that once upon a time was used for drying the malted barley with peat or coal, depending on the type of whisky they wanted to produce.
Today, the vastness of the distillery means that they no longer use this building, instead buying in huge quantities of barley that is ready to be used. This may seem ‘less authentic’ on the face of it, but it’s actually common practice within many large distilleries today and doesn’t negatively affect the final product in any way.
Regardless of its current operational status, the kiln is incredibly impressive, standing tall above all else with its pagoda roof and bright red brick showing in stark contrast with the glowing green backdrop.
Precision & Purity
Moving on, we’re lead into a tight corridor, on one side is a wall lined with cask lids, while on the other is a long glass window. The first thing I spot is a large sign stating “NO PHOTOGRAPHY” – this is obviously where the whisky making secrets are kept.
Behind the glass is a large room, the far wall lined with the kind of gigantic computers that you expect to see in NASA’s mission operations room – complete with hundreds of buttons, lights and knobs. Rather than high-level physicists and mathematicians, here the machines are being operated by three high-level distillery workers in blue overalls and hard hats.
Nikka Miyagikyo is a digitally operated distillery and it has been this way for a long time. Everything from the temperature of each individual room to the exact amount of yeast being used in fermentation is controlled from here – it’s all incredibly precise. Nikka feel that this is the best way to create clean, crisp products of consistent quality and who am I to argue with them?
Next we moved on to the still room, and despite initially being impressed by the towering copper spirit stills, my excitement turned to disappointment when I was told that I would not be able to lay eyes on the world renowned continuous coffey stills. After all, Coffey stills are what this distillery is famous for.
Created by Aeneas Coffey in 1830, they were introduced here by Nikka founder and the “Father of Japanese Whisky” Masataka Taketsuru. They help to retain the flavours of the malted barley and the fresh purity of the locally sourced water, meaning that each whisky created using them has a unique sense of character that can be easily identified.
While many originally felt that the spirit produced in these stills was ‘bland or tasteless’, opinions changed when trained noses highlighted the qualities in the delicate, subtle and light bodied whiskies that the use of such equipment results in.
Whisky Shortage? What Whisky Shortage?
After a quick wander around one of the many warehouses it was back to the main entrance to check out the shop and maybe try a dram or two.
The shop was perhaps the most surprising thing about this whole visit. Having been to a couple of Suntory distilleries earlier in the week, where the Japanese whisky shortage is incredibly apparent with bare shelves and next to no whisky available in the distillery stores, what I encountered at Nikka Miyagikyo was unexpected. The shop was busy and it was full of different bottles.
From NAS expressions from Miyagikyo and Yoichi to a number of enticing looking Nikka blends, including distillery exclusives, the popular ‘Date’ bottling and a range of other interesting expressions, the choices on offer were much better than I had expected.
This, combined with the fact that a distillery employee had earlier told me that many of their casks are now having to be transported to Tokyo for maturing, despite the huge number of warehouses on site, made me realise that Nikka really are tackling the whisky shortage head on, perhaps more so than anyone else in the country.
One Last Stop
After warming my belly, with a couple of delicious drams of the Taketsuru Pure Malt 21 Year Old and the Miyagikyo Single Malt Manzanilla Finish, there was just time for one last stop before heading back to Tokyo.
My Osakan friend and colleague tells me of a great spot to view the Miyagikyo water source and it was an opportunity not to be missed. 5 minutes from the distillery I hopped out of my taxi and headed off the beaten track. Walking down a tree-lined forest path I could hear the unmistakable rush of white water in front of me.
Coming into a small opening, I was separated from the cliff edge in front by a waist-height metal fence. I leant on it and looked out at a stunning waterfall, trickling from the mountains way above before rushing over the rocks, snaking down stream and heading off out of view.
It is this pristine water that is used for whisky production at Miyagikyo, resulting in the clean, crisp flavours that the distillery is well known for and it is also this that was perhaps the most beautiful sight of the day. I could have sat here for hours, but unfortunately it was getting late and I had to return for my train to Tokyo.