Japan: Day 2 – Yoichi/Story of Nikka – Part II

Masataka Taketsuru was born into a sake brewing family in the year 1894. Carrying on with the family tradition, he studied chemistry and went to work for the Settsu Shuzo company, making sake as he had been taught. Taketsuru's interests reached beyond Japanese beverages, however, and in 1918 he convinced his boss to send him to Scotland where he could study whisky production. Upon arrival he enrolled in classes at the University of Glasgow and found apprenticeships at both the Longmorn and Hazelburn distilleries. 

In 1920, he did something incredibly controversial: he married a Scottish woman named Jessie Roberta Cowan, or "Rita", as he called her. Taketsuru had met Cowan's younger sister in class and was later introduced by her to his future bride. Needless to say, the matrimony wasn't met with open arms by Rita's family, so the couple eventually made their way back to Japan. In 1922, Taketsuru left Settsu Shuzo to work for Kotobukiya (which would later become Suntory) to put his Scottish skills to good use; they wanted his help building Japan's first whisky distillery: Yamazaki. Taketsuru worked a ten year contract for Kotobukiya, but left in 1934 and established his own company called Dai Nippon Kaju: the Japanese Juice Company. Using apples from the northern island of Hokkaido, he produced both juice and wine until he could save enough money to begin distillation.

In establishing a whisky distillery in Japan—one that would faithfully recreate the traditional style of Scotland's renowned producersTaketsuru believed there were four key requirements that would need to be met: the location needed to be similar to the Scottish climate, the distillery would need to create a variety of different styles of whisky, both pot and column stills should be utilized, and quality blending skills would be a must. His old boss Kotobukiya thought building a distillery on Hokkaido was insane. How would people be able to visit a destination so remote? How would one transport the whisky for sale and exportation? The town of Yoichi had a cold, snowy Scottish climate and clean water; two things Taketsuru believed would result in good whisky. 

In 1936, Taketsuru installed the first copper pot stills at his Dai Nippon Kaju location in the town of Yoichi. The first whisky, called Nikka, was released in 1940 and the name of the company was changed to reflect the whisky in 1952. If you had to compare the Yoichi distillery to a Scottish counterpart, the clear analogy would be Springbank. Both distilleries are located right downtown in a somewhat urban setting, both locations are near the water, both utilize fat-necked pot stills with downward-sloping lyne arms, heated from below and capable of producing heavier whiskies, and both distilleries make a variety of different expressions. 

Remaining faithful to the old tradition, Yoichi still uses coal to power their stills; creating an inferno that blazes anywhere from 800 to 1000 degrees beneath the copper pot. The inconsistency of the process and the exact location of each hot spot is believed to be integral to Yoichi's eventual character.

Cooperage is also key to Yoichi's versatile flavor profile. There are twenty-seven dunnage warehouses on site, aging single malt whisky in Bourbon barrels, puncheons, hogsheads, and sherry butts. 

Casks are also recharred and reconditioned when needed, both to rekindle the flavor of used barrels and also to intensify the flavors in others. We were treated to an amazing display of sherry butt caramelization. I've never smelled oak so delicious in my life.

There's a lot more to talk about, but I'm pressed for time at the moment. More later.

-David Driscoll


Japan: Day 2 – The Story of Nikka

There's a pretty incredible history behind the Nikka brand. It's a story so wonderfully engaging that it's now currently airing as a Japanese telenovela called "Massan and Ellie" on the NHK network. Since Nikka has no involvment (and therefore no control) with the project, the names of Masataku Taketsuru and Jessie Roberta Cowan have been changed to "Massan and Ellie," but it's pretty clear who they're talking about. A Japanese-born chemist travels to Scotland to learn about whisky distillation, falls in love with a Scottish woman, marries her, and brings her back to Japan where she learns the language, culture, and customs, thereby helping him establish his own apple wine company, and eventually his own whisky.

Yes, the story of Nikka in Japan begins with apples. It's part of the reason that hard cider and apple wine continue to play a role in the company today.

I'll be back soon with the entire story; full of juicy, delicious details. We're off to Yoichi in a few minutes. Until then.

-David Driscoll


Japan: Day 1 – Sapporo

We had an incredible flight over from Taipei to Sapporo. The entire plane was Hello Kitty to the absolute max. Hello Kitty pillows. Hello Kitty coasters. Hello Kitty safety instructions. Hello Kitty radishes at the bottom of my miso soup. Everything on the plane was Hello Kitty, from the air freshener in the bathroom to the pen I used to fill out my customs form. What a riot!

We arrived in downtown Sapporo with plenty of time to explore before dinner. A few of us put down our suitcases, changed into heavier jackets (sub-40 temperatures in Hokkaido), and hit the streets to see the sights.

Right downtown sits a gigantic neon Nikka billboard with an Asahi complement just across the street. Not more than thirty feet away is a huge Sapporo competitor. It might seem strange to visit Sapporo and not drink a Sapporo beer, but remember we're here to visit Nikka. Asahi is the Nikka brand, while Sapporo is the Suntory brand. These two companies do not like each other. Suntory is like Coca-Cola to Nikka's Pepsi. Suntory is the Dodgers to Nikka's San Francisco Giants. It's a serious rivalry, to say the least.

Since we were here to drink (and learn more about) Nikka, what better place to visit than the Nikka Bar situated just a few blocks from our hotel? Highballs all around! If you're not familiar with Japanese whisky culture, the Highball is the prefered whisky cocktail: a huge block of handcut ice and a splash of whisky, topped with soda water. It's a very serious drink in Japan and the preparation is quite ceremonial for something so simple. Even our quaint hotel bar (not pictured due to a charging camera battery) had a professional guy behind the counter cutting blocks of ice with supreme skill. 

This being the Nikka Bar, there were all kinds of exclusive, unseen-in-the-states whiskies behind the counter. Single casks galore!

Our guide from Nikka, a man by the name of Naoki, picked us up at the hotel and took us out for some drinks and nibbles. Super cold draft Asahi (served at 2 degrees Celcius) was the name of the game, along side fried chicken with ginger, picked vegetables, and crispy potatoes. This was all a precursor, however, to the meal I had been waiting for my entire adult life.

I discovered Japanese ramen not by reading Yelp or following the advise of my generation's hipster culture, but rather simply by geographical coincidence. I live in San Mateo, which happens to be the Japanese ramen mecca of the Bay Area. It's impossible not to see the lines wrapping halfway around the block outside these esteemed eateries and not take notice. Since 2007, when I moved to the Peninsula capital and finally waited the half hour requisite to enter one of these über-popular joints, I've been a ramen addict. Sapporo happens to be the spiritual home of my particular favorite type: miso ramen. Naoki walked us outside of the general city center and towards a hole-in-the-wall filled with dinner time guests. 

After tolerating our over-excited American behavior the entire evening, Naoki turned to us before we entered the tiny establishment and said, "All right guys; let's all tone it down and be cool. This isn't a tourist spot." I grabbed one of the few open seats at the counter and gazed at the noodles sitting nearby. 

Chris Fu and I were in hog heaven. We kept giggling to each other and shaking our heads. Holy shit, the ramen was incredible. The miso broth was thick and creamy; the noodles were hearty and filling. We slurped, swallowed, and placed our bowls onto the upper counter. Time to clear out and offer our seats to the fifty guests waiting patiently behind us. 

Tomorrow we go to Yoichi.

-David Driscoll


Taiwan: Day 2 – Airport Mall

What's this?! We get to fly to Sapporo on a Hello Kitty-themed plane?! Oh my god. I cannot wait to get on this aircraft.

First, however, it was time to hit the business lounge. Front and center: a bowl of rice for breakfast washed down by a half can of Kavalan's Mr. Brown Coffee. Delish. If you haven't been to Taiwan, let me tell you, you're flying in and out of a high-end mall that also happens to have a few runways. There's more luxury merchandise here than the entirety of Union Square's Maiden Lane. It's astonishing.

When we got to the gate I had to fight through a crowd of other passengers to get a look at the plane. There was a mob of people standing in front of the glass window, jockeying for position to get their photo taken.

Like I said, I can't wait to get on this aircraft.

-David Driscoll


Taiwan: Day 1 – Night in Taipei

Downtown Taipei is an incredibly intricate tapestry of modern consumerism and intelligent design. The lights are bright, the scene is ecclectic, and the energy being exuded is full of optimism. There is new construction. There are crowds of well-dressed people speaking English as well as they do Mandarin. There's plenty of bustle in Taipei, but refreshingly it's without the hustle.

Every bench on just about every alley is being used. People are resting, taking breaks, talking to one another, enjoying their coffee rather than slurping it down as they move quickly from one task to the next. The city of Taipei has provided its residents with a number of serene seats to unwind and the people are utilizing that space. The juxtaposition of steel, glass, and greenery is outstanding. It was quite wonderful to observe. 

Mopeds seem to be the preferred transportation with young couples zipping down the city streets, in between the numerous buses that continue to shuttle more residents into the center.

At one point the world's tallest building, Taipei 101 looms largely over the area. Unlike the Empire State Building or the former World Trade Center, however, the vertical behemoth you see before you isn't just a stack of offices as high as the eye can see. It's something much more user friendly.

Taipei 101 is a gigantic, never-ending, beautifully-designed, awe-inspiring shopping mall. It's without a doubt the greatest mall I've ever experienced. Imagine every retail outlet in Vegas, from the Venetian to Caesar's, all crammed into one space with twice the inventory, along with an additional 200 stores we never see in the U.S. 

If you can picture that in your head, you might start to come somewhat near to what Taipei 101 offers. All I could keep saying to myself was, "My wife would absolutely die!"

It's not like it's a mall full of sad Old Navy jumpers and shitty Armani cast-offs. Each store is like an individual work of art. I thought this golden delight above was a Tory Burch, but it was actually a beautifully-curated tea shop with a detailed selection. I don't drink that much tea, but I blew through $60 in about two minutes. I was deeply moved.

The fashion on the Taipei streets is also modern and, more importantly, smart. Despite the dominance of big brands on the billboards, no one was painfully whoring their labels for everyone to see. It's more about looking good, than looking expensive. Doc Martins, black tights, a sweater dress, with a discreet Chanel purse? Well done. 

Into the neon night we went, a balmy 70 degrees, walking from the hotel towards the restaurant where we would meet Mr. Lee, the owner of the King Car Company, for a special banquet style dinner.

Mr. Lee was busy deciding who would sit where around the lazy Susan. Seeing the final arrangement, I didn't understand the nature of the positioning, but I soon discovered the strategy.

In Taiwan, it's tradition to drink only when inviting someone else from the table to drink with you. If you want to take a sip of wine then you must make eye contact with someone else and raise a toast in their honor. For that reason, the whisky was poured into thimble-sized glasses that hold probably a third of an ounce. It's completely deceiving, however. No one tells you in advance that you'll probably engage in forty to fifty toasts over the course of the evening (and you're expected to drain your glass each time). I started faking it after about the fifteenth raising of the glass. I don't think many other people were following my lead, however. Things got absolutely nuts in a hurry. It was an incredible dinner full of heartfelt speeches and feelings of true friendship, fueled by endless shots of Kavalan single malt. The meal was delicious, but I'll remember the comradery more than the food.

Around the family-style table in Taiwan you'll find great bottles of whisky, but you won't sit there nosing the glass, trying to coax out each detailed aroma while some ridculously pompous guy talks to you about the history of distillation and the importance of enjoying each sip. You're here to drink. You're going to enjoy each tiny glass while you do it, but the main focus is on the person across from you rather than the liquid in the glass. I think we all really enjoyed that aspect of the evening. I don't think I've ever had that much fun with a bottle of whisky.

Thankfully, I managed to get home and into bed rather early. A few hours of shut-eye was exactly what I needed before rising early in the morning for our flight to Japan. I climbed out of bed around 4:15, opened the blinds, and began organizing my images into something somewhat tangible. The city was still moving.

I'm excited to see what today holds for us.

-David Driscoll