Japan: Day 3 – Miyagikyo

We touched down in Sendai, hopped on our Anchor bus, and immediately began driving into the mountains towards the Miyagikyo distillery. After about twenty minutes, the hills began transitioning from urban dwellings and pine trees, into clear fall colors and country simplicity. Miyagikyo is located in an entirely different terrain than the Yoichi distillery on Hokkaido, which is something Taketsuru originally wanted (a contrast to his existing facility), yet it still follows the same guidelines for quality whisky production in Japan: a cold Scottish-style climate with incredibly pure water close by.

While seeking out those very important criteria in the late-1960s, Taketsuru came across this mountain stream in the Miyagikyo Prefecture; a water so clean and crisp that he was able to drink it right from the river bank. He famously kneeled down, put his hand in the water, and brought the cold, refreshing liquid to his lips. He asked an assistant what the name of the river was: Nikkawa. The name of his company was already engrained into the current; it was a sign that his next distillery should be built in that very spot.

Using red bricks to create a striking contrast against the green forestation of the mountains, Taketsuru established Miyagikyo distillery in 1969 and immediately began creating a completely different style of whisky to increase the versatility of his blended expressions. 

Whereas the Yoichi stills were wide-necked with descending lyne arms, the pots at Miyagikyo were to be more narrow with ascending lyne arms that allow only the lighter, less-heavy alcohols to escape before condensing the vapor back into a liquid. Powered by steam rather than coal fire, the result is a graceful, more feminine style of single malt whisky. The perfect contrast to Yoichi's masculine, full-bodied weight.

Taketsuru had purchased a Coffey column still from Scotland in 1963, and upon establishing the Miyagikyo distillery he had it moved from a northern Nikka site to his new mountain location. Today there are two Coffey stills operating side-by-side, feeding a continuous cold stream of wort into the yellow, S-shaped pipes, which carry the liquid through the rising vapors; both condensing the alcohol as it rises, and heating the wort with the temperature of the steam. In 2013, Nikka launched a pure Coffey still grain whisky and it has quickly become one of my all-time favorite expressions. Using a mashbill of mostly corn, the whisky is dangerously drinkable and the maturation in ex-Bourbon barrels casts a soft, mellow flavor onto the spirit. It's basically Japanese Bourbon, but don't tell Scotch drinkers that.

In order to obtain access to the parts of the distillery unavailable to most visitors, we had to suit up head-to-toe in a Nikka work suit: shoes, pants, belt, windbreaker, and helmet. 

And out we marched, one-by-one, across the Miyagikyo campus and towards the first stop on our tour.

Our guide led us to the end of the compound, unlocked a gate, and escorted us down to the bank of the Nikkawa River where, of course, we were allowed to recreate Taketsuru's initial taste of the pure mountain water.

Next, a peek at the towering Coffey stills that stretch up several stories, through grated metal platforms, as high as the eye can see.

While the Coffey stills are tall, the Miyagikyo pot stills are nothing to sneeze at either. They're huge! Naoki said they were once the biggest in Japan and may still be. He wasn't sure if Suntory or another rival company had since installed larger ones.

Like Yoichi, there is a cooperage on site, albeit a much more modern and expansive one. 

We had an amazing visit at the Miyagikyo distillery, complete with our own blending exercise where we were given the raw components of each whisky to use in our own creations. At the end of a long day, however, we couldn't wait to get to our hotel. Hotel bars in Japan are incredible and are often the standard in the industry. The Sendai Metropolitan bar was no exception. First class service; top quality drinks.

We sat at the counter for more than an hour, talking about our day and what we had experienced. It was a lot to take in. We've done so much, so quickly, with little time for reflection. Getting the chance to simply sit and unwind was a treat.

Soon it was time to head back out, though: deep into the bright lights of the Sendai evening. We grabbed some Japanese tapas, chugged a few cold Asahis, and eventually ended up at a nearby Karaoke room where we screamed our voices hoarse until late into the night. In 2004, I lived with a group of Japanese girls while studying in Germany and learned a bunch of trendy Japanese rock songs by sheer repetition. I don't know what any of the words mean, but I still remember what they are. Of course, those very songs were available for Karaoke, and, of course, I wanted to shock the shit out of everyone by singing one of them. 

Naoki about fell over. "How in the hell do you know the words to that song?!" he screamed. It was a great time, to say the least.

We're off to Tokyo today by bullet train. That should be quite an experience.

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll