Maybe we will meet again, further down the river,
In the early 1930's, Masataka Taketsuru left his job at Suntory's Yamazaki distillery - the "true birthplace of Japanese whisky" (Malt Whisky Yearbook 2014) - and toured Japan in search of a place to make the perfect, traditional Japanese single malt. Taketsuru was a rugged individual who helped found Japanese whisky in the 1920's. The heir of generations of sake brewers in Hiroshima, Taketsuru actually traveled to Scotland to obtain a degree in organic chemistry from the University of Glasgow in 1919. He then spent time living and working at Scottish distilleries before returning to Japan.
"That's great, Mr. Alchemist. Skip to the good stuff."
Wait for it, dear reader. The most important part of this story is where Taketsuru-san spent time living and working in Scotland: Campbeltown, a titan of distillation in its prime but home to only 3 functioning distilleries today. Campbeltown is the home of Springbank single malt whisky, a whisky startlingly close to Yoichi single malt in both quality and complexity. In fact, I might go so far as to say that Yoichi is Springbank's closest cousin ... on the other side of the world. How does this happen?
Campbeltown does incredible things making whisky in the old ways (i.e. open-oil firing of the stills). Yoichi is no exception. Taketsuru chose Yoichi as the location for Nikka's first distillery because he felt the terroir best resembled Scotland (Yoichi is situated on Hokkaido, Japan's northern-most island). The stills are traditionally coal-fired. There is no micro-barrel distillation here; instead, time and provenance take their course. Yoichi is, in a very deliberate sense, proof that you don't have to reinvent the lyne arm to make stunning and delicious whisky that appeals to consumers. In an age where craft distillation is booming in a way similar to craft brewing of yore, too many distillers see a need to cut corners or do something novel to make their spirit and story stand apart. Yoichi just isn't playing that game, and it's certainly not suffering for that decision.
The Yoichi 15 year old is leaning towards the older end of Nikka's core range of single malts. I'm not certain about the barrel-maturation make-up here, but I know Nikka's coopers work in sherry butts, ex-bourbon barrels, and Japanese oak alike. Honestly, judging from the nose, I wouldn't be surprised if all three are represented here in some fashion.
The nose presentation is extremely complex. Since it's so difficult to grab one thing at a time out of this one, I'm going to settle for an exercise in comparisons. In the breakdown I'm getting a definite sherry finish, similar to something like Balvenie's Double Wood but more subdued. There's also a strong, deliciously creamy bourbon-note here, similar to Single Cask Nation's 12 year old Glen Moray (matured entirely in a first fill bourbon barrel) or Hakushu's Bourbon Barrel. This adds up to dried dark fruits (figs, dates) swimming in creme brûlée while someone cooks with teriyaki just over in the kitchen. There are delicate hints of toasted oak (not as oak-forward as a Scottish highland malt) along with a very subtle campfire smokiness, certainly in the sub-10 parts per million. I know very few whiskies this complex and well integrated, and even fewer Japanese whiskies in particular. It's one of the reasons this was a finalist for my Highley Recommended single malt of the year.
Let's try the palate. (Gasp)... TWIST! That nose was just playing with us!
The smoke delivers right up front, certainly more than you'd expect from sub-10 ppm. It is tightly integrated with that bourbony cream flavor in a way that creates a slight drying spice on the palate, almost like sampling a spoonful of nutmeg and burnt coffee grounds (soaked in Texas Pete hot sauce). There are boatloads of umami going on here, just tons and tons of it. Since I lack the skills to adequately describe this sensation without going into glutamates and nucleotides, I'll just post a picture of where you get it on the tongue. And boy, do you GET IT. There's a certain salty seafood broth aspect to this, although it's hard to say if this comes from Yoichi's location as it is just about a kilometer from the coast. We're totally going down the rabbit hole now, as sour lime juice lurks down there somewhere along with fibrous, pitted dates. When you stare into the abyss, the abyss also stares into you. What a journey!
What really sets this whisky apart is just how tightly integrated and structured all of its disparate elements are. The finish (which is long on the spice and heat) is a testament to the monumental deliciousness of what you've just experienced: a journey that would be fraught with peril in most other distilleries' hands. If you can find a bottle of this whisky (rarely available in stores, although much more widely available online) it is worth every penny. Its unique Japanese terroir combined with Scottish craft ensures you'll have special story to tell.
Tasting is a synesthetic experience. In this blog, every whisky gets a song - one that describes, suits, and evokes. I review any whisky that suits my fancy, and some that don't. I don't give scores. You'll know whether it's a winner or loser when we peel back its mysteries and start putting pen to paper.