When Masataka Taketsuru left Kotobukiya Co. Ltd. (present-day Suntory) in the spring of 1934, after a decade at the helm of Yamazaki distillery, it didn’t take him long to establish his own company and his own distillery. By the fall of the same year, Taketsuru had acquired a sizeable plot of land near the mouth of the Yoichi River in Hokkaido and distillery buildings had been erected. After two years of making apple products – juice as well as apple brandy – to get the cash flow going, the first whisky ran off the still (singular, as there was only sufficient money for one pot still).
The rest is history, as they say. Like all big distilleries in Japan, Yoichi produces a wide range of spirit types, but it’s the bold, peaty style that has gained the affection of many whisky enthusiasts at home and abroad. Nikka believes that the direct heating using coal plays an essential role in shaping the Yoichi distillate. In 2003, a special filter was installed to reduce the environmental impact at a staggering cost of 100 million yen. It would have been cheaper the replace all the stills in the stillhouse and switch to indirect heating, but doing so would have changed the character of the spirit, so the decision was made to stick to the traditional method.
Up until the mid-1980s, all spirit produced at Yoichi distillery was destined for the Nikka blends. It wasn’t until late-1984 that the first single malt expression (a 12-year old) was launched, half a year after Nikka’s rival had launched its own single malt. Given its relatively short history as a brand, one might expect Yoichi to be a fairly easy target for the collector. Not so, unfortunately.
Broadly speaking, there are three areas of interest from the collector’s point of view. The first is the old core range, which in addition to a NAS expression consisted of a 10, 12, 15 and 20 year old. These bottles were relatively easy to get, at home and abroad, until stock shortages forced Nikka to discontinue the entire range in the summer of 2015. Intense hoarding over the months that followed quickly turned these into unicorns. Good luck finding any in the wild these days!
The second area of interest is the series of annual limited editions. Between 2004 and 2010, Nikka released an annual limited Yoichi release. For each release, the master blender created a vatting of different spirit/cask types from the respective vintage 20 years earlier (i.e. 1984 to 1990). The first three releases were limited to 500 bottles only, and these are the hardest to get now. Success at whisky competitions led to extra releases and then higher outturns (3,500 bottles) for the last three releases, which may increase your odds of finding a bottle, though only marginally so given the high regard this series is held in. After the 2015 Heavily Peated Yoichi Limited Edition, Nikka changed its strategy for their annual limited releases to wood finished (moscatel, rum, manzanilla, etc.) NAS expressions. The most recent is the 2020 Apple Brandy Wood Finish.
The third and most challenging area for the collector is single cask bottlings. Nikka released its first Yoichi single cask bottling in 1998 but phased out this side of the brand by the mid 2010s. The Scotch Malt Whisky Society managed to squeeze 20 casks out of the company between 2002 and 2015, but none have been released since. The only trickle of single cask bottlings at the moment are those in private hands for participants of Nikka’s “My Whisky Zukuri” (Make Your Own Whisky), a weekend program which the company has been running during selected periods at both of its distilleries for well over a decade now. Participation is limited to Japanese residents and interest is very high, so places for the weekend program are allocated by ballot. At the end of the weekend, each group fills a cask which is then matured for 10 years. Once it’s bottled, participants get a few bottles from ‘their’ cask. At the moment, those are the only single cask expressions that get through the net. Happy hunting!