Arriving at the long driveway that leads into the Nikka Miyagikyo Distillery, a yellow sign warns of bears and monkeys in the area. As visitors walk along the tree-lined road, the sound of water rushes below, and the path leads to a picturesque pond surrounded by large red brick buildings. A pair of swans swim slowly across the glassy water.
A short walk down to the banks of the Nikkawa River reveals why Nikka founder Masataka Taketsuru believed he had found the ideal location to build a distillery. Dipping hands in the river to taste the fresh water connects visitors to Masataka’s original vision for Nikka in the serene valley in Sendai.
With a population of over one million, Sendai is the largest city in Japan’s Tohoku Region. The city is home to castles and museums filled with historical artifacts as well as architectural sites including Sendai Mediatheque designed by Toyo Ito, and creative agencies like Wow. Cafes, restaurants, and highball bars can be found throughout Sendai. Heading about 24 kilometers inland from the Sendai city center, tours and tastings at the Nikka Distillery Miyagikyo are a highlight for whisky enthusiasts.
The region has become known for having an ideal climate for growing rice and produce (including Sendai’s famous strawberry farm) and Masataka—widely considered to be the father of Japanese whisky—traveled to the region in the late 1960s. He had begun distilling whisky at his Yoichi Distillery in Hokkaido in 1936, many years earlier.
With similar qualities to Speyside in Scotland, the lush riverside valley next to the Nikkawa River was believed to be a prime location for making whisky. Masataka tasted the water from the Nikkawa River below the mountains of Sakunami and knew from its purity that he’d found the perfect location for his second distillery.
From the banks of the river to the production facilities, views of the fermenter, wash stills, and spirit stills are marked with large white signs written in English and Japanese. Here at Miyagikyo, the team makes whiskies in larger pot stills with bulging necks and ascending lyne-arms heated with indirect steam at lower temperatures for slower distillation. The result is a floral and soft Miyagikyo single malt. Each still has been adorned with a simenawa (a scared rope) and white washi paper streamers folded into zigzags, traditionally used in shrines to denote sanctity and purity.
One of the largest brick buildings at Nikka houses the continuous Coffey stills named for the inventor Aeneas Coffey. These stills produce Nikka’s range of Coffey Malt and Grain Whiskies as well as their newer gin and vodka. The Coffey stills, originally imported to Japan in the ’60s, were transferred to this Sendai location in 1999, but were originally brought to Japan to make whiskies that retain more of the flavor of the grain. Coffey Grain whisky is made from mostly corn, and the Coffey malt is distilled from 100% malted barley, while still being considered a grain whisky due to the fact that it’s not distilled in a pot still.
Inside the warehouse, the cool air smells of the mild aromas associated with angel’s share. The barrels marked Nikka Whisky King of Blenders, reveal the mandate of the company to make blends as delicious and important as the single malts. The first barrel filled at the distillery sits prominently in front.
Back at the tasting room, it’s time to taste the glorious results of the distiller’s labors. The first tasting offers three glasses that reflect the foundational flavors created there: the Single Malt Miyagikyo (made by lightly heating with indirect steam) has a strong sherry cask influence, the Rare Old Super (considered a Nikka classic and originally introduced in 1962) has gentle hints of peat with the scent of chocolate and vanilla, while the Apple Wine (an apple brandy) is matured in brandy barrel and reflects the importance of the apple farms in the area.
Next stop, the tasting bar is where visitors can order samples from the deep library of blends and single malts. A series of single malts has been developed to highlight specific characteristics of their whiskies—from Sherry & Sweet to Fruity & Rich and Malty & Soft—and can all be sampled in drams along with expressions of the Single Malt Miyagikyo as well as bottles from their Yoichi Distillery in Hokkaido.
For Nikka’s 50th year in Sendai, they are releasing a special single malt to mark the occasion. The Single Malt Miyagikyo Limited Edition 2019 has been composed with whiskies from the past five decades and contains some from the very first barrels produced there. With just 70 bottles coming to the United States, a visit to the distillery offers a rare opportunity to taste by the dram. The Single Malt Miyagikyo Limited Edition 2019 delivers a sweetness from deep, long-matured sherry as well as immense richness throughout. This anniversary whisky reveals layers of savory and sweet flavor.
Back out in the sunshine, no bears or monkeys can be seen, and walking down the path over the river, visitors leave with more knowledge of the whisky-making process and the legacy of Nikka. Turning to glance once more at the grounds, it’s feasible to imagine that the area’s distinct beauty finds its way into each distillation, and eventually each bottle.
Images by Julie Wolfson