Travelling to Hokkaido? Looking for the best Japanese distilleries, whisky and craft spirits to indulge in?
Beverage loving travellers are visiting distilleries and breweries throughout Japan in the quest to finding the best craft beers, fine whiskies and boutique spirits. The popularity of craft beers and boutique spirits has grown in Japan over the last decade with more travellers visiting distilleries, breweries and wineries.
Restaurants and bars all over the world are embracing this popular culture and incorporating food pairing to deliver the complete experience.
After you’re done skiing and snowboarding on those spectacular Japanese ski fields, you must check out these distilleries. No Hokkaido distillery is alike, so hit them all!
There are several alcoholic beverages that come to mind when you think of Japan, it is pretty much a drinker’s paradise. Their drinking culture is quite unique and so too are their distilleries. You will undoubtedly associate Japan’s most famous alcohol with what is known in the Western world as ‘sake’. But there is much to learn should you venture into the breathtaking north island of Hokkaido, around 4-hours train ride from Tokyo.
Here we will look at some of the best distilleries and breweries in Hokkaido Japan.
1. Benizakura Distillery
Hokkaido is known for its excellent ski fields, Sapporo beer and Japan’s largest winter event, the Sapporo Snow Festival that attracts approximately two million people each year. During the February festival, Sapporo is transformed into a winter wonderland of white snow and enormous ice sculptures. But its unique and breathtaking features do not stop there.
The Benizakura Distillery, Hokkaido’s first craft gin specialist opened in 2018. Being the first craft gin producer of its kind in Sapporo, things have continued to blossom ever since. You may know Japan for its whisky, sake or beer, but its gin gives these alcoholic beverages a run for their money! The distillery was established in Benizakura Park, one of the oldest traditional Japanese garden in Sapporo. Visitors can witness the changing of the seasons that surround the distillery. It is owned by Hokkaido Liberty Whisky, but they have proven that whisky is not all that they specialise in with this new development.
Japan’s First Craft Gin
The first boutique gin released in early 2018 was named ‘9148 Gin’. This gin encapsulates the traditional ingredients such as juniper, clove, lemon peel and cinnamon while adding some of Hokkaido’s locally sourced botanicals. These Hokkaido specialties include shiitake mushrooms, Hidaka kelp and dried radish strips.
9148 Japan’s First Craft Gin
Surprisingly, the name of the gin comes from the famous George Orwell novel, 1984. The numbers have been changed around, the ’19’ becoming ’91’ and the ’84’ reversed to ’48’. This speaks of the freedom that we have in our society that was not so much present in the novel. It is of course related to the specific passage which describes the foul tasting, medicine-like artificial ‘Victory’ gin that was accessible in this controlled society. Benizakura Distillery has flipped this all around to make a statement through their product. This delicious craft gin aims to symbolise freedom of thought.
9148 Gin is only available in the distillery in Hokkaido with hope that it will spread internationally soon. But as of yet the only way to get your hands on a bottle is to visit them in Sapporo and try it for yourself.
Benizakura Distillery’s 9148 Gin has a similar nose to a ‘London Dry Gin’ with a hint of black pepper and a big punch of juniper and lemon peel. Taste and palate wise, there is a hint of cinnamon then juniper and cardamom finishing with a burst of lemon and slow end of black pepper. The taste is exquisite and for the gin lovers out there it is an opportunity not to be missed!
Japanese Whisky and Whisky Making
Boutique liquors from the ‘Land of the Rising Sun’ are gaining a notable reputation with connoisseurs around the world. What is impressive about this popular distilled spirit is that Japanese whiskies are largely lighter and sweeter. Their method of distilling three times, produces a softer, smoother and lighter spirit. With several Japanese distillers achieving World Whiskies Awards and accolades for their single malt, grain and blended whiskies, it is easy to see why whisky consumption has exploded in the last ten years. In fact, keeping up with supply and demand has become somewhat of a whisky crisis with some Japanese whiskies only available from cellar doors.
Japanese whisky distilleries have taken on the traditional Scottish method of whisky production. This is why their products take on the Scottish spelling of ‘whisky’ while Ireland, America and other countries spell it ‘whiskey’ with an extra ‘e’.
There’s More to Whisky…
The Japanese take on a somewhat ceremonial approach when indulging in fine whiskies. Presentation and execution, all play a part in the whole whisky experience that includes specialty glassware, premium mixers, hand-cut bubble free ice and extravagant garnishes. For this reason, a visit to a Japanese Whisky bar promises to be a memory building experience like no other.
If you are interested in learning about the history of Nikka Whisky, then you must visit Yoichi Distillery. The distillery was built in 1934 and commenced distilling in 1936. Yoichi Distillery is located 90 minutes’ drive north-west of Sapporo’s New Chitose Airport. The location for this amazing distillery was chosen by the owner and distiller, Masataka Taketsuru. He was the first Japanese man to master the making of whisky during his time in Scotland in the late 1910s. In 1920, he brought his love of whisky and knowledge back to his homeland. Taketsuru chose Yoichi as it had a similar landscape to the highlands of Scotland, close to the sea and surrounded by the mountains on three sides. The fresh water sourced naturally together with the climate has proved just as beneficial for the production of this delicious clean and crisp whisky. There was really no better place to choose than Yoichi, Hokkaido.
You are welcome to come and explore the traditional whisky distillery, which still utilises yesteryear methods such as coal-fired distillation. This difficult distilling process has been left well in the past by most of today’s whisky producers. It requires highly skilled craftsmen as well as drastic temperature control at all times. The reason this traditional method is still used today is because it gives Yoichi Single Malt Whisky its distinct and unique characteristics such as boldness and toasty burnt flavours.
Yoichi Distillery can be found near Sapporo, the capital of the island, just west of Otaru. It is accessible by train and most weekdays it is open between the hours of 9am and 5pm. If you are making a special trip, it is best to call ahead as sometimes the distillery may be closed due to public holidays or poor weather conditions. If you are a whisky fan, then Yoichi Distillery is certainly a must.
Another well-known whisky distillery located in the rural stretches is Hokkaido Akkeshi Distillery. It has been in operation since 2016 and has thrived in the ideal conditions that exist in Akkeshi, Hokkaido. Akkeshi Distillery is dedicated to making whisky using the traditional distilling methods of Scotland to create a whisky similar to Islay malts.
It was not until 2018 that their first blend was perfected and released, a non-peated malt matured for between 5 and 14 months in bourbon casks. Following that, came their first peated whisky and since then, the Akkeshi product range has grown exponentially, both in size and popularity around the globe.
Tours are available through Akkeshi Conchiglie, but the products are unfortunately not for sale in the distillery. You can of course find their signature blends around the town and in the stretches all the way to the capital of Sapporo. It may be a little way to go and quite far from any of the main cities but this little up and coming distillery is certainly worth the trip.
It is likely that the beer lovers have heard or tasted Sapporo Beer. But, at Sapporo Beer Museum you get the opportunity to see where the beer is made and learn first-hand about the amazing history that accompanies its development.
Sapporo Beer Museum in the island’s capital is the only interactive beer museum in Japan. A tour will take you step by step through the history of the world-renowned Sapporo Beer established in 1876 as the Kaitakushi business.
Tours at Sapparo Beer Museum
There are two tour options available depending on your budget. There is a free tour that runs for about 15-20 minutes. It is an open tour (no booking required), and anyone can join, of course only if you are over the drinking age of twenty years old. After your self-guided tour concludes you have access to the Star Hall which is for paid tastings for up to 30 minutes. Sapporo Beer Museum is open from 11am to 8pm but tastings close at 6:30pm.
For the beer connoisseurs, the premium paid tour or a private tour are the options for you. But, be aware tours are limited to 20 so it is wise to book far in advance. This tour runs for almost an hour and explores the history of the beverage and includes some beer tastings of Hokkaido exclusive Sapporo Black Label and Fukkoku Sapporo. It is very reasonable in cost and a great opportunity to taste a selection of Japanese craft beers. For minors and those of us who do not drink, you can choose a soft drink or enjoy an alcohol-free beer.
This museum is complete with a museum shop as well as restaurants. You can make a whole day out of a trip to the beer museum and why pass up such a unique opportunity? It is a rare and memorable experience that can be shared with the whole family, young and old. They may not be able to drink with you, but the historic aspects of the museum as well as the interactive nature that goes along with it are certainly encapsulating.
Whether you are in the region of Hokkaido for your winter holidays with the family or here to see the beautiful countryside during cherry blossom season, there are also plenty of distilleries waiting for you to explore. It is not just rice wine and beer but rather a whole range of alcohol to fit a vast range of tastes. Whisky, ‘sake’ and beer are only a few of the beverages on offer when you visit the northern region of Japan.
The Japanese alcoholic drink ‘Sake’ is made of fermented rice, koji (often translated as yeast made from rice or rice malt) and water. The word ‘sake’ in Japan also means alcoholic beverages in general. Rice wine or ‘Japanese sake’ is actually termed Nihonshu. Nihonshu is the wine traditionally brewed from rice and is also a type of sake. That along with whisky, beer and gin are some of the most common types of alcohol that is created in this region of Japan.
Most of the sake distilleries and vineyards are located on Japan’s main island, near Mt Fuji. You can still find a good bottle of sake in this region but for the drinks of the region, there is a large selection of local whiskies and other spirits available at bars and pubs in the surrounds.
Japan Embraces Liquor Tourism
Today’s, Japanese distilleries and breweries have won a variety of industry awards, both nationally and internationally. Behind this success is a small number of establishments that are making a name for themselves and being recognised world-wide within the liquor industry.
Japan’s liquor production is shared across these small historic distilleries and breweries. All are famous for the quality of their liquors and picturesque locations. Drinking fans exploring Sapporo are increasingly adding these attractions to their itineraries and seeing more of Japan’s popular drinking culture while sampling award winning spirits and beers.
From guided tours to tastings, there is so much to see and do in Hokkaido. Why not combine all of these elements into your next visit to Japan. See the Best of Japan with this 14 Days in Japan itinerary.
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