Discover the exclusive interview of Tadashi Sakuma, chief blender at Nikka Whisky

During one of his rare visits to France, we had the honour and privilege of meeting Nikka’s chief blender Tadashi Sakuma at the Golden Promise Whisky Bar. An opportunity to talk about Miyagikyo’s 50th anniversary, the new limited editions of Yoichi and Miyagikyo, but also to taste with him old versions of Nikka in the bar of La Maison du Whisky.

LMDW : When you taste the Miyagikyo 12 yo, what can you tell me about it? The way it’s distilled, the way it’s blended etc. and the distillery of Miyagikyo?
We launched it more than ten years ago and at this time we released the 10, 12 and 15 years old for Miyagikyo. The 12 years old is very typical of Miyagikyo’s flavours. It’s very fruity, soft and mild and hints of sherry cask whisky. We are using sherry casks at both Miyagikyo and Yoichi. We find that Miyagikyo malt goes well with sherry casks, that’s why we use it in this whisky.

In the 12 years old, what’s the part of sherry cask versus bourbon cask?
Sherry casks is quite a small part. In total we stock less than 10% of sherry casks, because sherry casks have very strong flavours, so sometimes it’s just a few percent, about 20%. In the 12 years old, it’s about 15% or something like that.

Did you work on the blending of this version?
No. This is a quite old one, before I became chief blender.

What’s the main difference between the 12 yo, 15 yo etc.in terms of aromas?
With the 10 yo, we tried to make something in a fruitier style. 12 yo is showing the sweetness of the sherry. 15 yo is much richer and has mature flavours.

Before these versions, what was the previous version of Miyagikyo, the best-seller before the 12 yo?
Before this product, we made only small volumes of single malts. Before this, we bottled small volumes of single malts for limited release. This was the first time we launched a single malt with larger volumes.

For all these aged versions, if you had to compare them to the non-aged you have now, what would be the main differences? What do we have in the non-aged that we didn’t have before? And vice-versa
Age gives some complexity and wood and matured flavours from casks. In the non-age statement, we are using 6-7 years as the youngest, mainly 8 years and some older than 15 years old. However, this young whisky has more fruity, soft and easy-drinking style.

Were you inspired by these versions when you made the non-aged version?
The first non-age version is not the current one. We had another 50cl non-aged single malts from Miyagikyo and Yoichi, maybe in 2006 (?). That was in a soft, elegant and fruity style, like I was talking about.

Can we try the next one? A single cask from 1986. Refill Butt. What’s your feeling when you taste it
Mostly, I find the soft, light and fruity Miyagikyo style, richer, but not too much wood. You can find the malt.

Do you still feel the malt after 18 years? How do you explain that?
Usually the more the whisky is aged, the less you feel the malt, the more you feel the wood.

In the process of making this whisky, is there something that explains these aromas?
You can see the colour is not so dark even after 18 years old. To retain the new-make style 18 years later. If I used a sherry cask or new American oak cask for 18 years, I would get a flavour different from the new-make. However, this has kept the new-make character. Re-charred butt.

Do you still have re-charred butt now?
We are still using recharred butts and barrels

Usually what kind of whisky do you want to have, and the taste you are tying to get from re-charred barrels?
They are possibly very old casks. Now we are making puncheons, but many years ago, we were making butts from new wood. We used them many times and then decided to re-char these butts. I think It’s a very old cask.

Tell me if I’m wrong, but in 1986, the Japanese whisky Industry was not doing so well?
It was a very good time.

When was the hard time for the industry?
The Japanese whisky peak was in 1983, but for Nikka, the peak was 1988. The global Japanese whisky market decline started in 1983, but at that time we launched new products like Nikka From the Barrel or Pure Malt, in 1985 or 1986. We also launched many new types of whiskies, like collection/connection mixed between whisky and rum, whisky and rye whisky. Or the Blend of Nikka with a base of more than 50% malt. At that time, almost all Japanese whisky was blended whisky, but we started Pure Malt in 1983 or 1984. We were very strong in 1986. Now It’s so hard to find Nikka single casks.

At that time, was it usual?
We launched Pure Malt, then we released the single malts, then we started to release special editions like single casks. In 2008, was the bottom of Japanese whisky.

At this time, Japan was your main market, you weren’t exporting?
We started exporting in 2001. Our single cask of Yoichi 10 years old was awarded Best of the Best by Whisky Magazine. So, at that time, we started selling many types of single cask. Also this is quite very peaty. Unusual.

Today we could not have this kind of flavours?
Even at Miyagikyo, we are producing some heavily peated whiskies, but as a single cask, this is unique. Very Interesting. I guess for most people, the peat goes to Yoichi and unpeated goes to Miyagikyo.

At this time were they making some experiments?
Yes because a single cask is just 300 bottles, this is why we tried many types: long age, short age, sherry and puncheon, new american oak. Miyagikyo heavily peated existed, so a blender must have thought they should bottle it.

Without seeing the bottle, would you have guessed It was Miyagikyo?
It’s quite difficult!

Even for you?! Let’s try the third bottle. Miyagikyo single cask. This one is newer. Light Peat Single Cask, recharred hogshead. What can you tell me about this product?
This is quite typical Miyagikyo whisky, because it’s very fruity, not heavily peated. Very smooth, because this is also a hogshead, it’s not too woody.

Today when you taste whiskies in the Nikka warehouse, do you still find Miyagikyo with this flavour? Or is it different from the 15-year-old you taste today from the warehouse.
No, I don’t think so. In 1999, we produced very limited quantities of new-make. Late 1990s to the beginning of 2000s, our production was very low.

Extra stock. Japanese whisky market was going down. As I mentioned in 1989 we were selling much more. We were over-stocked, so we stopped producing new-make, or only in very small quantities. At that time, we only had the Japanese market. So, this is a survivor from the crisis, so it must be very rare. Our Coffey Still transferred from Nishinomiya to Miyagikyo in 1999. We merged two distilleries to decrease the production capacity. So now, Single Cask Coffey Grain. Now I would like you to talk about the Coffey Still. The product development, the context. 1991, so this was distilled in Nishinomiya.

What can you tell me about the taste of this version?
Because the Coffey distillate is not like pot still malt. We are producing several types of Coffey whisky, using different proportions of malt and maize, and different distillation degrees. However, that difference is not so big compared to malt. We are still continuing to produce a quality product from different variables, for example 80% corn and 20% malt, or 95% corn and 5% malt. or distilled at 94%, 94.5% or 94.8%. It’s not so different, but the whiskies change a little.

Does it make a difference that the still was in a different place, and not Miyagikyo? Are the Coffey grains In Miyagikyo today are different from this?
Not really. We transferred every equipment except fermentation vessels and some machines.

That’s why the distillate is not so different, just the water, but not so much. In terms of ageing?
Grain whisky is stored In Tochigi. Both then and now, they were stored In Tochigi, not Miyagikyo or Nishinomiya.

In terms of cask, did you try experiments, maybe a sherry cask?
We don’t use sherry casks for grain whisky.

Only Bourbon casks?
Mainly Hogshead: remained, refilled or recharred hogshead

Because Tochigi’s warehouse is designed for hogshead

But in terms of taste, if it was better with Bourbon casks, you would use them?
Bourbon cask Is just a little smaller than hogshead.

But in terms of taste, if it was better with Bourbon casks, you would use them?
Bourbon cask Is just a little smaller than hogshead.

The only reason is not only because it’s simpler to stock?
Bourbon cask is Influenced by the bourbon whisky Itself, so if we store in bourbon barrels, especially first-fill, we would have the bourbon influence itself. The grain whisky would be overwhelmed by the cask and the Bourbon influence.

Your Coffey still is used for Coffey grain, malt, gin & vodka. This Coffey grain is what you use in all your blends? In the upcoming years, could we have more single cask Coffey Grain? We had It for the LMDW 60th anniversary. Do you plan to launch other Coffey grain or malt single casks? Is It a project for the upcoming years?
We don’t have any tangible plans. Even now, we are reducing shipments on the regular Coffey grain, which is highly allocated, so before we launch limited edition, we should maximize our existing bottlings. Of course, we would like to release something special in the future.

The question that everyone asks, every time: when can we expect to have new aged versions of Miyagikyo and Yoichi?
We started to increase whisky production in the mid-2000. After that the Japanese whisky market began to grow quickly. That’s why we could not stock enough. We thought it was okay, market is growing, so more whisky is gone, because we are still struggling with stock problem. You are preparing new stock for future. We don’t have enough stock for the future. 2 to 3 years ago, we expanded Miyagikyo production.

You added more stills?
We had 8 pot still in Miyagikyo. Before that we were only using 4 pot stills. The other 4 were mothballed. But 4 years ago, we started the other 4 pot stills. We are producing Miyagikyo using 8 pot stills. That’s why we started to build stock, but only from 2 years ago.

So, in 8 years, can we expect a new 10-years age statement?
But age statement for 10 years means the youngest is 10 years. The quality of 10 years means blending also 12- and 15-year-old whiskies, but these will not be ready. So, it’s not for the near future.

Let’s start with the Miyagikyo limited edition. What was the intention behind the 5 decades Yoichi and Miyagikyo? Why did you launch this product for the 50th anniversary?
We are celebrating the 50th anniversary of Miyagikyo this year. So, we discussed with the marketing about how to promote the 50th anniversary of Miyagikyo, such as what products. About 4 years ago, I tried to make a prototype of 5 decades of both Miyagikyo and Yoichi, but not necessarily for the 50th anniversary. That was the same idea. Also, about 2 years ago, I tried to make a limited edition. I called it “distiller’s choice” or something. I wanted to make a new non-age but using old whiskies. So, when discussing the 50th anniversary, this product was born.

Did you give some details about the age of the casks? For example, the first decade from the 1960s. What are the oldest and youngest whiskies you used for this?
Miyagikyo’s oldest is 1969. So, you used some Miyagikyo from the first year of the distillery? Not just the first year, but the first drop. Distilled on March 7th, 1969. The first drop of Miyagikyo. And you have it in this limited edition.

You still have some casks?
Just one cask.

So, it’s finished?
No, we should keep the last drop for many years, so we only use a small portion of 1969.

It’s still aging?
Yes, still aging. It must be very strong.

Yes, very woody.

What’s the angel’s share for this whisky?
Miyagikyo is quite cold, about 2.3 or 2.5%.

And the youngest?
Early 2000s, more than 15 years old.

Why did you make this Yoichi for the Miyagikyo anniversary ?
At first, we thought only Miyagikyo for the 5 decades, but Miyagikyo and Yoichi are a pair, our two distilleries, that’s why we decided to launch 5 decades for Yoichi. By launching Yoichi as well, we want to enhance the characteristics of Miyagikyo, to compare to understand more clearly

What are the proportions of sherry and bourbon casks, because the taste is very sherry?
Less than 50% sherry cask. Maybe 30 to 40%?

Why did you reduce It to 48%?
48% is quite strong, not cask strength, but something special. These products are the result of your experience, because it’s a blender’s project. It’s a lifetime product, because you manipulated very old and high-quality whiskies.

How do you feel when you launch such a blender’s product?
For such a product I can use many types of whiskies. As many as I like.

It’s a tricky question, but do you have a preference?
I’m always asked the same question. Which Nikka product do you prefer? But I say I don’t answer because our products are like my children, so which children do you like? I cannot answer.

The percentage between the very old whisky and the young ones? Is the 15 years old have a main part?
The main part would be 70s, 80s, 90s. The 60s only has a small part of one cask. The 2000s is quite a small part. Even if 15 years old is not “young”, it gives power and vigour. A 30 years old Is like a very old man. The 15-year-old is not young, but younger and will add balance.

How do you Imagine Nikka when Miyagikyo will celebrate its 100th anniversary in 50 years?
Maybe when Miyagikyo opened, no one could think that Nikka would be such a great brand and that one day this kind of version would be launched.

How do you imagine Nikka in 50 years?
Usually, many people think older whisky is good. The average of this whisky is an average of 30 years old. If we put 30 years old on the bottle, I can only use 30 years and older. Average 30 years, using minimum age 15 years makes a much better whisky, using young to blend with older.


Discover the backstage of the Chichibu distillery

Ichiro Akuto, who was named Master Blender of the Year 2019, brought the Karuizawa distillery back to life in one month in 2006.

Champions of Tetris: Chichibu distillery fits into just one room!

Only the stills are allowed to smoke, staff are strictly prohibited

Mizunara has the very unique property of being bought at auction before being dried for 2-3 years. Chichibu has its own special cooperage dedicated to Mizunara.

The Mizunara staves are permeable and so used only for the head of the casks. Staff use off-cuts of this precious wood to heat their homes in winter.

A Hanyu pot still stands at the entrance to the distillery

Summer cleaning: every summer the vats are emptied and cleaned by hand

The average age of the distillery staff is 29

Visitor numbers doubled in 2019, rising from three a week to one a day


Discover the story behind the Daruma doll

In 2019, three bottlings from the Japanese distiller Chichibu were dedicated to the Buddhist culture anchored in Japan’s everyday life. The collages and watercolours adorning the labels were created by the young French artist Camille Ronceray. They depict small wooden and paper-mache figurines known as Daruma, symbols of success and perseverance used frequently by the Japanese to help them realize their deepest wishes.


When someone first receives a Daruma doll, the eyes are white without any iris. They must then think carefully of a wish or goal to achieve, as you can only own one Daruma at a time.


The second step begins once the wish has been decided. Whilst repeating it in your head, use a black felt pen or paint to draw one pupil on the left eye of the Daruma’s eye. Place your figurine somewhere high up. You must now avoid looking at it.


Once you have made your wish come true or achieved your goal, you can draw the second pupil. It is customary to then explain the steps that helped you achieve the goal, before burning the Daruma in the temple where it was bought during “Daruma-ichi”, an event held every year in Buddhist Japanese culture.

Where do Daruma dolls come from?

These Japanese figurines originated from a single man. In the 5th century, an Indian monk named Bodhidarma founded the Chinese school of Zen Buddhism. Legend has it that he remained in a meditative state in the Zazen position at the entrance to a cave for nine years, so long that he eventually lost the use of his limbs. Which explains why the Daruma is depicted without arms or legs, in a round shape. Surprised to find he had fallen asleep during his meditation one day, Bodhidarma decided to punish himself by cutting off his eyelids so that his eyes would also remain open. He threw them far from his body and tea plants grew where they landed. It was not until the 18th century that the Daruma dolls were created, in memory of the monk’s perseverance, to give followers the strength and courage they needed.

The colours of a Daruma

Each figurine corresponds to a different type of wish. Before getting a Daruma, it is worth understanding the different meanings of the colours, which play an important role in achieving your goal. Pink is for wishes related to love, and gold is for fortune, wealth and money in general. White is for happiness in marriage and stability in life. Green brings good health and black protects against misfortune. Finally, red, the colour chosen for our labels, is designed to chase away bad spirits.

Located in Japan, the Mars distillery has a rather unusual, turbulent history.

It was founded by none other than Kiichiro Iwai, the man who instigated the departure for Scotland of the renowned Masataka Taketsuru and more importantly the owner of a spirit company that produces shochu (Japanese eau de vie). The Shinshu Mars distillery is situated in an exceptional location that affords a truly unique whisky. Located at an altitude of 800 metres, in a region that has a particularly harsh climate, the distillery benefits from pure spring water filtered over centuries by the mountains. Another remarkable feature of this distillery is that it only produces whisky during the winter months. The fall in demand during the eighties forced the distillery to close down in 1992, but it was reopened in 2011.

Distillation & maturation

1. Shinshu

The Shinshu distillery was founded in 1985 and, after some years without production, its stills were once again heated in 2011. Located in Miyadamura, in the Nagano prefecture, it stands at an altitude of 798 metres, making it the highest-placed distillery in Japan. In warehouses in the heart of the Alps, at the foot of the Komagatake Mountain, the casks mature in a cold winter climate.

Distillation & maturation

2. Tsunuki

The Tsunuki distillery was created in 2016. It is located in Kasedatsunuki, in the south of Japan, in the birthplace of Mars Hombo Shuzo’s founder. Far from the cities, it is surrounded by low mountains and has a very warm winter climate and a very cold winter climate. Both maturation and distillation are carried out at Tsunuki.


3. Yakushima

Unlike Shinshu and Tsunuki, Yakushima is only a maturation site for Mars whiskies. Located on the island of the same name, the Yakushima warhouse has a very humid climate due to its proximity to the sea.


Discover the secrets of Mars’ production and maturation