Winter Warmers in Hokkaido

Japan’s most northerly island isn’t just for thrill-seekers. Julian Ryall bypasses the ski slopes for three distinct tastes of the prefecture’s best booze.

By Julian Ryall

Jul 3, 2019

THOUGH IT’S BETTER KNOWN for its winter powder, Hokkaido also produces some of the best food and drink in Japan. Given that snow sports leave me cold, I’m here to exercise my tastebuds on a tour of its native brews, wines and spirits. My first stop is Tanaka Sake Brewery, which has been making the traditional rice wine in the west-coast port city of Otaru since 1899. The brewery’s heritage building is entirely made of wood, and when I walk in during the middle of winter, icicles taller than a man hang from its eaves.

I join the brewery’s free guided tour and see first-hand the polishing, washing and fermenting processes. All the rice is locally grown, and the brewers insist it is the best in the country because of Hokkaido’s cooler climate and clean water. Like on all good brewery tours, we inevitably end in the shop, where staff offer tiny tumblers of sake to taste.

While mass-produced brews can be harsh on the palate, these small-batch bottles are as smooth as a Hokkaido snowdrift. The Junmai Ginjo is sharp, clean and warming, with a taste that lingers on the tongue. The 40-percent Junmai Daiginjo Takaragawa is sweeter and more fruity, with a good depth to the flavor. Stock up here, because the brewery’s limited output means these sakes are primarily sold locally and difficult to find off the island.

Given Hokkaido’s severe winters, I’m surprised to learn that heavy snow and sub-zero temperatures aren’t an obstacle to cultivating the vines needed for high-quality wines. But more than 280 wineries spread across the prefecture. At OcciGabi, in Yoichi, winemaker Kiyoshi Kura takes advantage of the city’s fertile soils and slightly milder climate, and has spent decades perfecting his product, which he makes of 40 varieties of European grapes he brought to Japan after graduating from the National Wine School of Germany in the 1970s.

OcciGabi grows 40 varieties of grapes. Courtesy of OcciGabi

On a tour of the vineyard, we pass rows of aromatic French barrels, which Kura says add depth and character. I swirl a splash of Zweigeltrebe 2017 around my glass; aged for six months, it is smooth and light with hints of incense. The Dornfelder 2016 is brighter in color and more rounded, with the barrel- aging showing through in the taste.

Ultimately, Kura envisions Yoichi, with several established wineries already in town, becoming Japan’s Napa Valley. This lofty goal is confident proof that his labels stand up to some of the best wines out there.

Yoichi is also home to one of Hokkaido’s most famous and historic brands, albeit one with its roots in the Scottish highlands. The Nikka Whisky distillery was first opened in 1934 by Masataka Taketsuru, after he finished several whisky apprenticeships in Scotland.

Like Kura, Taketsuru chose Yoichi for its climate and nature: its proximity to the ocean; mountains on three sides; fresh water; and crisp, clean air—which reminded him of his time abroad. He insists on using direct coal-red pot stills to give his whisky a bold and smoky flavor, a method rarely used today because controlling the temperature requires skilled distillers.

Courtesy of Nikka Whisky distillery

At Nikka, the practice lives on. As a member of the distilling team opens the heavy metal doors of the furnace beneath each still and heaps fresh coal on the glowing embers, I take an involuntary step backwards at the white heat that emerges. This task is carried out every 10 minutes, around the clock, to prevent the distillation from burning.

Taketsuru’s vision has paid off. The whisky world’s head was turned in 2001 when a single cask, 10-year- old Yoichi won the “Best of the Best” category in the U.K.’s Whisky Magazine competition. The brand has continued its winning streak, scoring World’s Best Blended Malt at the World Whiskies Awards this year. I’ll drink to that.

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