4 must-visit Hokkaido breweries and distilleries for any beer and whisky lover
If you’re like me, there is no better way to get to know a place than to sit down and have one of its tasty local beverages. The French concept of terroir speaks to the various idiosyncrasies, and characteristics a climate or environment can impart on a product made from local ingredients. I would add that the place’s history is an equally important contributor to this uniqueness. While not to stretch the idea too far, the regional dishes and drinks we consume on our travels capture pieces of the history and environment in which they were created. In this, Hokkaido (北海道) is no different. With one of the richest traditions for producing top-class whiskies and beers in Japan, Hokkaido can be better understood by imbibing some of the excellent libations it has produced over the years. If you’re looking to discover a side of Hokkaido just as tantalizing as the abundant natural landscapes that decorate the island, here are four perfect places to explore on your next visit.
1. Hokkaido Akkeshi Distillery
Fog rolling in on the Akkeshi Coast. (Image credit: photoAC)
A newer addition to the storied whisky-making lineage of Hokkaido, Hokkaido Akkeshi Distillery (厚岸蒸溜所 Akkeshi-jyoryusho) began its distilling operations in 2016 in the remote village of Akkeshi (厚岸) on Hokkaido’s eastern coast. Known for its cool, moist climate, thick fog, and rich marshes, which comprise the Bekanbeushi Wetlands (別寒辺牛湿原 Bekanbeushi-shitsugen), Akkeshi offers the ideal location for distilling whiskies in true Scottish fashion with a character reminiscent of Islay malts. To stay true to Scottish distilling traditions and practices, Hokkaido Akkeshi Distillery even went as far as installing their equipment from Forsyths in Scotland. The whisky they make also uses water that has passed through a layer of peat for that added authentic touch. While honouring the whisky-distilling traditions of Scotland throughout their operations, Hokkaido Akkeshi Distillery still produces a product that is unique to the climate and environment of Akkeshi. There is something inherently local in the whiskies they craft.
Distillery tours are offered by Akkeshi Conchiglie for those interested, but be aware that products are not for sale onsite. Not to worry, however, there are plenty of places to find Hokkaido Akkeshi Distillery’s whiskies in Sapporo (札幌) and along your journey out east to the mystical village of Akkeshi.
Hokkaido Akkeshi Distillery (厚岸蒸溜所)
Address: 4-109-2 Miyazono, Akkeshi-cho, Akkeshi-gun, Hokkaido 088-1124
Nearest station: Akkeshi Station (厚岸駅)
Opening hours: 9am–5pm
Tours: ¥3,500 (reserve in advance through Akkeshi Conchiglie)
2. Otaru Beer
Otaru Warehouse No.1 (Image credit: photoAC)
Located on Hokkaido’s western coast approximately a half-hour by train from Sapporo, the city of Otaru (小樽) is known for its picturesque canal, classic architecture, and astonishingly fresh seafood. Not to be outdone, it also offers the most authentic takes you’ll find on traditional German beer styles at the local brewery, Otaru Beer (小樽ビール). Run by the German braumeister Johannes Braun, Otaru Beer still makes its brews according to the Reinheitsgebot (German Beer Purity Law), a nearly 500-year-old document governing the traditional production of beer in Germany. Few breweries outside of Germany have such a focus on traditional production processes and ingredients, or on honouring the letter of this age-old law, but the driving concept behind Otaru Beer has been to deliver the freshest, tastiest beer locally, and following long-standing German brewing practices allows them to do this. To further ensure the quality of their beers, the brewery also uses local Otaru water, which is recognized for having a soft and pristine character perfect for making classic German beers. While much of what Otaru Beer crafts will transport the imbiber to a Germany of old, their beer at the same time is something that can only be savoured in Otaru.
Tours of Otaru Beer’s original brewery located at Otaru Warehouse No.1 (小樽倉庫No.1 Otaru sōko nanbā 1) along the Otaru Canal are offered free-of-charge every 30 minutes between the hours of 11:10am and 5:40pm. The tours last about 20 minutes, and no reservations are required. Come learn about what goes into these exceptionally-crafted local Otaru brews before you sit down to try your very own!
Otaru Beer Otaru Warehouse No. 1 (小樽ビール醸造所・小樽倉庫No.1)
Address: Otaru-unga Soko-gun, 5-4, Minatomachi, Otaru, Hokkaido 047-0007
Nearest station: Otaru Station (小樽駅)
Opening hours: 11am–11pm
Tours: Free (no reservation required)
3. Yoichi Distillery
Yoichi Distillery. (Image credit: pixabay)
Another site capitalising on the unique water profile of the Otaru area to make some truly world-class beverages is Yoichi Distillery (夜市蒸溜所 Yoichi-jyoryusho), home to Japan’s legendary Nikka Whisky (ニッカウヰスキー). Like Otaru Beer, Yoichi Distillery is an outlier among whisky makers due to the fact that it still uses coal-fired distillation and other traditional methods and techniques long-abandoned by other distilleries to craft its whisky. And similar to Hokkaido Akkeshi Distillery, Nikka Whisky owes much of its authenticity and the quality of its products to the surrounding landscape and climate and the many features they share with the scotch-producing regions of Scotland. With a full range of facilities to explore, including a museum, souvenir shop, restaurant, and the home of Nikka Whisky’s founder Masataka Taketsuru (竹鶴政孝), Yoichi Distillery is a must-visit site for any true Japanese whisky aficionado.
Guided tours of Yoichi Distillery are available upon reservation. Due to COVID-19, self-guided tours are currently suspended and the number of guests allowed in the facilities restricted, so make sure to reserve well in advance before visiting one of Japan’s oldest distilleries still in operation.
Yoichi Distillery (夜市蒸溜所)
Address: 7-6 Kurokawacho, Yoichi-cho, Yoichi-gun, Hokkaido 046-0003
Nearest station: Yoichi Station (余市駅)
Opening hours: 9am–5pm (Closed over the New Year’s holiday and during distillery shutdowns)
Tours: Free (reservations required)
4. Sapporo Beer Museum
Sapporo Beer Museum and Hop Garden. (Image credit: Josh Grengs)
More a campus than a brewery, Sapporo Breweries’ expansive Sapporo Beer Museum (サッポロビール博物館 Sapporobiru-hakubutsukan) and Beer Garden are located on the former site of a Meiji-era (1868-1912) beer factory and are an essential stop on any visit to the city of Sapporo. With exclusive offerings available only in the museum and beer garden taprooms, as well as Sapporo Classic which is released only in Hokkaido, you are guaranteed to experience flavours and aromas that cannot be enjoyed anywhere else in Japan. It’s a zymurgic adventure that will truly immerse you in a world of beer. The classic German-style beer halls also promise to transport you to a time of simpler pleasures and feature a classic style and architecture straight out of Bavaria. What’s more, the museum itself is a registered Hokkaido Heritage Site, meaning that even those who are not a fan of the suds will find something of interest on a visit here.
Two tour options are available at the Sapporo Beer Museum, one free and one paid. I highly recommend taking the paid premium tour, as it is only ¥500 for adults and includes exclusive content and samples that are well worth the price. For those interested in exploring on their own, the museum and surrounding facilities can also be freely accessed during opening hours without any prior reservation or tour participation required.
Sapporo Beer Museum (サッポロビール博物館)
Address: 9-2-10 Kitananajo-Higashi, Higashi-ku, Sapporo-shi, Hokkaido 065-0007
Nearest station: Sapporo or Naebo Station (札幌駅・苗穂駅)
Opening hours: 11am–6pm
Tours: Free and paid (¥500) tours available, reservations required
Hokkaido Akkeshi Distillery is the most remote of the four locations, but can still be accessed from Sapporo by train. Take the JR Ozora 9 Limited Express bound for Kushiro from Sapporo Station and get off at Kushiro Station. Transfer at Kushiro Station to the JR Nemuro Line and get off at Akkeshi Station. It’s around a 10-minute taxi ride from Akkeshi Station to Hokkaido Akkeshi Distillery.
Otaru Beer’s Otaru Warehouse No.1 can be accessed from Sapporo Station by taking the JR Rapid Airport 145 Rapid Otaru and getting off at Otaru Station. It’s about a 13-minute walk from the station.
Access Yoichi Distillery by taking the JR Rapid Airport 145 Rapid Otaru and transferring at Otaru Station to the JR Hakodate Line. Get off at Yoichi Station and walk about six minutes to reach the Nikka Whisky Yoichi Distillery.
Sapporo Beer Museum is the easiest location to reach of the bunch. From Sapporo Station’s South Exit board the Chuo Bus Sapporo Beer Garden/Factory Line and get off at the Sapporo Beer Garden stop. It should take about 20 minutes. Alternatively, you can take the JR Hakodate Line from Sapporo Station and get off at Naebo Station. It’s about a 13-minute walk from there.
Header image credit: photoAC