April 24, 2023

The Birth of Japanese Whisky

In this article we share the fascinating story of how whisky found its way to Japan.

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If you’re familiar with Japanese whisky then names like Nikka, Hibiki and Yamazaki may well be familiar to you, what will likely be much less familiar, is the fascinating story of how whisky made its way to Japan.

Today, Japan is well-known for producing top-quality whiskies, but it wasn't always this way. Before the turn of the millennium very little was known about the country’s whisky production outside of Japan. Sean Connery famously starred in a 1992 advert for Suntory’s Crest Aged 12 year whisky, however with the ad only airing in Japan, it was the moment Nikka's 10-year old Yoichi single malt won ‘Best of the Best’ at the Whisky Magazine awards in 2001, that caught the whisky world’s attention.

Two years later Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (2003) placed Japanese whisky in the spotlight once again, with Bill Murray’s now infamous line ‘For relaxing times, make it Suntory time.’ accompanying a bottle of Hibiki 17 whisky.

The famous line from Lost in Translation (2003)

In the years that have followed, recognition of Japanese whisky distillers as dedicated craftsmen who hold tradition at the core of everything they do has only continued to grow, along with the reputation and reverence of the Japanese whisky they produce.

When examining the history and rise of Japanese whisky, there are two pioneering names to mention: Masataka Taketsuru and Shinjiro Torii. 

Our story starts in 1918, with 24 year old Masataka Taketsuru. Leaving the city of Hiroshima in his homeland of Japan, Taketsuru headed to Scotland’s University of Glasgow to study organic chemistry and distilling, beginning his course in the summer of 1920. During his two years in the Scottish city, he undertook three apprenticeships. The first was at Longmorn Distillery, then at James Calder and Co’s Bo’ness Distillery, and finally at the Hazelburn Distillery in Campbeltown. These apprenticeships only served to further ignite his passion for scotch whisky and the distillation process.

It wasn’t just whisky however, that Taketsuru fell in love with. Enter Rita Cowan.

While studying at Glasgow University, Taketsuru was approached by medical student Isabella Lillian ‘Ella’ Cowan (Rita’s younger sister) with the request to teach her younger brother Judo. Taketsuru accepted the proposal, and found himself at the Cowan house where he met Rita, and before long he confessed his love for her. He shared with Rita his wish to return to Japan and contribute to the production of ‘real whisky’, and the pair were married at a simple registrar ceremony in January 1920. Later that year, Taketsuru returned to Japan armed with the teachings from his degree, and accompanied by his new wife.

Masataka and Rita Taketsuru
Masataka and Rita Taketsuru (Source: Wikipedia)

Upon their return to Japan, Taketsuru was intent on creating the liquid gold in his homeland, and was given the opportunity to do so by Shinjiro Torii. Torii owned the renowned Kotobukiya distillery - that went on to become today’s Suntory brand - and founded the Yamazaki distillery in 1923, appointing Taketsuru as his distillery executive in 1924. Taketsuru used his knowledge from his time in Scotland to play a key role in Yamazaki’s first ever whisky product: Suntory Shirofuda.

Despite being Japan’s first official whisky, surprisingly it wasn’t well received by the public. The Scottish whisky inspired flavours were deemed to be not subtle enough for Japanese palates, and Suntory didn’t actually find success in the realms of whisky until their Kakubin whisky was released in 1937. A product that went on to become one of the world’s best selling Japanese whiskies.

Three years prior to this however in 1934, Taketsuru, having been pivotal to Suntory’s whisky production efforts, decided that he wanted to set up his own distillery. The first of two distilleries founded by Taketsuru, Dai Nippon Kaju K.K. was born - later renamed as the now infamous Nikka brand - in Yoichi on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido. The reason for this location? He deemed this region of Japan to be most similar to Scotland with regards to its climate and terrain. 

In 1969, Taketsuru’s second Nikka owned distillery was established - Miyagikyo - enabling the brand to expand even further, contributing to both the Taketsuru and Nikka legacy.

Just some of the expanding Nikka whisky range

Today, 44 years after Masataka’s death, Suntory and Nikka dominate the Japanese whisky market, boasting the lion’s share of whisky sales between them.

Recognition of Rita Taketsuru, who went on to become a teacher in Japan and established the ‘Rita Nursery’ using inheritance funds, can also be seen to this day. The city renamed the Route 229 road that runs in front of the main Yoichi train station as ‘Rita Road’, and also classified the ‘Rita House’ in the Yoichi Distillery grounds as a designated tangible cultural property under Japanese law. It’s likely that both Masataka and Rita will be remembered in Japan for many, many years to come.

So there you have it, the fascinating story of the birth of Japanese whisky. If this story piqued your interest in the history of whisky as we know it, you might enjoy this article on the world’s top whisky producing countries

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