How Japan Fell In Love With Whisky
The current vogue for Japanese whisky has a venerable, little-known history, starting with Masataka Taketsuru opening Japan's first whisky distillery just outside Kyoto in 1924.
On a recent Friday night, hundreds of drinkers waited patiently behind a rope policed by a row of beefy security guards to gain access to WhiskyFest.
The wildly popular annual event, hosted by Whisky Advocate magazine, takes place in a ballroom inside Midtown Manhattan’s remarkably mundane Marriott Marquis.
Once the doors opened, the thirsty crowd surged forward. But while most of the event’s featured spirits originated from (you guessed it) Scotland or Kentucky, a surprising number hailed from other destinations around the globe, with some of the most prized samples calling Japan home.
Pioneering Suntory, which produces an impressive stable of spirits, offered WhiskyFest goers a range of eight products to try, including Hibiki 17-Years-Old and the Hakushu 18-Years-Old.
Not to be outdone, Suntory’s chief rival, Nikka, poured five whiskies of its own, including the Taketsuru Pure Malt 21-Years-Old and the Coffey Malt, which isn’t available in America.
Sure, you could chalk up the sudden popularity of these two companies to the swelling enthusiasm for whiskies of all kinds. (After all, one can find bourbons from New York and single malts from Denver these days.)
But they are by no means the new kids on the block. Both Suntory, which now owns Jim Beam and all its legendary brands, and Nikka have long histories that rival many famous American or Scottish distillers—and their stories are actually intertwined (more on that later).
The Japanese whisky industry dates back nearly a century to 1918. That was the year Masataka Taketsuru, whose family brewed sake for generations, was hired by the Settsu Shuzo liquor company to help build a whisky distillery in Japan.
It was an ambitious project, considering the country had never built anything of the sort before. So Settsu Shuzo looked to a logical source for help: Scotland.
The firm sent Taketsuru to the University of Glasgow to study chemistry, making him the first Japanese person to do so.
In addition to his classes, he worked at Hazelburn and Longmorn distilleries, according to Lew Bryson’s excellent primer, Tasting Whiskey: An Insider’s Guide to the Unique Pleasures of the World’s Finest Spirits.
While there, Taketsuru developed a love for two things: Scotch and a Scottish woman named Jessie Roberta Cowan, whom he married. (The two supposedly met when Cowan’s brother took martial arts classes from Taketsuru.)
The couple returned to Japan, which was unheard of at the time and dramatic enough to inspire a recent T.V. show based on their lives that aired in the country.
The homecoming was less than fruitful. Taketsuru encountered a faltering global economy and Settsu Shuzo soon laid him off. The story could have ended right there, but Japan’s other legendary whisky pioneer, Shinjiro Torii, hired Taketsuru to take another crack at building the country’s first whisky distillery. (Torii knew his spirits, having owned a liquor store for years.)
This time, with Torii’s backing, Taketsuru made it happen. The facility opened in 1924 in Yamazaki, just outside of Kyoto.
Five years later, Taketsuru and Torii released the country’s first whisky, the Scotch-like Shirofuda (“White Label”). But it was perhaps too Scotch-like and, according to Bryson, its brawny, smoky style never caught on with Japanese drinkers.
The distillery’s next product, Kakubin (“Square Bottle”), which came out in 1937, was much smoother and a bonafide hit. To this day, Japanese whiskies tend to have a more elegant flavor profile akin to a highland Scotch (think: The Glenlivet) versus a peaty single malt.
Kakubin is still produced. Kenta Goto, an award-winning bartender and owner of New York City’s acclaimed Bar Goto, says it is so easy to drink he likes to call it “Japanese Jameson.” Like much whisky in Japan, Kakubin is often enjoyed with a bit of water or club soda.
Taketsuru’s contract expired after ten years and he left Torii to start his own company, which he ultimately called Nikka.
He situated his distillery, which he named Yoichi, on the northern island of Hokkaido. Even with the start of World War II, Taketsuru was able to begin selling his own whisky by 1940. Cowan lived until 1961 and died at 65. Today, her hometown of Kirkintilloch, Scotland, is now, according to Nikka, the sister city of Yoichi, Japan.
Taketsuru lived for another 18 years after the death of his wife. In 1969, he added a second distillery, Miyagikyo, on the island of Honshu. The location, which is not too far from the city of Sendai, was ideal, since Taketsuru found its landscape to be reminiscent of the Scottish highlands.
Torii, his former mentor, turned his whisky line into a large liquor corporation called Suntory. It now produces numerous spirits and owns several distilleries around the world. Torii lived until 1962 and was succeeded by his son as Master Blender of the company. Torii’s grandson, Shingo Torii, currently fills the role.
While neither Suntory nor Nikka was willing to talk about the relationship between Taketsuru and Torii, it seems it was at least cordial.
But despite their achievements, Japanese whisky was drunk mostly in Asia and in Europe for decades. That started to change when Suntory introduced the Scotch-like Yamazaki Single Malt in 1984, which arrived in America in 2001. For many years, it was the only Japanese whisky on U.S. store or bar shelves.
In 2003, however, American filmgoers got a sneak peak of Suntory’s Hibiki 17-Year-Old in the cult hit Lost in Translation. Bill Murray’s character was in Japan to film an advertisement for the brand.
“For relaxing times, make it Suntory time,” he says repeatedly for the commercial’s director, while sipping a glass of the whisky. In 2011, Suntory brought the fruity Hibiki and the smoky Hakushu to America. Two years later, Nikka became available here for the first time, as well.
Even though Taketsuru and Torii may not have lived to see their whiskies win acclaim in the west, what they accomplished is great. The next time you’re at a bar, order a glass of Suntory or Nikka and ponder what these two legends created. Kanpai!