Do you know the origins of The Japanese whisky? And did you know that the Japanese did not immediately embrace this barrel-aged grain spirit? Over the years, however, its prominence steadily increased, giving today’s Japan the forth place, just outside the podium of the largest producers of whisky in the world.
Japan had been closed to outsiders for over 200 years before 1853. This isolation came to an end when the American Commodore Matthew Perry rolled into Tokyo Harbour with a small fleet of advanced warships demanding the two countries begin trading. The Convention of Kanagawa was formalised.
Trade between the West and Japan bonded once again. Perry’s crew left a 110-gallon barrel of whisky for the Japanese as a parting gift. The dark, scent intense, mysterious spirit was a big hit. But there was a problem: no one knew how to recreate this desirable liquor.
The Japanese had realised, due to their isolation, they were very far behind the West. Without a technical know-how, production of all sorts of dangerous distillate continued over the following decades. The Japanese did not give up, embracing the concept of Wakon Yosai (和魂洋才) – meaning – “the Japanese spirit with Western learning.”
During this period of enlightenment, a young chemist named Masataka Taketsuru was beginning a legendary career. He was employed by the Settsu Liquor Company, who had him mixing grain alcohol with other ingredients (juice, spices, and perfume) to approximate whisky taste and colouring.
Settsu decided to send Taketsuru-san to Scotland to begin studying a formal whisky production, under his supervisor’s eye, Kiichiro Iwai (岩井喜一郎), the eventual founder of Mars Whisky. Taketsuru would attend the University of Glasgow in 1918 and then a variety of apprenticeships at distilleries. He gained experience at two Speyside distilleries, where Longmorn introduced him to blended whisky.
Taketsuru took a longer apprenticeship at Hazelburn, further advancing his experience in whisky making. He was a very diligent student, taking detailed notes of the entire production process. He Japan at the end of 1920, where he resumed his employment at Settsu. To Taketsuru surprise, the company wasn’t interested in starting serious operations as a whisky distillery, so soon he quit.
His company, Kotobukiya, was opening a distillery in Yamazaki and so he hired Taketsuru to lead the production process. Suntory originally offered an alcoholic beverage called Akadama Sweet Wine, which was a huge success for the company and continues to be sold today.
Torii was not pleased as sales were poor, so he demoted Taketsuru to beer manager at a plant in Yokohama. With just one year remaining on his contract, Taketsuru decided his time was up and quit, eventually establishing one of the most popular Japanese Whisky companies: Nikka Whisky.
During this time, Japan was fighting in World War II. Luckily for Suntory and Nikka, the military loved whisky. The Imperial Navy was fond of the Western spirit. The navy basically took over the distillery to make whisky for rations. This forced connection would help Nikka survive its early years and allowed Suntory to prosper.
To spread the knowledge and passion for Japanese whisky, Suntory opened whisky bars around the country in 1955. In 1970, Suntory revolutionised how the Japanese food and drinking culture by creating the “Mizuwari,” a water and whisky drink that was easy to drink and enjoy with Japanese cuisine.Today, Suntory and Nikka are two of the top award-winning Japanese whisky distilleries and have been recognised around the world for their exquisite traits.