The Japanese Whisky History: From Reluctance To Its Glory

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.

The history of Japanese whisky begins at the source – the Celtics, the Scotch and Irish. A few shochu and sake breweries produced Japanese whisky on the side as early as the 1850s.

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.

Early attempts at whisky production were not very successful.

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.”

In response, Japan sent ambassadors and scientists across Europe and North America to learn about modern governance, science, and education… and whisky making.

Taketsuru goes to Scotland

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.

Luckily, the inefficacy of these early, toxic experiments became clear pretty quickly.

 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.

Sunctory founder, Shinjiro Torii, another Japanese whisky pioneer had heard of Taketsuru expertise.

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.

In 1929 Suntory Shirofuda created White Label that went to became the first authentic Japanese whisky. Unfortunately, the Japanese were not ready for it

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.

Japanese Whisky and the military

Despite the failure of White Label, the second whisky released, the Suntory Kakubin, became a hit and continues to be Japan’s #1 best-selling whisky.

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.

Want to know the modern history of Japanese whisky? Read our article on Rebuilding the glory of Japanese Whisky

You know what goes great with a japanese whisky? A meal prepared with a japanese knife 😉.