Japanese whisky has become a phenomenon the world over.
Aficionados search everywhere for their favorite bottles, and they’ll spend well more than market value when they find them. Supply and demand has made Japanese whisky the most coveted spirit of the moment, as producers never imagined that so many people would be seeking out 12-, 18-, and even 21-year-old expressions. As established brands try to keep up and smaller producers are entering the market, we’d like to remind you that Japanese whisky as we know it wouldn’t be a thing without the work of one man: Masataka Taketsuru.
Born in Hiroshima in 1894, Masataka graduated from the Osaka Technical High School for Fermented Food Production in 1916. After getting a job at Settsu Shuzo in Osaka, which had a plan to produce the first Japanese whisky, he was sent to Scotland, where he enrolled as an organic chemistry student at the University of Glasgow. Remember that this was the early 1900s, so a voyage by boat between the two countries likely took the better part of a month to complete. Imagine being asked to do that in the inaugural year of your very first job. In other words, Masataka had a lot of drive and a lot of courage.
During his first year at university, Masataka apprenticed at Longmorn distillery in Speyside to learn about malt whisky production, as well as with James Calder in Bo’ness to get acquainted with Coffey grain production. As you’ll discover later in this story, these apprenticeships helped Masataka in different ways during the development of both Nikka Whisky distilleries. In 1920, Masataka apprenticed at Hazelburn distillery in Campbeltown to learn more about malt whisky production and blending. But that year wasn’t just about business for Masataka—it’s also when he met his future wife, Jessie Roberta Cowan, who was known as Rita. Masataka and Rita fell in love and got married in Glasgow against their families’ wishes. They then traveled together back to Japan, arriving at the Port of Kobe in November of 1920.
Although Settsu Shuzo sent Masataka to Scotland to learn about whisky making, the company had to abandon its whisky project because of financial reasons. But in 1923, Masataka was recruited by Kotobukiya, which was later renamed Suntory, and given a 10-year contract. In his first year with this company, he oversaw the construction of the Suntory Yamazaki Distillery near Osaka. Six years later, the first authentic Japanese whisky, Shirofuda, was launched.
As Masataka’s contract with Suntory was coming to a close, Rita pushed and inspired him to fulfill his true dream: to open a Japanese whisky distillery of his own. And so the couple set out to Hokkaido near the coast, in an area surrounded by mountains on three sides with a very similar climate to the Scottish Highlands. The cold weather, clean air, and fresh water were perfect for a distillery, and Yoichi was completed in October of 1934.
Distillation began in 1936, but the first whisky wasn’t actually launched until 1940. While Yoichi’s first distillates were maturing, Masataka started selling fruit juice made from local Hokkaido apples, while Rita gave English and piano lessons out of their home to make ends meet. Masataka’s juice company was then named Dai Nippon Kaju, aka the “great Japanese juice company.” He later shortened this name to Nikka in 1952.
At Yoichi Distillery, Masataka set up pot stills that used direct coal fire, similar to the operation he worked with at Longmorn. While most Scottish distilleries have abandoned coal fire distillation because it’s difficult to control the temperature, Yoichi still uses the method to this day, which gives the whisky its signature toasty flavor.
Rita passed away at the age of 64 on January 17, 1961. Later that year, Masataka released Super Nikka Blended Whisky in her honor. Masataka was, of course, shattered by Rita’s death, but he dedicated his energy to move forward with Nikka, just as his wife would have encouraged him to do.
In 1963, the first Coffey stills were imported from Scotland and set up at the Nikka Nishinomiya Plant in Japan’s Hyōgo Prefecture. Masataka brought in these column stills to distill quality grain whisky, which was used for improving Nikka’s blends. The Coffey stills were later moved to the Miyagikyo distillery in 1999.
After the Coffey stills were up and running and Yoichi Distillery was successfully making whisky, Masataka turned his attention to his next project, the Miyagikyo distillery. He wanted to create a broader range of whisky styles to make Nikka’s blends more complex, so he decided to place this second distillery in a completely different environment. Located near Sendai in the northernmost part of Japan’s main island, Miyagikyo is situated at the intersection of two rivers and surrounded by rolling hills and lush forests. The whiskies that come from Yoichi carry some salinity from the sea air, while the whiskies distilled at Miyagikyo have a pure, smooth taste—partly from the environment and partly because the pot stills there are heated by steam at low temperatures.
Masataka passed away on August 29, 1979, at the age of 85, just 10 years after the completion of the Miyagikyo distillery. But his legendary work has created a category of spirits that is only going to grow and get more popular with time. Now every time you sip on your favorite Japanese whisky—Nikka or otherwise—raise a glass to Masataka for making the delicious liquid possible.