Politics

Revisiting an unusual love story behind Japanese whisky

4 Mins read
The Whisky Range at the Nikka Distillery.

HOKKAIDO, Japan — The first Nikka Distillery, established in 1934, is located in Yoichi, some 58 kilometers west of Sapporo, the main city of the Hokkaido prefecture. Nikka Distillery’s founder, Masataka Taketsuru, is known as the father of Japanese whisky.

He started Japan’s pioneering whiskey manufacturer, Yamazaki Distillery, in 1923.

HOW ONE MAN ESTABLISHED JAPANESE WHISKYJapanese whisky had its fairy-tale like origin with the exploits of Masataka Taketsuru.

Taketsuru was born in 1894 to a traditional sake brewery family, that brewery existed since 1733. He took up Chemistry in Osaka Technical school, presumably to join the family business. In 1916, Taketsuru ended up working for a sake and shochu distillery, the Settsu Shuzo company, also in Osaka. In 1918, he was given an extremely rare opportunity to go to Scotland to learn about whisky-making by his employer, with the original intention being duplicating Scotch whisky in Japan.

In Scotland, Taketsuru enrolled at the University of Glasgow, majoring in Chemistry. And for three years, he also did apprenticeships with different whisky distilleries learning first-hand the art and science of malt whisky, grain whisky, and blending.

It was also during this time that Taketsuru would meet and fall in love with his future wife, the Scotswoman Jessica Roberta “Rita” Cowan, whom he married in 1920. Inter-racial marriage was not common then and was frowned upon.

Later that year, Taketsuru returned to Japan with his new wife, but the Settsu Shuzo company no longer had the resources or vision to push through with their whisky production. He left Settsu Shuzo in 1922 and became a teacher for a short period of time. In 1923, another whisky pioneer, Shinjiro Torri of Kotobukiya Limited (later renamed Suntory) employed Taketsuru and together they build Japan’s first distillery in Yamazaki, located at the foot of Mount Tennozan in southwestern Kyoto.

Taketsuru would later leave Suntory to pursue his dream of building his own distillery. In 1934, he established Dainipponkaju, later Nikka Whisky, building its first distillery in Yoichi, Hokkaido. Despite the inconvenience of the location especially during that period, Taketsuru considered Yoichi to be the most similar are to the Highlands of Scotland and was convinced that he found the best site and water source to make the best whiskies in Japan.

The rest, as they say, is history.

INITIALLY A ‘ME-TOO’ PRODUCTWith Masataka Taketsuru at the helm initially in Yamazaki and then eventually in his own Nikka Distillery, Japanese whisky was very much patterned after Scotch — made as malt whisky or grain whisky, twice distilled, and using pot stills. The spelling is also therefore like that of Scotch whisky, thus the missing “e” versus that of Irish whiskey and American whiskey (bourbon).

While Scotch whisky has an over three century head start against the Japanese whisky, the quality of the Japanese versions has been improving very fast in a relatively short period of time, and this came with their own production innovations which Japanese people are known for.

BEATING THE SCOTS AT THEIR OWN GAMEJapanese whiskies have been extremely successful against their Scottish counterparts at the blind tasting challenges of the UK-based industry authority Whisky Magazine. In these whisky blind tastings, Japanese aged single malts are pitted against their Scottish counterparts, and the Nikkas and Yamazakis often come out scoring very well.

Way back in 2001, the Nikka Single Cask 10 Years was awarded the “Best of the Best” by the same Whisky Magazine. Nikka Single Cask 10 Years beat hundreds of whiskies from around the world, marking the first time a Japanese whisky ever topped this annual competition. This may have been the catalyst in the ascending recognition of Japanese whiskies and its’ growing global demand.

The London-based International Spirits Challenge, one of the most prestigious competitions — held annually since 1995 — also named Nikka Distillery “Distillery of the year” in 2015.

At present, there is a huge shortage of Japanese whiskies older than 12 years as both domestic and worldwide demand has been unprecedented.

The two largest Japanese whisky brands, Nikka (owned by the Asahi Group) and Yamazaki (owned by the Suntory Group), are at the forefront of this fame.

TV EXPOSURE BOOSTS WHISKY SALESIn 2014, Japan’s public broadcaster NHK, released a new asadora — a Japanese morning drama series — called Massan. Asadoras are broadcast in Japan Mondays through Saturdays on NHK General TV from 8 to 8:15 a.m., with replays on the same day from 12:45 to 1 p.m.

Massan was based on the story of Masataka Taketsuru but it used fictitious names. The drama depicted the marriage between a Japanese whisky genius and his Scottish wife in traditional Japan. Massan was an immediate hit, sending NHK ratings to new heights while captivating Japanese female viewership. Massan also marked the first time that NHK had to a hire a foreign actress, American Charlotte Kate Fox, to the play the character that resembled Rita Cowan-Taketsuro.

The asadora had a run of 150 episodes from Sept. 29, 2014, till March 28, 2015.

Japanese women seen drinking whiskies increased exponentially, and many believed the NHK’s Massan series was a huge reason why.

Coincidentally, Japanese whisky got a further boost during this period when demigod British whisky writer Jim Murray (Jim Murray is to whisky what Robert Parker is to wine) named the Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013 as “World Whisky of the Year” in his highly recognized Whisky Bible book. Japanese whisky had indeed arrived!

The love story between Masataka Taketsuro and spouse Rita may have influenced Japanese women to drink whisky, but the real romance lies in the quality of Japanese whiskies that endeared them to whisky lovers the world over. With Japanese whiskies very much in demand, and Nikka whiskies’ continuing phenomenal popularity, it is no surprise that — finally — the Philippines has an official importer/distributor in the recently appointed Grand Cru Wines & Spirits, Inc.

Grand Cru Wines and Spirits, Inc.’s appointment was announced by La Maison du Whisky (LMDW) Asia-Pacific, the regional South-East Asia distributor for Nikka Distillery. This is a very smart move by LMDW as Grand Cru Wines & Spirits is also the franchise holder of the hugely successful annual event, Whisky Live Manila.

For inquiries on Nikka whiskies, you can contact them at (02) 8518-0131 or e-mail then through sandy.morales@grandcru.com.ph.

Sherwin Lao is the first Filipino wine writer member of both the Bordeaux-based Federation Internationale des Journalists et Ecrivains du Vin et des Spiritueux (FIJEV) and the UK-based Circle of Wine Writers (CWW). For comments, inquiries, wine event coverage, wine consultancy and other wine related concerns, e-mail the author at wineprotege@gmail.com, or check his wine training website https://thewinetrainingcamp.wordpress.com/services