JAPANESE WHISKY ‘The blessing of nature and the wisdom of man.’ by Mark Davidson – Japanese Whisky News


‘The blessing of nature and the wisdom of man.’

Unlike the Scottish and Irish whisky industries the Japanese can trace the start of their production back to a clearer date. Although will that date be the turning of the first turf at the first distillery site, or the moment the first spirit runs off the still, what about the first bottling? Perhaps it should begin with the first action to set the ball rolling. This is harder to pin point.

We know western influence in Japan sped up after a trading agreement led to American goods being brought in to the country in the mid 19th century. From this point unusual products like beer and bread became known and as we have since seen the Japanese are masters of assimilation usually followed by improvement. Foreign spirits were known as ’yusho’ with gin making an impression as early as 1870. For whisky this initially meant a very loose translation of the imported Scottish article. After 1912 and a reversing of high taxes and tariffs applied to domestic spirits as compared with imports it was not long before business men saw an opportunity to make a Japanese whisky. What was needed was an individual with production knowledge. Enter our hero, Masataka Taketsuru, a young scientist from a family of sake producers. As a chemist he was first employed in 1917 by Settsu Shuzo, a spirit making company. The company’s owner, Kihei Abe, decided to send his gifted employee to Scotland to study the science of whisky making. At this time the Japanese economy was in good shape thanks to the demands set on the allies’ industries during the first world war requiring assistance from abroad.

Having first studied in Glasgow, but not sitting exams, Taketsuru sought tutelage from production expert J. A. Nettleton in Elgin. Unfortunately due to Nettleton’s high fees Taketsuru had to settle for five days work experience at Longmorn distillery in April 1919. Following this he enjoyed a further two weeks at Bo’ness distillery then finally a five month spell at Hazelburn distillery in Campbeltown commencing in January 1920. His guide at Hazelburn was recently instated and introduced a laboratory at the distillery to assist in the improvement of the plant’s apparently uninspiring product. This must have pleased the young Japanese chemist, especially since his question to the manager of Longmorn: ‘is there any distillery in Scotland where a microscope would be used?’ was met with the reply ‘no, I do not think so’.

Returning to Japan, with a Scottish bride, Taketsuru found his situation was not ideal. His employer wished not to make ’proper’ whisky but was content to make an ’ersatz’ style. Further, due to the end of the war Japan’s economy had slowed and his company were unable to afford the high costs of producing the real thing even if they wanted. Meanwhile Shinjiro Torri, the nephew of a ‘foreign drinks’ maker, had an idea to employ a Scottish distiller within his company (later to be known as Suntory). With Taketsuru looking for work the gap was filled and a ten year contract was signed in 1923.

Almost immediately the two had disagreements. Taketsuru saw the northern island of Hokkaido was the ideal location for a distillery thanks to its coastal situation and cool climate- in keeping with his experiences of Scotland. However his employer was concerned with the island’s distance from the main market and the overheads involved with such a far off site. Thanks to the proximity to Kyoto, the local transport network and proven water quality Yamazaki was chosen to host Japan’s first distillery. After a devastating earthquake building started in 1923 being completed in November 1924. The following year Taketsuru had to return to Scotland to seek advice from his mentor, now at Cragganmore distillery since the closure of Hazelburn earlier that year. Despite detailed studies and scientific methods of investigation Taketsuru had yet to master the drying stage at the end of malting as well as the complexities involved in still firing. Problems solved the first whisky was released on the first of April 1929.

Just before the first release Torri bought a brewery and put Masataka in charge. Perhaps he was unhappy with the direction Masataka was taking his product, the initial release ‘Shirofuda’ was not popular due to its full character, and wanted to remove him from direct involvement with production. Alternatively it could have been the case that Torri wanted his son to take a more important role within the company. Whatever, Masataka was further from his goal of creating a whisky comparable to what he had seen in Scotland.

Waiting until his contract ended Masataka set out on his own. Backing came principally from three respected business men, two of which probably got to know Masataka thanks to his wife Rita’s job teaching English. This time Masataka got his way, thanks again to good connections some cheap reclaimed land was made available in Yoichi on Hokkaido. Nearby both peat and barley were available but a grace period was honoured and initially only apple cider was produced, it was felt leaving your sponsor to set up a rival firm was just not cricket. Whilst trading under the name ‘Nihon Kaju’ (changed to ‘Nikka’ in 1952) difficulties due to a lack of experience, high cost and complications of shipping the apple drinks to market the business failed. Turning to whisky it still took six years of losses before the first whisky was sold in 1940. Once again it took a war to bolster business. Luckily for Masataka Japanese military officers liked a dram and with imports stopped his brand was in favour.

However by the 1950s Masataka’s sponsors were concerned the business was not performing. The feeling that his devotion to following the Scottish lead was unrealistic, lower grade ‘whisky’ was cheaper and more popular, tastes at the time were less discriminating. Around this time two elder share holders sold out to Asahi brewers. With 51% of shares the new owners forced in a light whisky which became the second best selling in the country. A parallel can be drawn here with Suntory’s experience, the follow up to their unpopular and heavy first release became, and still is, very popular: ‘Kakubin‘.

Come the 1960s and Nikka’s first coffey still was installed at the Nishinomya bottling plant ‘Tochgi‘. This was followed in 1969 by the company’s second malt facility at Sendai, later called Miyagikyo. At the time the biggest distillery in the world and intended to make a more Lowland style although heavily peated versions are made. Their well received Nikka Coffey malt is also made there.

It was after his death, in 1979, that Masataka Taketsuru’s commitment to making Scottish whisky came full circle- in 1989 the company bought Ben Nevis distillery. During this year the company’s growing interests also included the purchase of a cognac distillery. Throughout his career he seldom compromised, for example waiting ten years for the Scottish to introduce the steam heating of stills before using the method himself shows his respect for his teachers.

‘Whisky! I don’t eat much, I get eight hours sleep and for the past 40 years I’ve been drinking a full bottle of good whisky every day’-

Masataka Taketsuru

Some notes:-

Karuizawa malt and Kawasaki grain distilleries are owned by Sanraku-Ocean (aka Mercian since the 1990s after the company’s successful wine business). The company accounts for around 4% of the Japanese whisky market. Karuizawa is currently mothballed, it insisted on using Golden Promise barley and mostly used sherry casks for maturation. Unlike Nikka and especially Suntory the distillery is small and concentrated on making only one style of whisky: a big slightly peated make through small stills.

Kirin-Seagram also holds a 4% share. Kirin tied in with the former Canadian company Seagram and benefited from access to its partner’s nine Scottish distilleries. This allowed the make from Gotemba distillery to be mixed with malts imported from Scotland, in the mid 80s the majority of bulk exported Scotch was shipped to Japan. Gotemba was opened in 1973 and conversely makes a light malt and a heavy grain. Like other Japanese distilleries it sits at high altitude (620m). The present incarnation of the owning company inherited the Four roses Bourbon when Seagram divested its drinks interests.

Suntory claim about two thirds of the market. Their empire stretches overseas to include production of spirit in Brazil, Mexico and Thailand as well as owning Bowmore, Auchentoshan and Glengarioch. The company also owns a 25% stake in Macallan, with other interests stretching from ice cream to the Encyclopedia Britanicca. Not unlike Teachers the company had a chain of ‘pubs’ throughout Japan ensuring their product was very accessible while promoting loyalty. Yamazaki distillery doubled in size in 1958 and while malting stopped in 1972 (currently all malt is imported- mostly from the UK) production continued to expand after both 1980 and 1989 saw further increases in capacity. The distillery temporarily ceased production in 1987/88 to allow work to progress. There are now six pairs of stills, all different shapes and sizes which along with varying methods of heating and condensing, angles of lyne arms, yeast and barley strains, peating levels, cut points, maturation wood choices and environments, two mash tuns (one wooden, one stainless steel) not to mention the permutations of matching wash and spirit stills the range of possibilities for flavour is very broad. All this is due to the small number of distilleries in Japan and also to the lack of reciprocal trading between producers making comprehensive blending difficult without innovations during distillation. Other developments include producing malt spirit via continuous stills, producing grain spirit through pot stills and even bamboo filtering is used for one variant- a la Lincoln County process oriental style. In 2009 Yamazaki single malt was the 8th best selling single malt in the world even only on account of domestic sales.

Suntory’s second malt distillery Hakusha was once there world’s biggest boasting a yet unparalleled 55 million litre capacity and storage for 800 000 casks, all this at 700m above sea level.

In 2003 Suntory decided to push exports, thanks to a down turn in popularity of Japanese blends in the 1990s the part played by malts in the strategy is significant, much in the way Scotch whisky has seen a development in the interest of single malts. A mark of the company’s determination to succeed in the west is perhaps the launch of its blend Hibiki 12yo in Europe before release in the home market.

The remainder of sales are shared between Nikka and twenty other companies, the latter accounting for again 4% of business. Included in these smaller firms is Takar Shuzo who in 1986 were the first Japanese company to take direct interest in Scotland with the purchase of Tomatin distillery as well as the Antiquary blend. Tomatin was at one point the largest malt distillery in Scotland. When the partner in the business Okura sold their 20% stake they were replaced by Maruben. There is also the new Chichibu distillery. Ichiro Akuto, whose family started in the drinks trade in 1625 as sake brewers, wanted to replace the distillery built by his father in the 1980s but demolished in 2004. His new still is performing well and there are plans to use local barley and peat to produce a 100% Japanese whisky. He uniquely used Quercus Mongolica (Mizunara/water oak) for the wash backs as well as maturation. The wood has a reputation for leaking and since Hokkaido’s forests were cleared for pasture the species is now rare in Japan.


Mark Davidson…

Of a distinguished Banff 1968 vintage Mark Davidson has a short but full body and so marries well (& subsequently producing two limited editions), frequently seen at whisky fairs in Scotland yet curiously difficult to find outside his domestic market it is hoped his inaugural launch on the Canadian scene will be well received. He is at home in independant bottling circles being most commonly found in the William Cadenhead livery where he has enjoyed a 13 year finishing period, however as a stand alone single expression under the Jolly Toper brand he can come into his own while being a fine mixer.

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