This is only a brief summary of the founding of Nikka whisky. There are far more details and facts to this story but trying to write the entire history in a blog posting isn’t a very realistic task. I do need to acknowledge Olive Checkland’s book Japanese Whisky, Scotch Blend for which most of the finer details and facts were derived from. If you want to learn more about this story I suggest you give Checkland’s book a read, it is filled with great information.
Taketsuru Masataka was born in Takahara, Hiroshima Prefecture in 1894. He came from a long line of sake brewers, so he was introduced to the alcohol business at an early age. Taketsuru originally was training to be a chemist but then shifted courses when a brewing class was offered. Although he was not finished with his studies he was offered a position at the spirit company Settsu Shuzu by the owner Abe Kihei. What happened next was the start of the Japanese whisky industry.
In 1917 Abe decided that he wanted to send someone to Scotland to learn how to make genuine whisky. At the time, Japan wasn’t producing whisky but rather ersatz, a substitute/artificial spirit, as well as fortified wines. Fortunately for Taketsuru, he was chosen for the pioneering trip to Scotland to learn to make whisky. So in 1918 Taketsuru set off for Scotland. With the ease of world travel these days it is difficult to fully appreciate the significance of making this trip. It was definitely not common for a Japanese national to travel all the way to Scotland. What made things even more challenging was that it appeared that Taketsuru had no concrete plan on how he was going to accomplish his task of learning to make whisky. But as we know now he succeeded.
Taketsuru arrived in Glasgow in December 1918. He then headed north to Elgin in the Speyside region. What was more significant was that he was going to Elgin to meet J.A. Nettleton who wrote The Manufacture of Spirit as Conducted in the Distilleries of the United Kingdom, which is arguably the seminal book on whisky distillation. Unfortunately for Taketsuru the fee to be tutored by Nettleton at the time was more than he could afford. Instead Taketsuru headed to Longmorn where he was allowed to apprentice for five days. At Longmorn Taketsuru was able to gain invaluable practical whisky making experience. After that Taketsuru spent two weeks at the now closed grain distillery of Bo’ness. Then last Taketsuru spent five months working at the Campbeltown distillery of Hazelburn. It must also be noted that while immersing himself in whisky, Taketsuru met and ultimately married Rita Cowen. The story of Taketsuru and Rita is an interesting and inspiring one. There was a great article in the Japan Times about them.
Back to Japan
Taketsuru returned back to Japan at the end of 1920 and back to his employer Settsu Shuzu. His experience in Scotland had changed him significantly and he was now determined to make authentic Scotch whisky. Unfortunately this determination ran counter to Settsu Shuzu’s plans for him. They wanted Taketsuru to continue making ersatz. Frustrated, Taketsuru ultimately left Settsu Shuzu.
Then in 1923 Taketsuru was asked by Torii Shinjiro to come to his new whisky making company, Suntory, to help with establishing Japan’s first whisky distillery. Taketsuru wanted the location of the distillery to be up in northern Japan in Hokkaido. He believed that the climate and conditions were similar to Scotland and would produce the best results. Torii on the other hand wanted the distillery in southern Japan at Yamazaki, close to Kyoto and that was were it was ultimately built. Taketsuru spent several years helping to build the Yamazaki distillery and then working as the distillery manager. Then in 1928 Suntory purchased a brewery in Yokohama. It is not exactly clear why, but Taketsuru was sent to manage the beer company. Slowly, Taketsuru was relieved of his duties at Yamazaki. As a result, in 1934 Taketsuru left Suntory to go out on his own and start his own whisky company.
Taketsuru was going to establish his distillery were he had always wanted to: Hokkaido, specifically in the town of Yoichi. The northern island had many attributes similar to climate of Scotland, including the cold winters. There was slight issue with setting up his whisky company. Although, Taketsuru’s real motive was to start his own whisky distilling company, it would have been insulting to Torii to immediately do so. So the original company established by Taketsuru was Dai Nihon Kaju Kabushiki Kaisha – The Great Japan Juice Company. That’s right, Taketsuru started a juice company, specifically an apple juice company. However, the company diversified into cider as well as apple brandy. It was later in 1952 that from Nihon Kaju the Nikka name we know now was born.
Taketsuru experienced significant difficulties with the business side of running the company. Yoichi was difficult to access and it was not easy or cheap to transport products to the main island of Japan. The company took fairly significant losses for the first several years. Finally, in 1940 Nikka released its first whisky into the market. From there the company began to flourish. Surprisingly it, along with Suntory, did well during the war years – supplying the military with whisky.
Nikka continued to grow and expanded by building another distillery at Sendai – Miyagikyo and at Nishinomiya – a grain distillery. Nikka has even expanded and completed the cycle for Taketsuru by returning to Scotland and purchasing the Ben Nevis distillery. Nikka continues to grow even today by gaining more recognition outside of Japan as a serious whisky producer . For the rest of this week we will share our impressions of some of this great whisky company’s expressions. Thanks for reading!