It is a story of love and rivalry—as dense as the history of fortuitous circumstance and as dramatic as the earthquakes, shipwrecks, and charlatans that trace its evolution. It is the story of Japanese whisky, and it is a tale of perfection. To fully trace the origins of how this Western spirit made its way to the Far East would be to unravel a robust tome of complex themes, ranging from Japanese seclusion and imperious Western diplomacy to natural disasters, but the fateful story behind the birth of Japanese whisky is much simpler than that. It began with the romance between a young chemistry student from Kyoto and a headstrong woman from Glasgow, and that man’s love for Scotch.
That man was Masataka Taketsuru, and while his two Scottish passions led his sake-making family to disown him, he still endeavored to introduce his beloved Celtic spirit to Japan. Upon returning home to Kyoto, he worked at a blossoming merchant firm owned by Shinjiro Torii, whose fondness for old-world port and knack for mixing spirits fostered the birth of the first Japanese whisky in 1924.
The tenuous relationship that existed between Taketsuru and Torii, and exists today between the companies they founded, Nikka and Suntory, respectively, is seen in just about every aspect of their companies: the North-South dichotomy of their distilleries, the analogous evolution of their products, even rival baseball teams. Today, the two are loath to mention that Taketsuru and Torii ever worked together, let alone collaborated on the first Japanese whiskies for a full decade before splitting over “creative differences” which led Taketsuru far north to the island of Hokkaido to build his first distillery.
While Torii set out to make purely Japanese whisky, Taketsuru was in love with Scotch, and his heavily-peated products led to the creative schism that exists to this day. The result is two distinct brands that have each developed and refined robust and diverse whiskies with rich flavor profiles. These whiskies were designed to be cut with water, served in the Japanese, mizuwari style, and tastes that span from the briniest tastes of Scotland to the delicate, floral notes of Japan.
Both men endured the devastation and commercial isolation of post World War II Japan—Taketsuru marking Nikka as his brand in 1952 and Torii working diligently to establish Japanese whisky as a culturally-ubiquitous product and cement its role in domestic cuisine and drinking traditions through Hollywood-style advertorial campaigns. In these arduous decades, they refined the products that have earned them both critical praise and broader distribution in recent years. Currently only distributed in Europe and Japan due to bottle-size discrepancies, Nikka’s Taketsuru 21-year Pure Malt has won the World Whiskies Awards’ World’s Best Blended Malt for the past four consecutive years. Not to be outdone, Suntory, which has been distributed by Skyy Spirits since 1996, has earned their own share of glory, their Yamazaki Single-Malts taking away multiple gold medals in the International Wine & Spirits Competition.
The unique visions of each of these men, to create a Western product and embed it within a distinctly Eastern culture, are what have inspired such perfection in product and design. Forged from the finest mountain springs of Japan, aged in three variations of meticulously selected oak, and blended to create hundreds of unique individual spirits, the Japanese have compressed generations of highly-evolved craft into a singular line of whiskies. The result is something akin to magic—to drink a highball mizuwari-style is to experience a masterfully delicate beverage that replicates a soft, creamy soda of supremely balanced flavors. In line with the cultural traditions of kaiseki and izakaya, where a drink is a mere component of a greater whole, Japanese whisky represents a true merging of the acumen of the Orient and the alchemy of the Old World.
In today’s bourbon economy, rife with all things obscure, artisanal, and obsessive, few makers of this particular family of spirits understand the true meaning of craft: to design a product and make it well—devotedly and consistently. Long ago are the days when a “salaryman” ordering a 14-year-old scotch was required to wear a tie and whose sleeves weren’t made of tattoos. And as the second-largest producer of whisky in the world, Japan is one of the few cultures to whom tradition is a law of the distilling trade, not just a superficial influence or an advertising gimmick. With a story as deeply colorful as the spirit itself, and a respect for quality and craft, the Japanese are sure to continue their noble tradition of excellence to the whisky market.
Text by WILLIAM BLAKE