Masataka Taketsuru was born in the coastal town of Takehara about 60km from Hiroshima City in 1894, hailing from a long line of sake brewers. Graduating from the Osaka Technical High School for fermented food production, he began working at Settsu Shuzo Co. in 1916. What happened next was the start of the Japanese whisky industry.
In 1918 Settsu Shuzo sent Masataka to Scotland to learn how to make genuine whisky. At the time, Japan was only producing ersatz, an artificial spirit, as well as fortified wines. During his time in Scotland, Masataka learnt whisky production by working in various distilleries, fuelling his dream to make an authentic whisky in his homeland. Enrolling in Glasgow university in 1919 majoring in chemistry, he went on to apprentice at Longmorn (Speyside) to learn malt whisky production, James Calder (Bo’Ness) to learn coffey grain production and Halzeburn (Cambelltown) to lean malt whisky production and blending. It was also during this time that he met and married a Scottish woman, Rita (Jessie Roberta Cowan).
Masataka returned back to Japan at the end of 1920 with Rita however Settsu Shuzu abandons the whisky project for economic reasons. In 1923, Masataka is recruited by the Kotobukiya group (later named Suntory) on a 10-year contract to oversee the construction of the first Japanese whisky distillery in 1924, named the Yamazaki Distillery. In 1929 the first authentic Japanese whisky is launched called Shirofuda.
Masataka's vision was formed by his experience in Scotland, and he knew the right environment was essential to success. Towards the end of his contract, it was becoming apparent that to produce truly authentic whisky, he would need to become independent. In 1934 Masataka established Nikka Whisky, and built the first distillery in Yoichi, Hokkaido, which although inconveniently located, he had always considered to be the ideal site for Japanese whisky making. While Yoichi’s first distillates are maturing in oak casks, Masataka creates and sells a fruit juice made from local Hokkaido apples. Initially operating under the name “Dai Nippon Kaju”, meaning the “great Japanese juice company”, the company name officially changes to Nikka Whisky in 1952, a combination of NI-ppon and KA-ju, though this name already appears on the label of the first whisky released in 1940.
Masataka was determined to introduce his fellow Japanese to the joys of authentic whisky. In the following decades, as his company developed and the enjoyment of whisky became a fixture in Japan, he remained relentlessly passionate about quality and never allowed it to be sacrificed in favor of efficiency. In that sense, Masataka Taketsuru, Father of Japanese Whisky, sake brewer's son, had never truly left his roots.
Masataka passed away in 1979 at the age of 85 just 10 years after the construction of the Miyagikyo distillery. His spirit continues to live on through the Nikka Whisky team, who continue to release innovate bottlings, while remaining true to Masataka’s philosophy and quest for excellence. Nikka whisky is now owned by the brewer Asahi and is Japan’s second largest whisky producer after Suntory.
Nikka owns two malt whisky distilleries; Yoichi and Miyagikyo.
Yoichi Distillery Masataka Taketsuru seeks similar conditions to Scotland and establishes Yoichi Distillery on the northern island of Hokkaido, one of the last Japanese frontiers to be developed. With a vision to build the distillery in the purest Scottish tradition, this coastal location is surrounded on three sides by mountains and the other, the Sea of Japan. Blessed with the elements to create great whisky, this location benefits from a cold climate and local peat bogs, while the sea breeze leaves its imprint on these whiskies of undeniable character. Yoichi produces rich, peaty and masculine malt. To this day, the distillation process has remained true to traditional methods. At Yoichi, the pot stills are heated by a direct coal fire, a practice which the Scots have since given up, as it’s difficult to control. This imparts the whisky with an additional subtle smokiness and a rich, oily texture which are at the heart of Yoichi’s bold style.
Distillery Manager of the Year 2016 – Koichi Nishikawa of Yoichi Distillery – World Whisky Awards (WWA) 2016
Distiller of the Year 2015 Nikka Whisky - ISC 2015
Miyagikyo Distillery Located in the north of Japan’s Honshu island, Masataka came upon this site which is a stark contrast to Yoichi’s rugged coastal conditions. The Miyagi region’s rolling hills and peaceful forests are renowned for its pure air, suitable humidity for storage and particularly clean water filtered through a layer of peat - the perfect combination to create a soft and mild malt. The Miyagikyo distillery is built in a valley at the heart of this natural environment, from which the whiskies draw their elegance and purity. The pot stills at this location are heated by steam, at low temperatures to ensure a soft and gentle distillation. Two Coffey-type column stills, named after its inventor Aeneas Coffey, were imported from Scotland to produce quality grain whisky, a necessity for improving Nikka’s blends. Originally operating in Nishinomiya, the stills have been based at Miyagikyo Distillery since 1999. Although the grain whiskies produced in these old-styled column stills do not enter the single malt bottlings, they are a key component in Nikka’s blended whiskies.
HOW TO DRINK NIKKA WHISKY
Try Nikka neat, in an appropriate whisky glass to capture the full complexity and unique profile each expression has to offer.
Add one large ice cube or sphere for a slow tasting experience.
If drinking with a meal, serve in a tall glass with ice and water with a ratio of 3 parts mixer to 1-part whisky.