In the 29th episode of the Japan Distilled podcast, your hosts Christopher Pellegrini and Stephen Lyman take a look back at the most important man in the history of Japanese whisky. Masataka Taketsuru not only build the Yamazaki Distillery for Suntory, but then set out on his own and founded Nikka. The ripples of his contribution are still being felt today.
Mixing and Editing: Rich Pav (https://www.uncannyjapan.com/)
CHRISTOPHER PELLEGRINI Vermont born and bred, long-time Tokyo resident and author of The Shochu Handbook, Christopher learned about delicious fermentations as a beer brewer at Otter Creek (Middlebury, VT). He now spends most of his waking hours convincing strangers that shochu and awamori are unlike anything they’ve ever tried before.
STEPHEN LYMAN discovered Japan’s indigenous spirits at an izakaya in New York City. He was so enthralled that he now lives in Japan and works in a tiny craft shochu distillery every autumn. His first book, The Complete Guide to Japanese Drinks, was nominated for a 2020 James Beard Award.
Stephen and Christopher have a deep and abiding respect for the craftsmen of Japan and Masataka Taketsuru was in the embodiment of this in early whisky production.
If you have any comments or questions about malt vs. koji, please reach out to Stephen or Christopher via Twitter. We would love to hear from you.
Born June 20, 1894 to the family that owned the Taketsuru Sake Brewery, which is still in operation today. The brewery started as a salt manufacturer in 1651 before beginning sake production in 1733.
Taketsuru studied sake brewing at Osaka Technical High School (today known as Osaka University). He never graduated, instead being recruited by Settsu Distillery, the largest maker of industrial alcohol and imitation spirits in Japan at the time.
Within fewer than 18 months of starting at Settsu, Taketsuru would be sent on an audacious journey to steal the best kept secrets of Scotch malt whisky so Japan could begin their own authentic whisky making.
He studied chemistry and English at Glasgow University before embarking on a series of distillery internships. First at Longmorn Distillery in Speywide, the Bo’ness grain distillery, and finally at Hazelburn in Campbeltown. He wrote down everything he learned and his notes become the Japanese whisky bible, which is still used today.
While in Scotland he met his wife, Rita Cowan. The couple married in January 1920 and then spent the first 5 months of their marriage in Campbeltown before returning to Japan to start their lives together.
Upon returning from Scotland, Japan was in a recession. Settsu had lost an appetite for the large capital investment required to build an authentic malt whisky distillery. Taketsuru quickly resigned, though he was not unemployed for long.
Shinjiro Torii of Kotobukiya was looking to open a whisky distillery. He apparently offered Taketsuru the same salary he had been offering to Scottish whisky makers to relocate to Japan. The Yamazaki Distillery, built to Taketsuru’s specification, was opened in 1923. In fact, the first distillation began at 11:11pm on November 11, 1924.
They would release their first whisky, Suntory Shirofuda (white label) in April 1929. It would be a huge flop. Taketsuru had made a robust, smokey scotch whisky, which Japanese drinkers were unfamiliar with. He was sent to run a beer brewery in Yokohama – something he had no interest in. He resigned at the end of his 10 year contract and within 6 months was ready for his own venture.
Dai Nippon Kaji (aka, Nikka)
By 1934, Masataka Taketsuru had met some wealthy industrialists thanks to Rita teaching their wives English. They were ready to back him and Nikka was born. The Yoichi Distillery began making Nikka Whisky in 1940.
Taketsuru would spend the rest of life building Nikka into a national brand, but never gave up his focus as a craftsman first and businessman second.
He’s buried with his wife Rita on a hillside overlooking the Yoichi Distillery.
It’s not too much to say that Japanese whisky would not be what it is today without the contributions of Masataka Taketsuru.