Depending on who you ask, Japanese Whisky has one of two dads, making it one of the earliest progressive families in history. The patriarchs would eventually spawn the two largest producers of whisky in Japan, but not before their paths would cross and a struggle over the production of Japan’s first genuine whisky would ensue.
Japan’s love affair with whisky actually starts with U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry, a veteran of the War of 1812 and the Mexican War, and generally considered a badass who pioneered steam engine boats in the U.S. Navy. Perry was tasked with opening trade relations with Japan, and he did so by unexpectedly rolling into Tokyo Bay in 1853. Surprise! Refusing to speak with lower officials or re-route to the Dutch trading port in Nagasaki, he landed his force and presented a letter from President Millard Fillmore intended for the Japanese Emperor to local representatives and announced that he would return in seven months for a response.
And return he did, but what better way to start a business relationship than a delivery of delicious American liquor? The deal was sealed with several hundred gallons of whiskey, and the Japanese, used to drinking beverages derived from fermented wine, became enamoured with the new spirit. Local producers began to make their own whisky, but much like early attempts anywhere in the world, the product was often adulterated and resembled nothing that we would currently consider whisky.
It would be several decades before a genuine Japanese whisky would be created.
Shinjiro Torii grew up in Osaka, Japan in the late 1800’s, studying business at an early age and eventually taking an apprenticeship at the age of 13 at Konishi Gisuke Shoten, a medicine wholesaler that also carried remedies of a different variety: wines, brandies, and whiskies. Blending herbal medicines became a core component of his line of work, so he learned the basics of chemistry. After a few years, Torii began working at Konishi Kannosuke Shoten, a wholesaler of paints and dyes. Once again, his job required him to blend, although this time it was coloring materials.
Upon turning 20, Torii opened his own store, Torii Shoten, to sell canned food and wines. He also continued developing his love affair with alcohols of the west, eventually coming across a port wine that he considered so delicious that he purchased a giant lot of it, had it independently bottled, and sold in his store. The wine was an enormous flop, due to the fact that it was too sour to suit the palate of the Japanese people. This failure would not be his last.
Torii, by now a master blender on a par with a modern day Vitamix, tried to create his own wine that would sell well in the local market. He was also adept at marketing, knowing that the name and packaging was integral to sales. So, he picked a symbol that was familiar to every Japanese citizen: the red disc on the flag that symbolizes the sun. The product was released as Akadama (red ball) Port Wine, and the sales were so great that it single-handedly supported the operation of his store, now called Kotobukiya Liquor Shop. Who needs groceries when you can have booze?
But wine wasn’t his only interest. As legend has it, Torii stored some whisky in a barrel and forgot about it during World War I. After discovering it many years later in its well-aged and very delicious form, he set out to create the first genuine Japanese whisky, considering all of the profits from Akadama Port Wine to be nothing more than investment money for his new project. At that time, nobody believed that malt whisky could be made outside of Scotland and Ireland, and many attempts to re-create the style elsewhere in the world failed.
As creating a new malt whisky from scratch is a slightly more complicated process than blending wines, Torii brought in two experts to help him: Dr. Moore, a Scottish brewing authority who helped him select the site, and a Japanese man who had studied whisky while working in several distilleries near Glasgow by the name of Masataka Taketsuru.
Born to a longtime sake brewing family in the outskirts of Hiroshima in 1894, Masataka Taketsuru was taught from an early age the painstaking precision of crafting a fine spirit.
Obviously talented, he was recruited directly from technical high school into the Settsu Shuzo Company, which at the time had begun to lay the groundwork for producing a genuine Japanese Whisky. After only three years of employment, Taketsuru was sent to the University of Glasgow to major in chemistry and learn the art of whisky production from local distillers. This was a major move in 1918, since it was likely that he was the first Japanese person ever encountered by most of the people that he would meet.
Venturing into the famed Speyside region, Taketsuru sought out J.A. Nettleton, author of “The Manufacture of Spirit as conducted in the Distilleries of the United Kingdom”, a whisky production bible of sorts. Unfortunately, Nettleton’s fee for technical instruction in whisky production was far too high, so Taketsuru was forced to go on a distillery door-knocking expedition that eventually landed him at Longmorn. There, the master distiller offered Taketsuru a crash course on all aspects of whisky production, including cooperage, malting, distilling, and aging. It does not appear that any fee was charged for this instruction, nor does it seem that Longmorn’s master distiller misunderstood his motives for unlocking the secrets of creating a Scotch-style whisky.
Taketsuru would also enjoy apprenticeships at Hazelburn and Bo’ness Distilleries, learning grain whisky production on a Coffey still at the latter. His initial report of over 100 pages on the manufacture of Scotch whisky would be more than enough to jump start the production of a genuine Japanese whisky. But the most highlighted part of his of his trip (and perhaps, most symbolic of his return to Japan with a key piece of western culture) was his meeting and subsequent marriage to Rita Cowan, the sister of a classmate at the University of Glasgow. Their marriage, and subsequent life in Japan is an entire epic that could fill another article.
Indeed they returned to Japan in November 1920, but by this point Settsu Shuzo had been hit hard by a post-war depression and had shelved plans to produce whisky. It was at this point that Taketsuru was approached by Shinjiro Torii to help him produce Japan’s first whisky. The duo signed a ten year contract in 1923, and Torii sank the majority of Kotobukiya’s assets into the construction of Japan’s first whisky distillery at Yamazaki.
Under the supervision of Taketsuru, Yamazaki Distillery was completed within two years, and began producing whisky. The first product would be marketed under the new “Suntory” brand—the “sun” from the logo of the Akadama Port Wine, the profits of which supported the project, and “tory”, an alternative spelling of Shinjiro Torii’s household name. Suntory Whisky Shirofuda (white label) was released in 1929. It flopped.
The failure of Japan’s first whisky was compounded by the tension between Torii and Taketsuru, who argued constantly about the finer points of whisky production. These battles reached a breaking point in 1929—the same year that Suntory Whisky white label was first released—when Taketsuru was demoted to manager of a beer factory in Yokohama. He quit Kotobukiya shortly thereafter.
Still determined to make a whisky that was uniquely of his creation, Taketsuru sought to open his own distillery. Luckily, his wife Rita (there's a reason that she's mentioned in virtually every piece of Nikka marketing material and has a product named after her!) had been teaching English to the wife of Shotaro Kaga, the founder of a successful securities company. He and a number of other investors backed the founding of Dainipponkaju Co., Ltd., which then began construction of Yoichi Distillery on Hokkaido in 1934.
The first Nikka Whisky was released in 1940, and a little over a decade later, the company would be renamed The Nikka Whisky Distilling Co., Ltd. Today, Nikka is the number two producer of Japanese Whisky and is owned by Asahi Group Holdings. Masataka's namesake whisky, Taketsuru Pure Malt, is a blend of single malt whiskys from the company's Yoichi and Miyagikyo distilleries.
Meanwhile, Torii continued blending and aging whisky, often bringing unmarked samples to connoisseurs and slipping Johnnie Walker into one of the bottles. When his whisky was not selected as the best, he would go back to the distillery and try again. Finally, in 1937, Suntory Whisky Kakubin (square bottle) was introduced. An authentic domestic whisky that at last appealed to the Japanese palate, it was warmly received and is, to this day, the best selling whisky in Japan.
The Suntory company went on to open another distillery at Hakushu, and diversified its holdings in the food product and medicinal industries. In 2014, it completed a $16 billion purchase of the Deerfield, Illinois-based Beam, Inc., creating the third largest spirits company in the world by combining its own dominant Japanese whisky portfolio with classic bourbon brands like Jim Beam and Maker’s Mark under one roof.
It’s hard to declare outright the true father of Japanese Whisky. Taketsuru nary gets a mention in Beam Suntory’s marketing materials, though they stop short of calling Shinjiro Torii the creator. While Taketsuru’s time at Kotobukiya Ltd. is widely acknowledged in Nikka marketing materials, they hardly miss any opportunity to drive home the idea that he is the undisputed father of Japanese Whisky.
It is likely that neither Shinjiro Torii or Masetaka Taketsuru could have done it alone if they had not met each other, though with several other enterprising individuals also looking to produce a uniquely Japanese spirit, perhaps either one of them could have accomplished it without the other. Instead, they’ll forever be tied as the co-fathers of Japanese whisky.