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Masataka Taketsuru (竹鶴 政孝) - Japanese whisky pioneer

Picture of Masataka Taketsuru (竹鶴 政孝) - Japanese whisky pioneer

It’s not possible to tell the story of Japanese whisky without two names, Shinjirō Torii the entrepreneur determined to establish a domestic whisky industry, and Masataka Taketsuru who dreamed of making authentic whisky of the Scottish style. At the beginning of the 20th century the two worked together to found the first of the largest and most famous distilleries in Japan today, Suntory. Ultimately this fraught partnership ended and Masataka Taketsuru would go on to found Nikka supported by his Scottish wife Rita. This relationship serving as the basis of the TV drama Massan.

A Beginning

Masataka Taketsuru was born on June 20, 1894 in Takehara, about 60 km from Hiroshima. The Taketsuru family were sake makers whith a business dating back to around 1733. Masataka was expected to join the company and learn the family trade. Instead - he went to the city to study. In 1916 he graduated from Osaka Technical College in Organic Chemistry, Fermentable Foods. He then got a job at Settsu Shuzo Co., also in Osaka.

An apprentiship in Scotland

Just two years later, in 1918, Taketsuru received the assignment from his employer to take a trip to Scotland. Kibei Abe, the president of Settsu Shuzo Co., had a vision of producing whisky in Japan but the company lacked the suitable expertise. As Japan had done since the days of the Meiji Restoration the company sent one of its finest abroad to master the craft and Taketsuru was sent to apprenticeship in Scotland. In July of the same year, Taketsuru undertook the long journey by ship from Koba, first across the Pacific to the USA and then on to the promised land of whisky. During his first stop on the west coast of America, Taketsuru visited several wineries in the San Francisco area.

On January 31, 1919, Taketsuru reached the city of Glasgow on the Firth of Forth and enrolled in chemistry at the University of Glasgow. By April, the practice begins with learning how to make malt whiskey. He lives in the Elgin area and begins his service at the Longmorn Speyside distillery just south of it. In July his second stop was James Calder’s Bo´ness Distillery (sadly closed forever in 1925), which produces grain whiskey. He now has the knowledge of the traditional, heavy, intense malt whiskey. In the Lowlands near Bo´ness Taketsuru learned of continuous distillation using Coffey stills.

The whisky capital of the world

Taketsuru’s third stop was the Kintyre Peninsula, where his next employer, the Hazelburn Distillery in the small town of Campbeltown, was waiting for him. Looking to save money on lodgings in Campbeltown Taketsuru let one of the rooms in the Cowan family home. There he met his future wife Jessie Roberta Cowan, or Rita for short.

Back in Nippon

Masataka also brought back with him two notebooks filled with his notes on the whiskey distillation process () Known as the “Taketsuru Note” they are perhaps the most important documents in the history of Japanese whisky making). Back in Japan - married and full of enthusiasm to implement the whisky knowledge he had gained with Kihei Abe and Settsu Shuzo. He was disappointed when he learned that the company hit by the post-war depression had since abandoned plans to make authentic Scotch and had commissioned him to dazzle imitation whisky. He resigned his position with Settsu Shuzo in 1922.

Founding Yamazaki distillery

In 1923 a year after leaving Settsu Shuzo, Taketsuru’s whisky making career actually started with a 10-year contract at Kotobukiya Limited, the company of Shinjirō Torii later to become Suntory. Taketsuru was tasked with building and operating the Yamazaki distillery. It took nearly six years for the distillery to produce the first authentic Japanese whisky. Although finally producing whisky it would be fair to say the relationship between the two men was at times fraught during this time. Struggling to keep Kotobukiya profitable Torii moved into new markets and even required Taketsuru to split his time between operating Yamazaki and the companies newly acquired brewery.

In 1929 at the insistence of Torii the Suntory Whiskey Shirofuda (white label) was released to market aged 4.5 years, a considerably younger age than desired by Taketsuru. Being heavily peated in the style mastered by Taketsuru in Scotland it was not well recieved. The breakthrough would eventually come with a non-peated whisky the Kakubin, at Suntory this success is attributed to Torij, at Nikka this is unsurprisingly contested. The 10-year contract with The Yamazaki Distillery came to an end with Shinjirō Torii and Takezuru no longer really understanding each other.

The Great Japanese Juice Company

After consultation and discussions with his wife Rita, the matter was decided. Taketsuru resigned and the family moved to the far north of the country, to the island of Hokkaido. The idea was to finally build up his own malt whisky distillery, according to his wishes and in the traditional Scottish model. The first name for the company was Dai Nippon Kaju meaning the “Great Japanese Juice Company”. Several of Taketsuru’s investors were mislead about his intentions and believed they were investing in an apple juice company. The company did act as a temporary producer of apple based juices and liqueurs in order produce profit while the companies whisky matured.

Founding the Yoichi Distillery

Yoichi was a world away from the bustling city of Kyoto and offered a much more isolated way of life but to Taketsuru this remote place was very similar in terms of terroir, the presence of the nearby Hishikari peatlands and the Scottish like climate were decisive elements in its choice. There he founded the eponymous distillery. Production started in 1936, and was therefore not marketed until 1940. During this time the distillery turned into a temporary producer of apple-based juices and liqueurs in order to pay the workers and cover production costs. The first whisky was launched in 1940 as NIKKA whisky.

Establishing NIKKA

The company name was officially changed to The NIKKA Whisky Distilling company in 1952, a contraction of NI-ppon and KA-ju (Dai Nippon Kaju) the name that had appeared on the companies first whisky. In 1959, Takesure created the Nishinomiya grain distillery. Ten years later in 1969 a second malt distillery Miyagikyo was founded in Sendai Miyagi Prefecture. The company grew until the death of Masataka Taketsuru in 1979 after which his son, Takeshi, succeeded him.

The influence of Masataka Taketsuru

At the end of the war, Masataka had to continue producing cheap whisky of poor quality at the insistence of his investors. According to them, the post-war Japanese population was too poor to afford good whiskey. Masataka continued to strive for quality with stubbornness and perseverance, refining his methods even if he failed to sell the production.

In 1964 Nikka Whiskey introduced three premium whiskeys. His former employer at Suntory quickly responded by producing theirs. Quality Japanese whisky established itself over the following decades, aided considerably by this rivalry.

The change in the quality of Japanese whisky acts as a mirror of the wider Japanese industry as a whole, the postwar period saw production move from cheap poor quality, to first-class quality, and on to world-class quality within a few decades. In spite of this Japanese whiskiess didn’t really become internationally recognized or exported in significant quantities until the 2000s, when they started winning international awards accolades. Overnight bottles that had sat on shelves at £100 were impossible to find at 10 times the price leading to a massive shortage of aged stock, and sadly a number of disengenuiosly marketed blended whiskies. Happily while the introduction of a legal definition of Japanese whisky may still be some distance away NIKKA, the company Masataka Taketsuru founded, is on of the signatories of the Standards for Labeling Japanese Whisky.



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