Shinjirō Torii (鳥井 信治郎) - Japanese whisky pioneer

Picture of Shinjirō Torii (鳥井 信治郎) - Japanese whisky pioneer

The history of Japanese whisky production began officially in 1923 in Yamazaki through Shinjiro Torii. Today his company Beam Suntory is one of the big five globally. Born in 1879, he worked for a pharmaceutical wholesaler that was also active in the wine and spirits sector.

In 1899 Shinjirō Torii founded the company Torii Shoten with a shop in Osaka and initially sold imported wine there within his country. In 1907 he expanded his range to include his self-made Akadama port, which was also sold successfully in Nippon. On December 1, 1921, this business was renamed to became the Kotobukiya company (株式会社 壽 屋).

This does not seem to be enough for the ambitious man, because in 1923 he started his next big project with the construction of The Yamazaki Whisky Distillery near Kyoto. Since November 1924, the high-proof spirits flowed through the copper stills based on the Scottish model and another five years later his company sold the first Japanese single malt whisky under the name Suntory Whisky Shirofuda (White Label).

The foundation of Suntory

1899 is considered to be the founding year of his company “Kotobukiya”, which was to become Suntory shortly after the whisky distillery was founded and is now one of the big five in the spirits world. At that time, around 1900, western alcohol made up just 0.3 percent of the Japanese market. Products such as brandy or port wine were not generally made in Japan according to original processes, but their aromas were imitated by blending and mixing ingredients and flavorings. Shinjirō Torii started suntory as Torii Shoten. In 1907 he expanded his range to include his self-made Akadama port, which was also sold successfully in Nippon. On December 1, 1921, this business was renamed to became the Kotobukiya company (株式会社 壽 屋).

This does not seem to be enough for the ambitious man, because in 1923 he started his next big project with the construction of The Yamazaki Whisky Distillery near Kyoto. Since November 1924, the high-proof spirits flowed through the copper stills based on the Scottish model and another five years later his company sold the first Japanese single malt whisky under the name Suntory Whisky Shirofuda (White Label).

The first Japanese whisky

Whisky in particular fascinated the young entrepreneur, who was the first to take the step of producing whisky based on the Scottish model using the original process and building a malt distillery. In addition, he started looking for a Scottish specialist who would advise him and be responsible for the distillation process. An acquaintance, Dr. Moore, pointed out a young Japanese man who was passionate about whisky and who had also explored the subject in Scotland. Shinjiro Torii already knew who was meant.

Masataka Taketsuru, another whisky hero, had been sent by his employer Settsu Shuzo to Scotland to master the art of whisky creation. Unfortunately he was to learn upon his return that Settsu Shuzo hit by the post-war depression had shelved its whisky-making plans. Frustrated by this, Taketsuru left the company in 1922.

In June 1923 Masataka Taketsuru started working at Kotobukiya for Shinjiro Torii. The distillery was completed in 1924 and produced the first distillate. The brand’s first whisky came out in 1929 as Suntory Whisky Shirofuda (Suntory White Label). The early years turned out to be tough for the young company. Production methods and products left a lot to be desired and Shinjiro Torii had to start creative endeavors to finance the distillery. For example, he sold curry, tea, soy sauce and dentifrices before adding a brewery.

A rift between the pioneers

There was clearly a gap between Masataka Taketsuru, an engineer who had a dream of making real Scotch whisky, and Shinjiro Torii, a manager who was involved in the business feasibility of domestic whisky. The year before the release of Suntory’s first spirit, Taketsuru was ordered to take on the role of brewery manager in Yokohama while concurrently serving as the whisky manager of Yamazaki.

A further rift arose between Torii and Taketsuru over their differing attitude to the whiskies release date. Taketsuru wanted to leave the whisky for 5 to 10 years after being barreled. Torii as an entrepreneur was unwilling to wait for 5 years and the first whisky was introduced after an aging period of four and a half years.

The spirit which was initially very peaty, due to the experience Taketsuru had gained in Scotland, was sold as Suntory Shirofuda but did not sell as well as Torii had hoped. The Japanese did not like the peaty smoked whisky. To save his investment, Torii experimented with longer cask ageing and left out the peat smoke to harmonise better with Japanese food.

In 1934 the two whisky pioneers parted ways. Taketsuru moved to the north of the country, where he would build his own distillery to start his own brand - Nikka. What began laboriously as Kotobukiya was to develop over the decades with Nikka and Yamazaki, or Suntory, becoming the two greatest success stories of whisky in Japan.

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