Japanese Whisky: The Origin Story

Japanese Whisky is a relatively new addition to the worldwide whiskey scene. Its origin story begins in the mid 19th century. For those unaware of the trade history of Japan, the country was essentially isolated from western trade for 200 years. From 1636 to 1854 Japanese imports/exports froze. Prohibiting trade with the outside world, Japan adopted the “Act of Seclusion”. This legislation banned all forms of trade with the western world. The act came to an end on March 31st of 1854 through the Convention of Kanagawa. As a celebratory gift given to the Japanese to commemorate the reopening of trade with the rest of the world, a 110 gallon barrel of American whiskey was given as a gift. A seemingly small congratulatory gift that would spark an entirely new industry in Japan.

Whiskey had successfully made its way to the east. It would remain a pricey import enjoyed by the wealthy until the early 1900’s. Then along came Masataka Taketsuru. Taketsuru spent his time in high school studying at the school for Fermented Food Production. He would then go on work for Settsu Shuzo, a malt beverage company. Recognizing Taketsuru’s talent and passion, the company sent him overseas to study whisky production in Scotland. Taketsuru studied at the University of Glasgow and took all that whisky education back with him to Japan. Once returned, he met an entrepreneur by the name of Shinjiro Torii. Together they founded the Yamakazi Distillery in 1923.

Five years later, Yamakazi Distillery released a Japanese whisky first. Shirofuda.

Unfortunately, this momentous occasion wasn’t met with the pomp and circumstance one typically associates with such historic events. Taketsuru learned whisky production in Scotland. Therefore, he essentially created a Scotch distilled and aged in Japan. The Japanese population hadn’t experienced the flavor profile of Scotch yet. The unaccustomed Japanese palate rejected this expression and it failed to catch on. As a result of this less than enthusiastic reception to their whisky, conflict built between Torii and Tasketsuru.

Creative differences split the two apart about a decade after the founding of Yamakazi Distilley. Taketsuru branched out to create his own distillery. Aging whisky takes time. Knowing that, Taketsuru began his distillery as an apple juice production and distribution facility named “Dai Nippon Kaju”/”The Great Japanese Juice Company”. In 1940 he released his first whisky, Nikka. Taketsuru later renamed his company to Nikka Whisky. Following suit, Torii rebranded his distillery as well to Suntory Whisky.

The story of these two visionaries ushered us into the modern era of Japanese whisky. They paved the way for us to experience our favorite drink through a completely new lens and truly make this a worldwide spirit. If you haven’t already, get out and try some different whiskies from around the world. Experience all the different iterations of it and see how unique they are and their shared qualities.

Check out our other article on Japanese whisky here.

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