Despite its international acclaim and sought-after bottles, Japanese whisky has a relatively young history. There are two men in particular that we have to thank for establishing Japanese whisky – Shinjiro Torii and Masataka Taketsuru. These two men are the founders of Suntory and Nikka, respectively, which are still the biggest names in the Japanese whisky industry today.
Shinjiro Torii, originally a pharmaceutical wholesaler, got his start in the liquor business in 1899 when he founded Torii Shoten and created Western-style liquors that suited Japanese palates. He created a brand called “Akadama Port Wine” in 1907 which laid the foundation for his company Kotobukiya, which would later become Suntory – the brewing and distilling group we now know and love. Despite the company’s success and opposition from the company’s executives, he felt a calling to make Japanese whisky for Japanese people and dedicated the rest of his life doing so.
Torii believed that nature has an enormous influence on whisky, especially water and in 1923, he initiated the construction of Japan’s first malt whisky distillery in Yamazaki, an area famous for its pure spring water. The Hakushu distillery, Suntory’s second distillery, was built in 1973 in the Southern Japan Alps. His endless pursuit of perfection became ingrained in the company’s philosophy and continues today in its innovations and craftsmanship.
Meanwhile, Masataka Taketsuru was working as a chemist and businessman. He came from a family that had owned a sake brewery since 1733, so the drinks business was in his blood. He enrolled at the University of Glasgow in Scotland to study organic chemistry in 1918. He completed a couple of apprenticeships at distilleries in Scotland and married a Scottish woman before returning to Japan in 1920.
This is where the two men’s lives intersected. In 1921, Torii hired Taketsuru to work at Kotobukiya. However, they never saw eye to eye. Taketsuru had wanted to build the first distillery up North in Hokkaido, which he believed was the part of Japan that was most similar to Scotland. Torii shut down this idea because he thought it was too far away from the main markets of Honshu (the main island of Japan). They also had different ideas about what type of whisky to produce – Taketsuru wanted to stay true to the Scottish style whereas Torii wanted to make softer styles of whisky for Japanese people.
Taketsuru stayed and helped establish Yamazaki distillery and even served as the distiller’s first manager before deciding to quit and create his own distilling company. In 1934, he started Dai Nippon Kaju K.K., which would later be renamed Nikka. He opened his first distillery, Yoichi, in Hokkaido and sold the first Scotch-inspired Nikka whisky in October of 1940.