Gorgeous fragrance of vanilla, chocolate, and wood followed by tender peat. Gently taking a sip of the amber liquid and moving it around, there is no doubt that great satisfaction arises. This mellow taste of “Super NIKKA” shows the deep love of Masataka Taketsuru, the founder of NIKKA Whisky, to his Wife Rita. Since “Yoichi Single cask” has been awarded by the title of “Best of the Best” in an international blind tasting organized by Whisky Magazine in 2001, NIKKA Whisky is known as a leading Japanese whisky around the world. Despite its success in whisky making, there are still only a few people who know about the struggles and efforts of Masataka Taketsuru and Rita. Let us first take a look into the distillery of NIKKA Whisky in Yoichi, Hokkaido.
Facing the Sea of Japan at the base of Shakotan peninsula, Yoichi town is called the Scotland of Japan with its climate. Cool and humid air, abundant supply of water, and rich harvest of barley and peat, everything is ideal for whisky making. Not only the blessings of nature, but of course the distilleries’ particular techniques form the masculine and full bodied flavor of NIKKA Whisky. The distillery has introduced
coal-fired distillation since its foundation, which requires particular skills on the workers to maintain the appropriate heat. This method is now very rare even in Scotland because of its inefficiency. Yoichi distillery, however, continues the traditional way if it’s necessary for making unique and “true” whisky
Msataka’s passion for whisky making has been taken over in the land of Yoichi.
Just a few minutes straight walk from JR Yoichi station is the main gate of NIKKA Whisky Yoichi Distillery. Walking through the gate, you will see some old stone buildings. When you enter the distillation building (Still House), you will find huge pot stills with shimenawa: a sacred Shinto rope made of rice straw. NIKKA Whisky introduced their first still pot in 1936, and they have been operating them with coal ever since.
NIKKA Museum was renovated in October 2021 from the former Whisky Museum. The museum is divided into 4 sections. At the “Story of Nikka Whisky” section, you can learn the stories and history of 4 major brands in NIKKA WHISKY (Yoichi, Taketsuru, Black NIKKA, and From the Barrel), as well as the history of Masataka and Rita. Equally another important part is, of course, the tasting bar. There are various types of whisky that you cannot easily find in other places. This bar would be quite an essential spot to visit for whisky lovers. In the middle of the stone buildings, a large light blue wooden building catches the eye. The building, which has a combination of Japanese and Western architecture is former home of Masataka and Rita. Their story of Whisky Making in Japan, they based on this house, but we have to travel back through time to understand how they arrived in Yoichi.
Masataka Taketsuru was born in a family of sake brewers in Hiroshima in 1894. After he started to work in Settsu Brewery, the president of the company gave him a chance to study abroad in Scotland expecting that a boom of real whisky in Japan would happen. In 1918, a young Japanese man boarded a ship alone carrying a fountain pen and the future of Japanese whisky. Nevertheless, his life in Scotland did not start smoothly. There was no specialized whisky class in the university. He had gone through the book about whisky recommended by the professor, but he knew that only having a notion doesn’t help making whisky since he
grew up in a brewer family. He sent letters to distilleries in highland area, and even visited some places, but did not receive any positive response. After a long period of frustration, Masataka finally got permission to have practical training in Longmorn distillery. He worked hard every
day and night with his notebook and fountain pen in his white coat. Alexander Douglas-Home, 66th prime minister of the United Kingdom, praised Masataka with humor saying “Once there was a young man who stole the secret of our county’s whisky making only with a fountain pen”. The stay in Scotland gave Masataka a gift of whisky making, and another gift: an encounter with Rita.
Jessie Roberta “Rita” Cowan and Masataka met by chance. Rita’s younger brother was learning Jujutsu from Masataka. Rita was attracted by Masataka’s sincere passion toward whisky, and it did not require a long time for them to fall in love. In spite of her family’s opposition, they got married in 1920 when Masataka was 25 and Rita was 23. Masataka suggested to Rita that they stay in Scotland, however, Rita encouraged him to return to Japan saying “You’ve got an ambition to pursue. We have to go to Japan”.
Masataka focused on finishing his studies such as the method of distillation, facility of factory, treatment for workers, and tax matters while Rita had the pleasure to support him. In the fall of 1920, they arrived in Japan. Rita might have had to apologize to her family in Scotland, but the only thing they could do was to move forward.
Shinjiro Torii, the president of Kotobukiya Liquor Company (current SUNTORY), had known about the news of the only Japanese whisky maker. He welcomed Masataka with favorable conditions. Masataka took an initiative selecting the right place, organizing the facilities, and whisky making as the factory manager. Finally, in 1929, on the 10th year after coming back from Scotland, Masataka released the first real Japanese whisky. Rita celebrated him. Masataka kissed her hand, deeply moved by her brave work while living in foreign country. Finishing the contract with Kotobukiya, Masataka decided to pursue a further dream in whisky making when he was 40.
Rita, we finally found it. The land where we can have our dreams come true”. It was Yoichi town where Masataka chose as the “promised land”.
In July of 1934, Masataka established Dai Nippon Kajyu, meaning Great Japan Juice Company. He first began with making apple juice because whisky cannot be sold right away, and also his capital was still insufficient. Masataka and Rita had to live through the hardship together. All he had to do was to believe in himself on what he learned in Scotland, and scrupulously make the whisky. After a series of struggles, in 1940, their first whisky, NIKKA Whisky, had been sent out to the people. “NIKKA” stands for abbreviation of “Nippon Kaju”. Masataka and Rita’s 22 year old dream came to fruition, or perhaps better to say, started to bloom from this
THE NIKKA WHISKY DISTILLING Co., LTD
7-6 Kurokawa-cho, Yoichi-cho, Yoichi-gun, Hokkaido