Dean Owen

4 years ago · 3 min. reading time · visibility ~100 ·

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A Tale of Two Distilleries

A Tale of Two Distilleries@® RO TP

Hibiki, Yoichi, Hakushu, Yamazaki, Taketsuru; words that are often whispered over dark oak counters. These are some of the finest whiskies in the World, and yes, they are Japanese.


Many of you may not have heard of them. Some of you might be familiar with a few. Hibiki was actually the whisky used in Bill Murray’s commercial filming scene in the 2003 flick “Lost in Translation”. What might be news to you is that “Hibiki 21” won World’s Best Blended Whisky in 2010, 2011, 2013, and 2016. In that last year, another little known Japanese whisky, the “Fuji-Gotemba Single Grain 25” beat out the Irish, Australian, South African, and yes, the Scots to grab the World’s Best Grain Whisky title. In 2015, Jim Murray, English journalist and author of Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible, voted Yamazaki Sherry Cask 2013 the 2015 World Whisky of the Year. Again in 2014, “Taketsuru Pure Malt 17” won the World’s Best Blended Malt. And the list goes on.


This should come as no surprise. In many ways, Japan shares quite similar conditions as the British Isles. We have two island nations with mountains and streams providing great water, peat moss, grains like and barley and wheat, and four distinct seasons. The fluctuations in temperature in Japan may be more drastic with colder winters and warmer summers, but this can lead to a faster maturity in the barrel resulting in a more complex flavour profile.


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Japanese whisky making dates back to the early 20th Century and can be traced back to two men, Shinjiro Torii and Masataka Taketsuru, the respective founders of what would become two of Japan’s largest distilleries, Suntory and Nikka. Torii had worked for a liquor importer in Osaka for a while and in 1899 decided to open up a modest wine shop of his own, Torii Shoten. He noted the distinct preferences of the Japanese palate and went on the produce his own fortified wine, Akadama Port, which he launched in 1907 under his new company name, Kotobukiya. It was, perhaps, a more delicate version, and less sickly sweet than the Sherry and Port he imported, and more suitable for paring with Japanese cuisine. The wine was well received and Torii’s growing success enabled him to take the next step. He had developed a fondness for Scotch whisky and wanted to develop a locally distilled version that was perhaps not so harsh on the throat. In 1918, after scouting for a site with all the attributes for a distillery, he settled to build on the outskirts of Kyoto in Shimamoto. The setting was chosen for it’s lush bamboo forests at the foot of Mt. Tennozan, and the pristine waters of the Katsura, Uji, and Kizu Rivers. The site was finally built in 1923 and eager to hire top talent, Torii took notice of a young chemist who had recently returned from a two-year stint in the Highlands of Scotland.


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Taketsuru had been sent to Scotland by his family, owners of a sake brewery, to study distilling techniques employed for making whisky. He enrolled in an organic chemistry course at the University of Glasgow, and went knocking on doors to finally secure apprenticeships at the Longmorn distillery in Strathspey, James Calder distillery in Bo’ness, and Hazelburn distillery in Cambeltown. It was there that his meticulous eye for details had him jotting down two whole notebooks full of notes on the distilling process including diagrams and extremely detailed drawings of the process. Naturally he was a perfect fit for Torii and a few years later, in 1929, the new Yamazaki distillery launched Japan’s first whisky, Suntory Shirofuda. It was a flop, but that did not waiver their resolve. They had they first big hit with the launch of Suntory Kakubin in 1937, but the pair were finding it harder and harder to work together. Eventually Taketsuru was demoted and sent away to run a beer factory. He finally ended up leaving Kotobukiya, now named Suntory, in 1934. After a series of fund raising, he set up his own company, Dainippon Kajuu, a supposed juice producer, but his real intention was to set up his own distillery. Like Torii, Taketsuru scouted far and wide, and eventually settled on a plot of land in North Japan’s main island, Hokkaido. In many ways, the Yoichi site reminded Taketsuru and his Scottish wife Jessie Roberta (Rita Taketsuru) of her home village. In 1940, the Yoichi distillery launched Nikka Whisky and Nikka was born.


In the following decades a fierce, and what some have called, bitter rivalry ensued between the houses of Suntory and Nikka. I saw it as a rivalry based in deep admiration and respect. Whereas some rivalries can be hugely damaging to both parties involved, these two companies were not out to get each other through dubious tactics and price wars. Instead their focus was on producing the very best whisky they could.


Suntory founder Shinjiro Torii passed away in 1962 leaving Suntory in the hands of his second son Kaizo Saji. Saji grew the company into a multi-billion dollar company and at the time of his passing was the Forbes 48th richest person in the World with a net worth of $6.7 billion. They continue to flourish and expand globally following major acquisitions of Orangina, Frucor, and the 2014 purchase of Beam Inc, makers of Jim Beam for a whopping $16 billion. Nikka founder Taketsuru passed away in 1979 at the age of 85. He found his final resting place in Yoichi next to his dear wife Rita, the Scottish lass who had followed him across the planet and passed away 18 years earlier.



Many thanks to The Nikka Whisky Distilling Co., Ltd and Suntory Holdings Limited for providing a wealth of information.



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Comments
Joyce 🐝 Bowen Brand Ambassador @ beBee

Love this story, yet hate the alcohol. Sipping this stuff riles my taste buds. Always felt wrong about not being able to savor the stuff. But what is is--I have a sweet tooth instead.

Lisa Gallagher

Lisa Gallagher

4 years ago #24

Had to share this wonderful, tantalizing article again since we will be visiting the Bourbon Trail in Kentucky. Thanks Dean Owen

Dean Owen

Dean Owen

4 years ago #23

#22
That's one brilliant story.

CityVP Manjit

CityVP Manjit

4 years ago #22

#21
I in turn have to do an article on Alcoholics Anonymous where I was invited to support one of my brothers friends who had gone a year clean and now was receiving his medallion. As the session began we all stood up and I noticed that each member said "My name is --------- and I am an Alcholic". This affirmation was being repeated row after row, and at this point I turned to my brother and whispered "I am not saying that! - I'm gonna say I am a teetotaler" - he whispered back "the f' you will, try it and see". So in that moment as my moment came closer and closer I had to make a decision - do I speak for my teetotalling or should I speak in union with the alcoholics? Now it is my turn and I said with my teeth clenched "My name is Manjit, I am an Al-colic" and so it went down the line until everyone sat down. This is where my brother did give me a great lesson in life that is utterly unforgettable and poured wisdom into my bones , he whispered in my ear "shame on you that you think that you are better than them".

Dean Owen

Dean Owen

4 years ago #21

#20
I had no idea teetotaler was spelt that way! I thought it had something to do with tea. I might have to do an article on tea though, perhaps Churchill's favourite, Lapsang Souchong.

CityVP Manjit

CityVP Manjit

4 years ago #20

It is weird in a way for someone like me trying to understand a market in which I am not a participant (a 100% bonafide teetotaler) but I do lay claim to fame that my first occupation or paid work of any sort was as a barman. I lasted all of three weeks in that role and can now proudly attest that if there was a title for the "world's worst barman" it is me - I will still give credit to the owners of the "Oldfield Tavern" they did try to do the best to keep me by offering me "wash up" duties, but in terms of drink I was washed up. What this buzz does give me is a cameo into the mind of entrepreneurs and the entrepreneurs story is always a good way of developing an understanding of how markets form and how enterprise emerges, perhaps in more unlikely ways than we can plan. What this story shows me is how an eye for detail is a theme that I do see pop up in entrepreneurial stories a.k.a. Taketsuru "meticulous eye for details". It is also interesting how much of mindset is governed by knowledge of product and how this knowledge is different between a promotion to get people simply using a product or service, and an education which is knowing the details of a market. That knowing of details is another facet of an entrepreneur, which I find an interesting observation point. As Milos Djukic recently buzzed a video of Richard Feynman, I come back to what Feynman saw in a good scientist, which is the power of noticing. The power of observation I firmly believe is a trait of great entrepreneurs and how this mitigates risk. Great buzz as always and insights that I can direct towards my red learning.

Dean Owen

Dean Owen

4 years ago #19

#18
I knew you'd be a tough convert! You just have to try the Yoichi Single Malt when you are there! For decades the Japanese liked their whisky done "Mizuwari" i.e. with ice and water, or even topped up with soda. I've also been served whisky with Oolong tea which was surprisingly refreshing, and very dry. These days it is on the rocks. The Japanese tend process alcohol quite fast, hence the red faces and very rare hangovers (something to do with enzyme induction). But Yoichi Single Malt is a perfect sipping whisky, taken neat. Your brain cells will not only survive, they will be in a state of exuberance.

Ken Boddie

Ken Boddie

4 years ago #18

Looking forward to testing your claims in April, Dean-san. As one who was brought up to appreciate a twelve year old single malt whisky (or several) in my foggy uni days, I know the importance of 'John Barleycorn" and the source water, which combine to give us 'uisge beatha' (the water of life). But these days the occasional whiskey (preferably Scotch malt) needs to be 'smooth and well aged' (somewhat like myself, haha). The questions are: Do our Nippon cousins serve the mature taster's market or the 'Scotch and coke' undifferentiating abortionists? Have my liver and stomach recovered from the abuse of my youth sufficiently to permit passage past the palate, without enforcing a bile rebellion? Can I afford to lose any more brain cells? 😟

Dean Owen

Dean Owen

4 years ago #17

#15
Will check with my supplier to see if he can get me some to taste!

Dean Owen

Dean Owen

4 years ago #16

#14
Sounds like a book I'd love to read. In a few years the Chinese will be the ones buying up many distillers. I fear they will not be so professional. For the Chinese, it is ROI at any cost.

Gert Scholtz

Gert Scholtz

4 years ago #15

#9
Three Ships is good- and so is Bain's Mountain Whisky. The main SA Brands.

Neil Smith

Neil Smith

4 years ago #14

It's not something the tourist board shouts about but quite a few of Scotland's best distilleries are Japanese owned. In many cases the incomers took over companies that were on their knees due to traditional, British mismanagement and lack of investment and they have produced a revival and renaissance of some of the county's finest brands. That they have done this with great support for local communities and a very hands off approach to the product is entirely to their credit. If anyone is interested in more information then the book "Raw Spirit" by Iain Banks is well worth a read.

Fernando 🐝 Santa Isabel Llanos

My favorite whiskey is hibiki, Thank you Dean Owen

Dean Owen

Dean Owen

4 years ago #12

#11
Neat is straight up, no ice. Often served with a chaser, usually a glass of water served separately.

Lisa Gallagher

Lisa Gallagher

4 years ago #11

#10
Well it is dinner time. Ok, but what is neat, lol

Dean Owen

Dean Owen

4 years ago #10

#8
Bombay Sapphire gin, neat. Going to get me a glass now....

Dean Owen

Dean Owen

4 years ago #9

#6
Well you probably know South Africa also produces premium whiskey, in particular Three Ships is always entered into the World Whisky Awards. I've not tried it. Any good?

Lisa Gallagher

Lisa Gallagher

4 years ago #8

#5
What's in a Bombay neat? It's always fun to try a new drink on occasion.

Pascal Derrien

Pascal Derrien

4 years ago #7

Well I don't drink but I did not have the faintest idea there was such thing as Japonese whisky, sante :-) Dean Owen

Gert Scholtz

Gert Scholtz

4 years ago #6

Dean Owen A fascinating look into the history of Japanese whisky. I would never have guessed that some of the finest are made in the land of the rising sun. Interesting how something superior often comes out of rivalry – in this case between the houses of Suntory and Nikka.

Dean Owen

Dean Owen

4 years ago #5

#4
Oh I am a big gin fan. Especially Tanqueray and Bombay Sapphire. If you ever have a chance, have a sip of Bombay neat. So many spices. Unfortunately the Japanese have yet to master gin making.

Lisa Gallagher

Lisa Gallagher

4 years ago #4

Interesting history about Whiskey (s) - I had no clue Japanese produced Whiskey but then again I don't drink it. Wow, worth 6.7 billion, why was I not his favorite granddaughter? ;-) We went to a gin/vodka distillery this summer. They took us back to show us how they brew, it smelled like oatmeal brewing. I had a Russian Mule, first time I ever tried one. My husband prefers a Manhatten when we go out to dinner. Orson Wells, omg... forgot about him!

Dean Owen

Dean Owen

4 years ago #3

#1
Yes, Jim Beam, Maker's Mark, Bowmore, Canadian Club, Chateau Lagrange, and even our first dabble with the berried juice, Ribena!

Dean Owen

Dean Owen

4 years ago #2

#1
Yes, Jim Beam, Maker's Mark, Bowmore, Canadian Club, Chateau Lagrange, and even our first dabble with the grape, Ribena!

Paul Walters

Paul Walters

4 years ago #1

Dean Owen was such an authority on whiskey !!! ( Claim the credit Jim!!!) Thanks for this

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