From Scotland to Japan: How Masataka Taketsuru Crafted Japanese Whisky’s Future

Picture of Dylan Hager

Dylan Hager

Dylan (he/him) is a manager and part of our spirits staff. He finds Kentucky Bourbon and Rye Whiskey particularly riveting, and also keeps a decent amount of beer and too much vermouth in his fridge. He once tore his MCL doing the limbo, and has been to Bonnaroo 29 times.

Japanese whisky traces its origins to the early 20th century, with Masataka Taketsuru playing a pivotal role in its development. Often referred to as the “father of Japanese whisky,” Taketsuru studied organic chemistry at the University of Glasgow and apprenticed at several Scottish distilleries. In 1920, he returned to Japan, armed with extensive knowledge and experience, and was instrumental in establishing the country’s first whisky distillery. 

Then in 1923, Shinjiro Torii, the founder of Suntory, established the Yamazaki distillery near Kyoto, and hired Taketsuru as his first distillery manager. This event marked the official birth of Japanese whisky. Inspired by the techniques and styles of Scotch whisky, Yamazaki aimed to create a product tailored to Japanese tastes. 

Taketsuru left Suntory in 1934 to establish his own company, which would become Nikka Whisky. He founded the Yoichi distillery in Hokkaido, a location chosen for its climate and environmental similarities to Scotland. Nikka’s first whisky, released in 1940, helped cement Japanese whisky’s reputation for quality and craftsmanship. 

Nikka Coffey Grain Whisky - $69.99

Today, Suntory and Nikka remain the two powerhouses of Japanese whisky. Both produce a wide variety of whiskies that are popular not only in Japan but also in the US. Nikka's use of the Coffey still, a continuous column still originally invented by Aeneas Coffey in the 19th century, stands as a hallmark of their whiskey-making artistry. This technique infuses their expressions with a unique character and unparalleled smoothness, showcasing a harmonious blend of tradition and innovation. Nikka Coffey Grain Whisky is a great example of what the Coffey still can bring to the table. Distilled mainly from corn, it’s exotic, fruity and rich. A great Japanese Whisky for a bourbon drinker and a great Father’s Day gift.

Suntory Toki Whisky - $34.99

Japanese whisky highballs have become a beloved classic, offering a refreshing and effervescent way to enjoy the nuanced flavors of Japanese whisky. Typically made with a base of whiskey, soda water, and ice, these highballs are served tall and garnished with a twist of citrus or a sprig of mint. I recommend trying a highball using Suntory Toki Whisky. It’s a fairly light bodied, but well-rounded blend of whiskies from the Yamazaki, Hakushu and Chita distilleries.