After taking a look at what could be classified as one of the old school classics of Japanese Whisky, the new kid on the block, and the Americans jumping on the bandwagon I wanted to take a look at how things change.
While the Japanese Whisky world is less than 100 years old it is still deeply rooted in tradition, both its own and the Scotch Whisky tradition that gave birth to it, so change comes slowly. And while whiskey history is littered with mythological founding fathers modern Japanese Whisky owes it’s life and it’s tradition, to one man: Masataka Taketsuru.
Born in 1894 Taketsuru was born the third son of a family of sake brewers in Takehara, a mere 60km outside of Hiroshima. The Taketsuru family trace their roots as sake brewers back to at least 1733 and Masataka was expected to take over the family business after his older brothers showed no interest, but like many young men Masataka became enamored with the magic of whisky. Specifically Scotch whisky.
In 1918 Masataka seized on an opportunity to study abroad in Scotland andenrolled in the University of Glasgow to study organic chemistry. It is one of the truths of the world that no matter how hip marketing makes the booze you drink look it’s always being made by a chemist.
In April 1919 he apprenticed at the Longmorn distillery in Speyside and not long after met Jesse Roberta “Rita” Cowan, a red headed Scottish beauty that he loved even more than whisky, and who would remain his muse for the rest of his life. The two supposedly fell in love when they sang Auld Lang Syne together and married in 1920 (over objections from both families) and in May of that same year Taketsuru began an apprentice at Hazelburn distillery where he gained a greater understanding of blending whiskey as well as distilling. He and Rita returned to Japan that November with plans to help the Settsu Shozo Company set up the first Japanese Whisky distillery. These plans never came to fruition.
In 1923 Taketsuru entered a 10-year contract with Kotobukiya Limited, what we now know as Suntory, and along with Suntory’s founder and first Master Blender Shinjiro Torii helped found and build the Yamizaki Distillery. Torii had originally made inquiries for a “whisky expert” in Scotland but was told he already had one back home. The pair worked closely together to construct the Yamazaki Distillery but when their first whisky hit the market the Suntory Shirofuda was a massive dud. At the time blame was placed on the Japanese drinkers preference for lighter, blended whiskies as wells as Takesuru’s refusal to budge on doing things the ‘Scottish way.” Taketsuru was shunted away from the distillery he helped build over to a beer factory where he served out the remainder of his 10-year contract.
In 1934, finding himself free to pursue his own goals again, Taketsuru formed the Dainnippon Kajuu, Co. which roughly translates to ‘Great Japan Fruit Juice Company’ and while everyone was expecting him to make apple juice he constructed the Yoichi Distillery in Hokkaido.
Hokkaido was chosen because its climate reminded Takesuru so strongly of Scotland. It also gave him easy access to barley and peat and in 1940, despite the ensuing war, he released the first bottles of Nikka Whiskey. Unfortunately, the war caused all whisky to be labeled as a commodity critical to national defense and Taketsuru spent the rest of the war making cheap military ration whiskey for the troops. Another setback, but one that allowed the distillery to survive where many did not.
The company officially changed its name to the Nikka Whisky Distilling Co. in 1952 and quickly became the second largest producer of Japanese whisky, building a second distillery in Miyagikyo in 1969 and nipping at the heels of Taketsuru’s old employer’s and Suntory creating a lasting rivalry. That rivalry has in many ways led to the quality of product that is being seen in Japanese Whisky today.
But success has led to its own issues. Both Nikka and Suntory have been unable to keep up with global demand for whisky that was once merely the dream of a single man. Products that brought them to the international stage have lost their age statements or disappeared entirely.
It used to be said that if you truly wanted to get to the heart of the Suntory style you should drink Hibiki 17 and likewise if you wanted to get to the heart of Nikka pour yourself a dram of the Yoichi 15 Year single malt. Well, the former is now a unicorn of price and supply and the latter has been discontinued and replaced with a Non-Age Statement bottle simply called “Yoichi Single Malt.”
The pot stills at Yoichi are direct coal heated which are temperamental at best and the Yoichi style has always been at least slightly peated. The result is an aromatic nose that lets the smoke roll out of the glass. There’s a touch of sea salt and soot with citrus oils. On the palette the plum and apples lead, followed quickly by a salty, smoky tang reminiscent of a cold fire on a night time beach before being washed with a long, luxurious finish with the smoke becoming more savory.
It’s an elegant whisky but it doesn’t match up to the 15 year. There’s an element of time that can’t be replaced. This new Yoichi is aggressive where the old 15 year was confident and that’s a fine distinction at times.
This doesn’t mean it’s a bad whisky. It’s different. It’s a change. It’s another step in the evolution of an industry that is really just coming into its own, no matter how much tradition and expertise it draws on. And it’s a reminder that nothing, not even your 200 year old family whisky recipe, is permanent. So grab a glass, pour a dram, and contemplate the ephemeral nature of life while you can.