I love a good story and Nikka Whisky certainly has a good story. A story of both an excellently crafted whiskey but also a phenomenal story in the life of the company’s founder, Masataka Taketsuru. The month of January is especially important to the story of Taketsuru and his redheaded Scottish wife, Rita. So I thought I’d take some time and look at a few of Nikka’s offerings for the rest of January.
In 1918 Masataka Taketsuru was sent to Scotland by the Settsu Shuzo company to learn how to make whisky from the Scottish master craftsmen. The goal was to learn from the best, return home, and create a Japanese whiskey that would be on par with the best whiskies being produced in the world. The unexpected consequence was Taketsuru meeting Jessie Roberta Cowan, known as Rita, while teaching Judo to her brother Ramsay.
In a time when “international” marriages were rare the two fell in love. Takatsuru proposed in September of 1919 and the two were married on January 8, 1920, exactly 100 years ago. After the marriage the two moved to Campbelltown where Taketsusru completed his apprenticeship. The two returned to Japan in November of 1920, partially due to Rita’s encouragement. Taketsuru had expressed a desire to stay in Scotland with his marriage to Rita but she disagreed. “We should not stay in Scotland, she said, “We should head to Japan. Masataka-san is living a big dream, a dream to make whisky in Japan. I want to live your dream together.”
Upon their return to Scotland the landscape had changed. The post World War II depression had set in and the Settsu Shuzo company was no longer financially able to invest in new projects, like whisky making. When he left the company in 1922 he found a job, through a friend of Rita’s, as a science teacher. The following year he was offered a job at Kotobukiya to make whisky.
The name Kotobukiya may not be familiar to Western ears but the company it grew into, Suntory, certainly is. While Masataka helped them produce their first whiskies from the brand new Yamazaki Distillery his first wide spread release was essentially a failure and Masataka parted way after fulfilling his ten year contract.
In 1934 the couple founded the Dai Nippon Kaju, Co., literally the “Great Japanese Juice Company, in Yoichi, Hokkaido. The two said the Yoichi, more than any other place in Japan, reminded them most of Scotland. This endeavor was made possible by investors who were introduced to Taketsuru through Rita. Both of the primary investors had family that had taken private English lessons from Rita. With the help of these investors, and the production of many apple products in the early years, Taketsuru was eventually able to release his own whisky in 1940 winning much acclaim over the years and the company formally being renamed as Nikka Distilling in 1952.
Sadly, on January 17, 1961 Rita passed away at the age of 64. She was buried on a hill overlooking the Yoichi Distillery and Taketsuru engraved both of their names on the tombstone promising they’d be together forever.
As much as I love a good whisky making love story, I also love duty free shopping. There is always something unique and quirky to be found. But in a world where Japanese Whisky is in ultra-high demand, and age stated malts are disappearing daily even the unique duty-free offerings are drying up. Which is why, on a recent international trip, I was so surprised to find a bottle I had never seen before, the Nikka Days.
The Nikka Days was released in 2018 and seems to be a response to all of the factors above that are pressing in on stocks of Japanese Malt. It is a blended whiskey made of lightly peated malt and grain whiskies from both the Yoichi and Miyagikyo distilleries.
The brand says that it has always stood at the crossroads of between East and West, tradition and innovation. Saying that each day is a journey and an opportunity to learn from previous days, and that this whisky embodies that mentality. Hence the name.
The whiskey is certainly result of the current journey of the whisky world. So how does it taste?
NOSE: Apple, Orange Blossom, Vanilla, Melon
PALETTE: White Chocolate, Toffee, Citrus, a touch of smoke, and fresh apples
FINISH: Slightly sweet, bright, with a touch of creaminess
It is certainly fitting that apples are so prominent on the nose and palette of this whisky. Ultimately this is a very serviceable whisky but it stands in the shadow of its history and the massive malts that Nikka is known for. The price point also makes it hard to justify as a day to day sipper but it is worth the journey to spend a few days with if you are traveling.