The World of Single Malt Whisk(e)y

April 2021

Japanese Whisky - The History, Controversy, and Where It’s Heading

Japan might not have the longest history of whisky making, but it has an interesting one. Most likely you’ve heard the story of the “Father of Japanese Whisky” Masataka Taketsuru. Born into a sake brewing family based in Hiroshima, he learned the brewing craft but fell in love with spirits from the West, particularly Scotch whisky. In 1918, he moved to Scotland to study organic chemistry at the University of Glasgow, and in 1919 he began his first whisky apprenticeship, with Longmorn Distillery. Whisky wasn’t his only love, for he met Jessie Roberta ‘Rita’ Cowan. Despite strong protest from both their families, their love blossomed, and they were married in 1920 at the Glasgow Registrar’s Office. Later that year, they moved back to Japan to pursue Taketsuru’s dream of bringing quality whisky production to his homeland. Rita, known as the “Mother of Japanese Whisky” was instrumental in her husband’s eventual success, due to her unwavering devotion and support.

masataka and rita.jpg

The History

While whisky was available in Japan around the 1850s, it wasn’t until the 20th century that Japan began producing its own. The first Japanese whisky distillery was introduced by Shinjiro Torii, a pharmaceutical wholesaler and subsequent liquor merchant who wanted to make “Japanese whisky for Japanese people.” The executives of his company, Kotobukiya (later to become Suntory), were strongly opposed to his decision, but Torii forged ahead, deciding upon Yamazaki (a suburb of Kyoto) as the perfect place for the new distillery, due to its pristine water source. 

Yamazaki Distillery needed someone with the whisky know-how to helm it; enter Masataka Taketsuru. Torii originally sent word to Scotland that he was seeking a whisky expert, and was told there was a fellow countryman who’d suit the position. Taketsuru came onboard as the distillery executive in 1923, but the first juice produced was not a success. The Japanese consumers were used to blended whiskies, and the more Scotch-centric approach was deemed unsuitable for Japanese tastes. Eventually, Taketsuru was moved from Kotobukiya’s whisky distillation to a beer factory they ran, and although he was unhappy with the change, he felt obligated to remain for the 10 years he’d agreed upon at the start. 

In 1934, he resigned and started his own company, initially under the guise of a fruit juice company. The distillery was built in Hokkaido, the northernmost big island of Japan, an area with ready access to peat, barley, excellent water, and of a similar climate to Scotland. In 1940, Nikka Whisky was introduced to Japan and the world. Taketsuru’s grand dreams of quality whisky production were short lived, however, due to the war. The distillery was taken over by the Imperial Navy and used to produce cheap ration whisky. While this did allow the distillery to survive during the war years, it spent 2 decades producing low quality whisky for the masses. 

In 1964, Nikka finally released 3 quality grade whiskies. Suntory was quick to produce their own higher end whisky, and their rivalry was a main factor in the rapid growth of the Japanese whisky industry. 

While much of Japan’s whisky consumer history was full of blended whisky, they hit the international scene big in 2001, when Nikka’s 10 Year Old Yoichi Single Malt won Whisky Magazine’s “Best of the Best”. Since then, many Nikka and Suntory single malts have gone on to win critical acclaim, garnering awards and gold medals, and sometimes even scoring higher in blind tastings than their Scottish counterparts.


There are currently 9 distilleries in Japan, and even though whisky production has been growing since the early-middle 1900s, there were no official regulations on production. It’s an open secret that much of the whisky labeled as “Japanese Whisky” is actually sourced from other countries (such as Scotland - Nikka owns the Ben Nevis Distillery). Now, while there’s nothing wrong with sourcing juice (companies do this all the time), the situation becomes sticky when there’s a lack of transparency. If a company takes a whisky created and aged in one country, bottles and brands it as something that leads the consumer to believe it’s from a different country, well…One can see how that could be a slippery slope, and not all producers are run with integrity. 

New Whisky Guidelines

In mid February, the whisky world was all atwitter with the announcement of new guidelines regulating the production and labeling of Japanese whisky. The newly formed Japan Spirits and Liqueurs Makers Association, a government approved organization, took up the task of establishing rules and practices for the industry. 

With the boom of Japanese whisky, some have seen fit to take liberties with the branding, marketing, and production methods. These new guidelines aim to protect legitimate producers as well as consumers.

Some of the most important regulations coming into place (as taken from the English-translation of the guidelines, found here) are as follows:

· Raw ingredients must be limited to malted grains, other cereal grains, and water extracted in Japan. Malted grains must always be used.

· Saccharification, fermentation, and distillation must be carried out at a distillery in Japan. Alcohol content at the time of distillation must be less than 95%.

· The distilled product must be poured into wooden casks not exceeding a capacity of 700 liters and matured in Japan for a period of at least 3 years thereafter.

· Bottling must take place only in Japan, with alcoholic strength of at least 40% as of such time.

· Plain caramel coloring can be used.

Regarding the prohibition of misleading labeling, the use of any of the below on a label are not allowed if what’s in the bottle does not meet the production method quality requirements listed above:

· Names of people that evoke Japan 

· Names of Japanese cities, regions, famous places, mountains and rivers 

· The Japanese flag or a Japanese era name 

· Any other labeling that makes it likely that the product being labeled is mistaken for a product that satisfies the production method quality requirements set forth in Article 5.

While these rules are not legally binding (yet - it’s a step in the right direction and may have legal standing at some point down the road), they do apply to members of the Association, amongst which are the main producers, such as Nikka and Suntory. These rules come into effect April 1st, 2021 (hopefully that’s no joke).

A Bright Future

While the Japanese whisky industry had a tumultuous start, it definitely seems to be on a growing streak, thanks to the indefatigable likes of Nikka and Suntory, their dedication to bringing the skillful process of Scotch whisky production to Japan, and Japan’s overall efforts in increased transparency and integrity. Japanese whisky is becoming a force to be reckoned with on the international market and, especially with the new whisky regulations being enacted, hopefully consumers will experience all that Japanese whisky truly can be.