Sign that says I Heart Whisky

For love (and for the love of whisky)

Looking to set the mood for a romantic evening? Along with champagne, chocolate-flavoured and pink-coloured cocktails tend to get all the love from drinkers on Valentine’s Day.

But did you know there’s a love story behind Japanese whisky? Get comfy and enjoy the read…

While some sochu and sake breweries were producing whisky in the mid-19th century, it was in 1923 that the opening of Japan’s first official whisky distillery laid the foundation for a modern global trend. But our love story begins a few years prior, when the father of Japanese whisky went to Scotland.

Coming from a family of sake brewers, Masataka Taketsuru was always fascinated with the science and art of whisky making. He travelled to Scotland in December 1918 and enrolled in the chemistry program at the University of Glasgow.  In 1919, he began his apprenticeship at a Scottish distillery. But that’s also the year he fell in love with Jessie “Rita” Roberta Cowan after lodging with her family in the town of Kirkintilloch.

Things are never simple when you have a TV drama-worthy love story like this one (more on that later). Masataka was already engaged to his employer’s daughter when he arrived in Scotland, so you can imagine the scandal this “complication” would cause. The previous engagement was broken off and despite strong objections from both families, Masataka and Rita were married at the registrar office in January 1920.

Masataka dreamed of building his own distillery (we can relate) and introducing Japanese drinkers to whisky in the Scottish tradition. Despite her poor health and limited Japanese, Rita eagerly supported her husband’s dream and the couple moved to Japan in November 1920.

For several years, Masataka worked at Japan’s first official whisky distillery, Kotobukiya, now known as Suntory (remember Bill Murray’s “make it Suntory time” scene from “Lost in Translation”?). But in 1934, he built his own whisky distillery in Yoichi and sold his first bottles of whisky in 1940. The distillery flourished and today, Nikka Whisky Distilling Co. Ltd. (as part of Asahi) is one of the Top 4 producers that have an 80% market share in Japan.

The Scottish mother of Japanese whisky passed away in 1961. And in 1979, Masataka was buried beside Rita in Yoichi, where a road still bears her name.

Fast forward to 2014, when their love story inspired NHK’s soap opera-like miniseries “Massan,” and that’s when love starts to get a little complicated.

The Japanese whisky industry was already struggling to keep up with global demand since the early 2000s boom. But when “Massan” hit the airwaves, domestic whisky sales skyrocketed and further strained the supply chain.

This leads us to the recent announcement that Nikka Whisky Distilling (the company founded by Masataka) is discontinuing its age-statement Taketsuru Pure Malt whiskies. Already a tough find in Canada, these are just the latest aged whiskies to fall as the Japanese industry enters a decade-long inventory rebuild, with some distilleries temporarily shifting their focus to blended whiskies while aged stocks recover.

So clearly, love is a powerful force that is shaping the history and future of Japanese whisky. But for now, try aging a young Japanese single malt in one of our oak barrels — you might find a new whisky love that’s all your own.

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