There are times that I think the story of Suntory’s Shinjiro Torii and Nikka’s Masataka Taketsuru and his Scottish wife Rita would make for a great movie. Unfortunately, if Hollywood ever got their hands on it, Tom Cruise would probably force his way into one of the title roles and there’d be a lot of gratuitous explosions. If you’re a fan of Japanese whisky, you well know this story already, if not, here’s a brief synopsis…
In 1920, Shinjiro Torii, already a successful wine, beer, and spice importer, began planning a true Scotch-style whisky distillery. There were “whiskies” available in Japan at this point, but they were more often than not made from buckwheat, corn, and millet. Torii wanted to make whisky in the tradition of Scotch but with a distinctive Japanese character. In 1922, he hired this young man named Masataka Taketsuru to be his distillery manager and to gain more experience, Taketsuru traveled to Scotland and apprenticed at Longmorn and Hazelburn distilleries. While there, Taketsuru met and wed a young Scottish woman named Rita Cowan. Times being as they were, Cowan’s family was none too pleased by this merger, but the couple survived and in 1924 returned to Japan. Torii’s distillery, named Yamazaki, grew more and more successful by the year, but Torii and Taketsuru disagreed on the style of whisky produced; Taketsuru wanted to faithfully re-create Scotch whereas Torii continued to push for a unique version made in the style of Scotch. Ultimately, after fulfilling his ten-year contract, Taketsuru left Yamazaki and headed north, where the climate was more similar to that of the Scottish Highlands, and founded the Nikka Whisky Distilling Co. and the Yoichi distillery.
Both Yamazaki and Yoichi weathered the war years; Yamazaki began producing the hugely popular Kakubin blend in 1937, its success making it Japan’s leading brand, and Yoichi produced whisky for the Japanese military. Torii’s growing company Kotobukiya changed its name to Suntory in 1963 and added a second distillery, Hakushu, in 1973. Thanks to shrewd marketing and acquisitions, the company became one of the largest international beverage companies in the world by the 1990’s, purchasing breweries, Scottish distilleries (Bowmore) and distributing American whiskies abroad. Taketsuru’s Nikka also opened a second distillery, Miyagikyo, in 1969, and while it trails Suntory as Japan’s second largest whisky producer, its parent company has also expanded globally by purchasing a Scottish distillery (Ben Nevis).
It’s always struck me as a very brave story. For Torii to see that Japan’s recently opened borders meant opportunities to create an established and internationally popular product…from a Japanese perspective, seems fairly visionary for the time. For Taketsuru and Rita, the road was arguably even more adventurous. Think of the cultural hurdles and resistance they faced both in Scotland as he attempted to break into Scotland’s whisky business, and in Japan as she attempted to integrate herself into society. Ok, granted, it might not make for the most exciting movie, but it’s a fascinating story, would probably be beautifully scenic, and would make some of us very, very thirsty.
Sadly, we here in the States have easy access to very few Japanese whiskies. For a long time, it’s mostly just been Suntory’s Yamazaki 18 year old, the Yamazaki 12 year old and the 12 year old Hibiki blend. Lucky for us, this is changing. The wonderful Hakushu 12 year old made its US debut last year and just this fall, expressions from Nikka have finally made the leap across the pond. While I have little doubt that they could, these newcomers will have to be fairly excellent to hold their own against the stellar Yamazaki 18 Year Old. This beauty has been aged in a heady combination of 80% Spanish Oak (ex-sherry casks), 10% American Oak (both new and ex-bourbon casks), and 10% Mizunara Oak. Mizunara Oak (Quercus Mongolica…I think) is a species of oak native to Japan and much of Asia in general and when used for maturing whisky, adds a unique incense-like quality. (Check out the fantastic Japanese whisky blog, Nanjatta for an interesting article on Mizunara oak.)
The Nose: One of those rich, lush noses that just make you want to crawl right inside the glass. Deep dessert wine notes, think Vin Santo, with juicy raisins, orange marmalade, and caramel that’s just a touch burnt. Lesser notes of bruised apples, black cherry, and dark chocolate. Weighty but reserved tannic wood tones as well, lots of cinnamon, cedar, and a little fresh-sawn pine
The Palate: Sweet, pleasantly syrupy entry with quite of bit of orange citrus, black cherry, burnt caramel, and vanilla bean to start. This sweetness transitions gracefully into a terrific swell of rich, tannic oak. More cinnamon stick and raw cedar wood with clove, nutmeg and baker’s chocolate. The wood influence here tastes (if this makes any sense) as good as Coniferous forest floor smells, earthy, slightly damp, and wonderful.
The Finish: Wonderfully lengthy, sweet and dry, with more black cherry, cedar-y, spicy tannins, and unsweetened cocoa.
Thoughts: Magical stuff. So well constructed throughout the entire dram, with big flavors and textures being handled with just the right combination of abandon and restraint. The inviting sweet fruitiness of the nose is tempered by the wood notes, which, as they grow splendidly on the palate, are in turn tempered by the rich dark fruit notes which carry along into the long satisfying finish. This is worth every penny of the approximately $110 you might pay for a bottle. Highly, highly recommended.
Yamazaki 18 Year Old, Japanese
*I’d be remiss if I didn’t thank Suntory’s Neyah White for the info and vital perspective on Yamazaki in particular and Japanese Whisky in general. Thanks again, Neyah!