Sayonara Sake!

 Wet your whistle with Japanese whisky

By Katy Koontz
Photos accompanying this article are courtesy of Katy Koontz

The Japanese rice wine known as sake may be world famous, but it is not the only notable liquor made in Japan. The Japanese have been making whiskey (which like the Scots they spell without the “e”) since the early 1900s.

It all started when a young man from Hiroshima descended from generations of sake brewers dating as far back as the 1700s decided he wanted to go to Scotland and learn all he could about making whiskey. That’s exactly what Masataka Taketsuru did in 1918.

Taketsuru took organic chemistry classes at the University of Glasgow, and then apprenticed at three different Scotch distilleries, asking endless questions and meticulously recording what he learned in two hardbound notebooks he had taken back to Japan with him. But notes were not all he took back. Taketsuru fell in love with a Scottish lass named Jessie Roberta Cowan (known as Rita). They married in 1920; and later that year, Rita accompanied her new husband back to his homeland.

As fate would have it, the company that funded Taketsuru’s Scottish sojourn in the hopes he would be able to help them produce Japan’s first whiskey abandoned their plans, due to an economic downturn. No matter, Kotobukiya Limited hired Taketsuru a few years later, and he fulfilled his destiny of becoming the father of Japanese whiskey, when the company built the country’s first whiskey distillery in Yamazaki, near Kyoto. After a decade, Taketsuru’s independent streak surfaced again, when he decided to leave and start his own whiskey distillery.

Taketsuru built his first distillery in Yoichi, Hokkaido, where the temperature and humidity matched that of the Scottish Highlands. Distillation began in 1936, and his first batch of whiskey was ready for sale by 1940, sold as Nikka Whisky. In 1969, Taketsuru opened a second distillery, the Miyagikyo Distillery, in a foggy glen in northern Honshu near the city of Sendai (two hours north of Tokyo). Although Taketsuru died in 1979 at 85 years old, Nikka still produces a wide variety of award-winning single malt and blended Japanese whiskeys (which have been available in the United States since 2012).

Both the Yoichi and Miyagikyo distilleries offer free 70-minute tours starting every half hour. While you’re waiting, you can view exhibits about whiskey making and watch a short film about Nikka.

The guided tours take you throughout the various buildings where the whiskey is produced, including the distillery building with its huge pot stills. But there is no mistaking that you are in Japan and not Scotland. Each still has a a shimenawa tied around it near the top. These thick ropes made of rice straw are used for ritual purification in the Shinto tradition, indicating sacred space and believed to keep out the evil spirits. Zigzag-shaped paper streamers, called shide, hang from the shimenawa. As you walk around the grounds, also notice the well-groomed gardens and sculpted shrubs. Taketsuru believed that keeping the land beautiful made his whiskey taste better.

During the tour, guides explain that each of Nikka’s two distilleries produces a distinctly different type of whiskey. In the Yoichi distillery, the pot stills are heated using a coal fire. In the Miyagikyo distillery (where the pot stills are larger and have a slightly different shape), they are heated with indirect steam at a lower temperature, allowing for slower distillation. The result is that Yoichi’s whiskey is bolder and more robust, while Miyagikyo’s has a smoother, more mellow taste. The tour concludes with a complimentary tasting, so you will be able to sip some Nikka yourself.

For more information on Nikka, visit For information on visiting Japan, visit