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In recent years, whiskeys in Japan have been at the top of lists of main contests that reward whiskeys from all over the world, and have received high praise from specialized critics and seasoned consumers. Hakushu Single Malt 25 years, from Suntory distillery, and Taketsuru Pure Malt 17 years, from Nikka distillery, are two distinguished and award-winning Japanese whiskeys that belong to historic and legendary distilleries that are worth learning more about.
Hakushu Single Malt 25 years, from Suntory distillery, won the “Best Single Malt 2018” award at the World Whiskeys Awards (WWA), while the Taketsuru Pure Malt whiskey 17 years, from Nikka distillery, obtained first place at the World’s Best Blended Malt Awards this year.
I speak from personal experience when I say that Hakushu Single Malt 25 years is a superb whiskey, full of nuances, that are different from the norm. Its color is an intense dark amber and has an aroma of ripe plums and caramel mixed with cigars. But it is on the palate where it shows its nuances of crème brûlée, sage, lavender and baked pineapple. Once you take a sip and allow the drink to settle on your tongue, you immediately pick up smoky flavors, such as cypress and fennel. The price of this unique whiskey is around US $4,000, and can be purchased at international liquor websites. Meanwhile, Taketsuru Pure Malt 17 years, has a more affordable price of around US $300.
The essential difference between scotch and a Japanese whiskey lies in the distinctive mild peat flavor, along with the purity of the spring waters used during this process and a bamboo filtering method, that give it its aroma, flavor and distinctive color.
The Japanese are as disciplined as purists in their tastes and customs. Most are big advocates of their whiskeys, and like to drink their whiskey without ice and never pour more than two fingers into the glass.
The founders of the Suntory and Nikka distilleries were Shinjiro Torii and Masataka Taketsuru, who were alive during the 1920s. The history and the personal and professional journey of each of them, as well as the friendship that united them, would result in a novel.
Shinjiro Torii was a pharmacist who was attracted by the European liquors arriving at the port of Tokyo. His obsession was such that in the late nineteenth century he produced a Port wine, following the recipe of a European book, which he sold at his pharmacy with great success. He was amazed the first time he tried the whiskey.
Meanwhile, Masataka Taketsuru, a Japanese chemist who was the son of one of Japan’s richest Sake producers, promised his father that he would travel to Scotland to learn how to make a “amber liquid that comforts body and soul.” The money for his project was provided by a wealthy Japanese businessman who made it a condition for him to marry his daughter upon his return.
The Scots felt immediately flattered by the arrival of Taketsuru and taught him everything he needed to know about how to make a good whiskey.
Masataka stayed at the home of the Cowans, a Scottish family who welcomed him with open arms. He would later go on to met Rita Cowan, the youngest of the daughters, who was about to marry a well-to-do Scot. As time progressed they both fell in love, got married and returned to Japan.
Once Masataka returned to Japan, Shinjiro Torii suggested they become partners and founded the first whiskey distillery in Japan, on the island of Hokkaido, due to its similar climate to Scotland.
In 1923 they distilled the first Scottish-style whiskey in Japanese history, however it did not succeed. As time passed, the duo separated and led Torii to create his very own Suntory distillery, while Taketsuru founded Nikka distillery.
Almost 100 years later, the two distilleries are still dedicated to the production of the most important whiskeys in Japan, where there are currently 10 distilleries.
In 2018, Suntory and Nikka’s whiskeys were named the best in the world in two different events held in Britain. Can you imagine the pride of Masataka and Shinjiro if they had lived long enough to see this enormous achievement? I’m sure they would not only be proud but full of pride. ■