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Monday, May 8, 2023

Distill My Beating Heart: Taketsuru, A Love Story

Going to the movies these days isn’t as simple as it once was.  How do they expect me to enjoy The Fast and the Furious 17 if I haven’t seen the previous 16?  Don't get me wrong, I totally understand why Hollywood gives us a steady diet of the familiar.  The greater the risk, the less likely they’ll make a return on their investment.  Maybe that’s why there are so few films about whisky?  What would they make one about anyway?  E150a caramel colourant?


A MASTER DISTILLER carefully examines a whisky sample in a room filled with bottles and blending equipment.  An EMPLOYEE bursts into the room.

(out of breath)
Sir, the nuclear power plant next door just blew up.  Radioactive waste seeped into our E150a caramel colouring vat.

Is everyone OK?

Yes, but (pause) something happened.

(bracing himself)

(speaking frantically)
When the radioactive waste mixed with the E150a, it somehow (pause) came to life.  Now it’s adding artificial colour to all our whiskies, even the ones not destined for travel retail.

There is, however, one whisky story out there that begs to be made into a Hollywood film:

The year’s 1918.  A young man named Masataka Taketsuru is about to board a ship bound for California.  A Japanese person travelling abroad at the time would be like you or I going to the North Pole.  Japan was only a few decades removed from sakoku.  During sakoku, people and goods weren’t allowed to enter or leave the country.  Those who left without permission were killed if found.  Leadership feared outsiders, specifically Christians, would unsettle the population, and potentially threaten their authority.  Sakoku lasted for an astounding 265 years.

Seeing Taketsuru off that day was the President of Settsu Shuzo, Kihei Abe.  Once Japan relaxed its isolationist ways in the mid-1800s, “western” practices were widely adopted.  Settsu Shuzo made a whisky-like product that, although popular, was a far cry from “the genuine article.”  After graduating from Osaka Technical High School for Fermented Food Production (that’s a mouthful), Taketsuru became head “whisky” mixer at Settsu Shuzo.  Abe knew it was just a matter of time before real whisky started to circulate throughout Japan.  This is why Taketsuru was going overseas.  After a quick stop in California to observe winemaking practices, Taketsuru would make his way over to Scotland to study chemistry.  Who knows?  Maybe he could find a distillery willing to share a secret or two?

Taketsuru was the perfect fit.  He was bright, keen, and had a real talent for blending.  He also spoke fluent English, which wasn’t exactly common at the time in Japan.  Shortly after arriving in Scotland, Taketsuru enrolled at the University of Glasgow.  One day, a student asked him to teach her brother judo.  A dinner invitation soon followed.  In my movie, it’d go down like this:


RITA sits on the edge of her bed.  She picks up a book, but is too excited to concentrate.  A pair of footsteps make their way up a creaky flight of stairs.  Rita’s younger sister, ELLA, knocks on her bedroom door.

Rita, I’d like you to meet Masataka Taketsuru from Japan.  He’s studying chemistry at the University of Glasgow.

Rita shakes Masataka's hand.  Time stands still.  Cupid’s double-barreled shotgun of love strikes again.

Taketsuru proposed soon after that first meeting.  As you might’ve guessed, it didn’t go over well.  Interracial marriages weren’t as accepted back then as they are today.  Masataka and Rita, without the blessing of their families, exchanged vows at a registry office in Glasgow in 1920.  When it came time for Masataka to return to Japan, life continued to be “less-than-perfect” for Rita.  Despite going above and beyond to fit in, she was shunned by neighbours and spied upon by authorities.  Over time, her devotion to the people of Japan and their cultural practices (some quipped she was more Japanese than Japanese”) won the approval of all, even her most ardent skeptics.  After she died, National Highway No. 229 in Yoichi was renamed “Rita Road” in her honour.

Taketsuru eventually found a distillery willing to answer his questions.  For 5 days, the good people at Longmorn in Speyside taught him all about pot stills, casks, and how to add colour for consistency (good thing there wasn’t a nuclear power plant nearby).  Before returning home, he also spent time at Hazelburn in Campbeltown.  The notes he took while there became the template for early Japanese whisky making.  In 1920, he returned home only to discover Settsu Shuzo was no longer interested in making whisky.  Kotobukiya (now Suntory) eagerly snapped him up, and signed him to a 10-year contract.  There were problems from the start.  Kotobukiya founder, Shinjiro Torii, thought Japan’s first whisky should be safe, approachable, and familiar.  Taketsuru wanted it to be as “scotch-like” as possible.  Their first collaboration, Suntory White Label, was a complete disaster.  It wasnt long before Taketsuru found himself making beer in Yokohama.  Once his contract expired, Taketsuru packed his bags and headed north.  From now on, he was only interested in making whisky for one distillery, his own.

Yoichi, a town on Hokkaido’s west coast, is an ideal spot for making “scotch-like” whisky.  Like Scotland, Hokkaido has a cool, crisp climate, and is flanked by water.  Single malts love countries on the cooler side with moderate summer temperatures.  This is where Taketsuru built his distillery.  Rita also liked Yoichi because it reminded her of home.  In 1940, Taketsuru’s first whisky was ready to be bottled.  He called it Nikka.  Today, Nikka makes two types of single malts:  Miyagikyo and Yoichi.  Yoichi is very much a “Japanese scotch.”  Lightly peated and coastal.  It may drink a bit young, but I still think it’s worth the price of admission.

Happy dramming,


Instead of dying she shall merely fall into a profound slumber that will last a hundred years. -  Charles Perrault,  The Sleeping Beauty in ...