Water of Life Society (WoLS) meeting 7/03/2014 – Taketsuru’s Journey

Water of Life Society (WoLS) meeting 7/03/2014

Taketsuru’s Journey

Taketsuru's Journey Layout

This weeks WoLS tasting was proudly hosted by our Vice-President Richard and was based around the story of the father of Japanese whisky himself Masataka Taketsuru. Armed only with a Penicuik Library book: Japanese Whisky, Scotch Blend The Story of Masataka Taketsuru, his Scottish wife, and the Japanese whisky industry by Olive Checkland (Edinburgh, 1998), five select bottles of whisky and a lot of rice crackers, Richard led us on the story of a young Japanese chemist who made his way to Scotland during World War I to seek out his true calling and discovered his true love at the same time.

Taketsuru's Journey table layout

The 3rd son of a Sake brewer, Mastaka spent his formative years learning the trade and it was hoped he would take over his father’s business as his two older brothers had shown no interest. During his schooling Mastaka had become interested in western alcoholic beverages and eventually was sent on a long and arduous journey from Japan to Scotland (via the US) in 1918 by his employer Kihei Abe, the founder and owner of the Osaka based spirits maker Settsu Shuzo. He furthered his studies in chemistry at the University of Glasgow where he met Ella Cowan and soon took up lodging with the Cowan family in Kirkintilloch during his stay in Scotland. During this time Masataka had been painstakingly translating “The Manufacture of Spirit as conducted in the Distilleries of the United Kingdom” by J. A. Nettleton from into Japanese. Not long after he arrived in Glasgow he set off by rail for Elgin in Speyside to meet J. A. Nettleton and request tuition into distilling scotch whisky. Unfortunately Nettleton’s requested fee’s were prohibitively steep for poor Masataka, and things went from bad to worse when he was unable to find himself lodging in Speyside as distrust of foreigner’s was running extremely high following the epic conflict of WWI. Masataka took it upon himself to also tap the door of any distilleries he happened to pass-by and on his second attempt hit success…


Longmorn-Glenlivet 18 Years Old, 1994 – Cadenhead’s Authentic Collection

Score: 85/100

Bottled: July 2013; 264 bottles; Strength 56.1% ABV

Colour: Very pale gold

Nose: Sweet and floral, new paint, cremola foam, fizzy cola bottles

Taste: Warming and creamy, ginger fizz, coconut water, slightly soapy, rose and lemon Turkish delight, vodka and oak wood

Finish: Spirity and vaporous, drying woody with hints of green coconut flesh and hints of spearmint

At the Longmorn Distillery, 3 miles south of Elgin, the general manager J. R. Grant agreed to give Masataka 5 days of practical experience during which he detailed everything he could about the whole process, before being shown the maturation and storage process by the distillery manager R. B. Nicol and finally returning to Glagow wherein he started to feel at home. Having resumed his studies he then spent 3 weeks in the summer of 1919 working at the Bo’ness distillery (no longer in existence) learning about coffey stills and the continuous distillation process. In 1920 he secured with the help of his tutors a 5 month apprenticeship at another distillery, however during the Christmas period of 1919 he proposed to Ella’s older sister Rita Cowan whom he had grown very close to and fond of. Masataka and Rita were married in January 1920 in Lanarkshire, both over the age of 21 neither were required by Scottish Law (nor sort) their parent’s blessing. They lived together during his next internship in Campbeltown…

Hazelburn Rundlets and Kilderkins

Hazelburn Rundlets and Kilderkins 10 Years Old

Score: 86/100

Bottled: January 2014; 12000 bottles; Strength: 50.1% ABV

Strength: Colour: Gold

Nose: Fruity oranges and peaches, slightly meaty bacon, sweet esters, seaweed and iodine

Taste: Coppery, salty and sulphurinc with hints of antiseptic (TCP/germolene), earthy peat and bog water, warming ginger, with water this opens up more fruity flavours and smooths out the palate

Finish: long and drying, sweet icing sugar and woody sugars, with water finishes with a blast of sweetness

Made from unpeated barley, triple distilled and matured in small casks (similar to those used at the time Taketsuru would have visited)

Sadly the Hazelburn distillery is no longer in existence, having shut down just 5 years after Masataka worked there, but its name lives on as part of J & A Mitchells Sprinbank distillery complex in Campbeltown. During this period Rita’s sisters had persuaded her mother to accept the marriage, despite her initial reaction to demand an annulment. The news of the marriage had been taken so badly in Japan that Kihei Abe immediately set off for Scotland to confront them. In November 1920 however the couple set off for Japan. In 1924 Shinjiro Torii a pharmaceutical & western liquor importer founded Kotobukiya (later to become Suntory) and opened Japan’s first whisky distillery called Yamazaki in a suburb of Kyoto. Torii was hoping to employ a westerner with distilling knowledge when it was brought to his attention that there was already a whisky expert in Japan who had recently arrived back from Scotland named Masataka Taketsuru.

Yamazaki bourbon barrel

Yamazaki Bourbon Barrel 2012

Score: 78/100

NAS; Strength: 48.2% ABV

Colour: Orange gold

Nose: Acetone and estery, PVA glue/Mod Podge, Apples and Pears

Taste: Smooth and fragrant with sweet candy flavours including vanilla, coconut and caramel, with astringent oak wood

Finish: Short/medium with hints of earthy peat (reminiscent of the blended whisky Johnnie walker black label)

Mastaka immediately set about helping establish the Yamazaki distillery and worked there as an executive until 1934 when he left to setup his own company. Mastaka setup his Dainippon Kajuu KK (or great Japanese juice company, later shortened to Nikka) and lied to his investors suggesting he intended to make apple juice. Whilst working with Torii, Masataka had desperately wanted to setup a distillery in Hokkaido as the climate here mirrored that of Scotland, however he was constantly vetoed due to its distance from Osaka leading Mastaka to become more and more disgruntled with his employer. At the helm of his own ‘juice’ company he was now free to setup his Hokkaido distillery…

To paraphrase Richard at this point “sometimes in life you have to go through a lot of crap, till you get the good stuff”


Yoichi Single Malt 12 Years Old

Score: 84/100

Strength: 45% ABV

Colour: Amber gold

Nose: Phenolic, sweet toffee, smoked and salted bacon, plum liquor (or Japanese cherry wine)

Taste: Full-bodied this has strong sweet toffee and caramel, sweet and salted plum sauce (like duck in plum sauce), aromatic mizunara oak and sake flavours

Finish: Short slightly plum with sulphuric machine oil

Masataka setup Yoichi distillery and there sought to finally create scotch whisky using all the elements of the terroir in Japan to emulate a highland style of scotch whisky. Mastaka’s whisky making dreams were finally coming to fruition however when World War II broke out. During this time Rita as a westerner had to suffer much abuse from the Japanese as she represented their enemies in this conflict. Rita stoically stood by her husband however and attempted as best as possible to incorporate herself fully into the Japanese lifestyle and tradition in an attempt to hopefully deflect her assailants. Rita passed away in 1961 and is remembered today by having a road named after her (Rita Road) near to the Yoichi distillery on Hokkaido, as well as by the Rita Taketsuru Fan Club in Japan. Mastaka Taketsuru passed away in 1971 and the pair are buried together in Yoichi near his beloved distillery. To complete the story of the father of Japanese whisky, the final dram of the evening introduced us to one of Japan’s closed distilleries and possibly most exclusive whiskies…


Karuizawa Spirit of Asama 55

Score: 85/100

Strength: 55% ABV

Colour: Russet Brown

Nose: Rubbery, caramel, chlorine – swimming pools,  treacle toffee

Taste: Warming with molasses, treacle, caramelised sugar, prunes and leathery tannins, aged oak wood

Finish: Drying, rubbery leather fizz (sherry maturation) hints of struck matches in the finish

And so ends the journey of Masataka (and Rita) Taketsuru… or does it as Richard announced that this story has recently been adapted for a televised drama production.

Taketsuru's Journey

Taketsuru’s Journey as interpreted by Richard Kuo, with thanks to Nonjatta

Words and reviews by Barry Bradford and Paula Stewart, Many thanks to Richard and the WoLS committee for hosting an excellent tasting based around a beautiful love story and one mans’ passion and desire to bring whisky-making to Japan.

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