Konnichiwa! Good to enjoy Japanese whisky, which is all the rage, and even better to know how it all began.

You may know Suntory, Yamazaki, Hibiki.

But Masataka and Shinjiro? Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t know these two.

They’re not names of some obscure Japanese whisky but are of two gentlemen, who if not for them, we probably won’t be enjoying Japanese whisky.

Short but rich history

Some people still do not realise that the Japanese produce their own single malt and blended whisky.

As a matter of fact, Japan is the world’s third-largest producer of whisky behind the Scots and the Americans – yes, they beat the Irish.

The popularity of Japanese whisky has grown across the globe since Nikka’s Yoichi 10-year-old received the coveted ‘Best of the Best’ award from Whisky Magazine in 2001 and Yamazaki Whisky won the gold medal at the International Spirits Challenge in 2003. More recently, Jim Murray of Whisky Bible declared Yamazaki the “Best Whisky in the World” in 2013.

Following this, Japanese whisky has gone on to win more prestigious prizes, sending shock waves around the whisky world.

The beginning

Compared to Scotland, America or Ireland, Japan has a relatively short whisky-making history.

Whisky has been produced in Japan since the 1800s, however, it became commercially available around the time Suntory’s Yamazaki distillery opened in 1923.

The industry was truly driven by two whisky houses (Suntory and Nikka) and more specifically two men, Masataka Taketsuru and Shinjiro Torii.

A tale of two distilleries

The third son of a sake brewer, Masataka developed an interest in spirits at a tender age.

Shortly after World War 1, he arrived in Scotland in December 1918 to study the intricate art of whisky-making. He studied organic chemistry at the University of Glasgow in the summer of 1919.

In April 1919, Masataka began his apprenticeship at Longmorn distillery in Speyside, and then in July at James Calder & Co’s Bo’ness distillery in the Lowlands region.

On 8 January 1920, he married Jessie Roberta “Rita” Cowan despite objections from both their families.

His last apprenticeship began in May 1920 at Hazelburn distillery, after which he returned to Japan with a Scottish wife in tow, in November.

Back in Japan, Masataka first went to work for the company that had sponsored his studies in Scotland, and then he became a high school chemistry teacher.

In 1923, he was headhunted by a company called Kotobukiya, founded by Shinjiro.

Together, they started Yamazaki Distillery.

In 1934, Masataka left Kotobukiya and started his own company, Dai Nippon Kaju, and built his own distillery in Yoichi on the northern island of Hokkaido. He believed that this location was the most similar to Scotland.

Kotobukiya later became Suntory and Dai Nippon Kaju became Nikka.

Nikka whisky was first sold in October 1940.

Masataka’s wife died in January 1961 of liver disease, and he died in 1979. They are both buried in Yoichi.

Boom and slump

The Japanese industry boomed in the 1970s and early 1980s, when sales of imported whisky were increasing massively. Many new distilleries were built, and some sake distilleries and companies were also converted to making whisky, in order to meet demand.

By the end of the 1980s, the whisky industry in Japan was struggling and several distilleries were closed. The main reasons for the slump were the increasing cheapness and availability of imported whiskies from Scotland, the USA and Ireland combined with a hike in Japanese alcohol taxes. Thus, Japanese whiskies became very expensive in comparison to overseas competitors and sales crashed.

Turn of the millennium

It wasn’t until the 2000s that Japanese whisky began to boom internationally, thanks to some key awards.

Today, more people than ever are drinking Japanese whisky, including in Malaysia, where it is popular among millennials and trendy urbanites.

Your Japanese whisky fix

Two selections for Japanese whisky connoisseurs in Malaysia are boutique Japanese whiskies Kaicho Reiwa Series 8 Years and Kaicho Reiwa Series 12 Years.

Distributed by Asiaeuro Wines & Spirits Sdn Bhd and available online at aeclub.com.my, Kaicho whisky is smooth and well-balanced.