As a child, Takeshi Taketsuru dreamt of becoming an engineer like Thomas Edison. But at the age of 19 his fate became steeped instead in whisky making, when he was adopted by Scotswoman Rita and her Japanese husband, his uncle Masataka, who had introduced scotch to the land of sake and shochu.
Taketsuru, who has died aged 90, devoted his entire adult life to Nikka Whisky Distilling, the company his adoptive father founded. Groomed as heir and business successor, he spurred the growth of whisky in Japan and laid the foundations for its global rise.
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Born in 1924 as the son of Masataka’s elder sister, Nobuyo, to him Masataka was at first just “the loud-speaking, funny uncle”. Being adopted seemed no more than changing his surname, he recalled in a memoir. But Takeshi later learnt that “carrying on my father’s dream came together with pressures I had never experienced”.
Himself the son of a sake-brewing family, Masataka Taketsuru sailed to Scotland in 1918 and enrolled at the University of Glasgow, becoming the first Japanese to learn the craft of distilling Scotch whisky. The chemistry student returned to Japan in 1920 married to Jessie Roberta Cowan, a doctor’s daughter from Kirkintilloch near Glasgow, who became known as Rita.
After the end of second world war, Takeshi joined Masataka and Rita in Yoichi, on the northern island of Hokkaido, leaving his home town near Hiroshima at the other end of the country just four months after the atomic bomb fell in 1945.
It was in the snowy, mountainous Yoichi that Masataka built his distillery in 1934, finding weather and water that resembled Scotland’s. That same year he started the company that was to become Nikka. Takeshi joined shortly after graduating from college in 1949.
In many ways, he was the opposite of Masataka. If the man whom Rita fondly called “Massan” was gregarious, outspoken and dynamic, the new son was quiet and reserved. At times, Takeshi grumbled that he “couldn’t keep up with his father’s big talk”, says his own son Kotaro, who worked at Nikka for 20 years. Yet those contrasting personalities allowed each to play their separate roles of founder and next in line.
Takeshi bonded with Rita, sharing both a love of music and bouts of nostalgia for their birthplaces. At 27 he married Utako, a pianist with no cooking skills, but the enthusiastic Rita taught the bride everything from how to make Japanese sour plums and pickled vegetables to Scottish dishes and scones.
By acquiring the Ben Nevis distillery he brought the family’s journey full circle
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At work, Takeshi worked to cultivate his taste-buds and sense of smell to become Nikka’s master blender. Naofumi Kamiguchi, recruited by Takeshi in the mid-1970s, recalls his former employer as someone “gentle but very strict on quality” who faithfully followed “the philosophy of Massan”.
Takeshi persisted for example in the traditional method of distilling, which was being abandoned even in Scotland. To this day, the pot stills for producing malt whisky are heated using coal, a process that Nikka says gives its whisky a “distinct aroma and body”. Other producers now fire the stills using oil or steam, given the high cost of importing coal and stricter environmental rules.
After Rita died in 1961, Masataka conquered his grief by working with Takeshi over the next 12 months to produce what was to be the company’s top-selling Super Nikka. Takeshi became president of Nikka, now owned by Asahi, in 1985, six years after Masataka died, and remained its adviser until his death.
“It was because of Takeshi that the company never strayed from its roots,” says Kotaro, who survives him along with his sister Minobu. A decade later, Takeshi went to Scotland to acquire the closed Ben Nevis distillery in Fort William, bringing it back to life. The family’s journey had come full circle.
Nikka’s exports began to rise — from 1,800 cases in 2006 to 100,000 cases forecast for 2014 — as Japanese whisky grew in recognition. At home, sales have lately been boosted by a television drama series based on Rita’s life.
In 2001, Nikka’s Yoichi 10 Years Single Cask became the first non-scotch to win “best of the best” from Whisky Magazine. Suntory’s Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask last November won the Whisky Bible’s annual top prize, evoking renewed grief in the glens. The elder Taketsuru had helped to found the Yamazaki distillery shortly after his return from Scotland 95 years ago.
Takeshi often said he could never be like Masataka. But it did not take long for his father’s dream to become his own. As he wrote in his memoir: “There’s a romance to whisky making. I’m so glad to be part of this job.”
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