The Art of Science

Dave Broom examines how Japan's distillers are taking their country's whiskies into the world
By Dave Broom
Almost as soon as whisky, and other foreign spirits such as gin, arrived in Japan there were attempts to replicate them with home-made liquors made from neutral alcohol flavoured with perfume, spices and other flavourings. It's no surprise that Yokohama, the original point of entry for foreign spirits was also the seat of these initial experiments, though by the end of the 19th century firms such as Kanseido and Denbei Kamiya (in Tokyo) and Nishikawa and Konishi (in Osaka) were beginning to specialise in the field.

It was at the last of these that the young Shinjiro Torii first learned his trade. In 1899, he left to found his own firm, Kotobukiya which would eventually evolve into Suntory. A few years later, in 1917, a young chemistry student called Masataka Taketsuru left Osaka University to join one of the ersatz producers, Settsu Shuzo.

A year later Taketsuru is on a boat bound for Glasgow, to both learn about chemistry, and though it was never explicitly stated probably to learn whisky making, as his boss Kihei Abe appears to have had had the idea of building a whisky distillery in Japan.

The important point is that Taketsuru was a scientist. One of his first acts was to buy the only textbook on whisky-making, JA Nettleton’s Manufacture of Scotch Whisky and Plain Spirit. In March 1919, he registered for three summer courses, Organic Chemistry at the University of Glasgow and Organic and Inorganic Chemistry at the Royal Technical College (now Strathclyde University) the last under the tutelage of Professor Forsyth Wilson. A month later he is heading to Elgin to meet JA Nettleton to ask for private tuition.

Nettleton’s fees were outrageously high, so Taketsuru took off on his own, ending up at Longmorn where Mr Grant the owner agreed he could do a few days work. His nine days there are the first chance to learn the practical application of the techniques in Nettleton’s book, though it would appear there was little scientific principles being applied at Longmorn. When Taketsuru asked if there was any distillery in Scotland where a microscope is used, the answer was in the negative.

By 8th Jan the next year he was married and, thanks to Prof. Wilson, heading with his new wife to Hazelburn, working under its new manager, Peter Innes (see Taketsuru’s Forgotten Mentor’). It is not too outrageous to say that the foundations for Japanese whisky are built on the two foundations stones of Nettleton’s book and Innes’ tutelage.

Home and abroad

Maybe if the Japanese economic boom of the late 1900s had continued, Kihei Abe would have opened his distillery, but it was not to be. Taketsuru left the firm and in 1923 was head-hunted by Shinjiro Torii to build and run Yamazaki. In 1929, Japan’s first whisky, Shirofuda, was introduced but, according to Suntory sources, it was not successful as it was “too heavy”. In 1934, Taketsuru left for Yoichi to set up his own whisky firm, Nikka.

The story is well known, but they key for me is both firms’ continued adherence to a scientific approach to whisky-making.

Scottish distillers can draw on centuries of knowledge of turning their native grains into spirit. In other words, there was a folk knowledge of whisky making to draw on. Nettleton’s book shows there was science, but Taketsuru’s experiences show it was not being universally applied.

Japanese whisky, on the other hand, didn’t have the centuries of knowledge being passed down, but it had to make its mark immediately. That meant amassing technical knowledge and adopting a scientific approach to whisky-making. In other words, the taste of Japanese whisky evolved because of practical considerations grounded in science. It also evolved in the way it did because eventually a country will warp its whisky’s flavours to its needs: climate (humid summers), economics (rebuilding an economy/hard work) psychology (a need for release after that hard work), all played their part on the creation of the lighter Japanese blend.

Why then was it not exported? Simple. It didn’t need to be. “As Suntory had created whisky drinking culture from scratch in Japan it concentrated on the huge Japanese domestic market,” says Kengo Torii at Suntory. “It’s not surprising that our focus was staying in Japan for long time.” We are now in a different place however, where bulk Scotch imports have ceased and 100 per cent Japanese whisky is being exported.

From a Western perspective, Japan seems to be the new kid on the block, but let’s look at it from the domestic point of view. The modern Scotch industry only started in 1823, 100 years before Yamazaki was built. In reality, Scotch as we know it only started in 1853 when the first blend was made. To be strictly accurate it wasn’t until the 1870s that we begin to see Scotch becoming a global category. Seen in this way, Japanese whisky isn’t “new” at all. I am always amused by people who say to me “where have these Japanese whiskies suddenly come from?” as they sip a Yoichi 20 Years Old or a 25 Years Old Hakushu. The fact is that Japanese whiskies have been of this quality for decades, it is just that the world had never been told about them.

After a number of small-scale test launches, Yamazaki’s export drive started in 2003 with Nikka’s following two years later. “Checking the trial sales in Europe before 2006, we decided it was a good time after we had received some global awards,” says Naofumi Kamiguchi at Nikka. “It was the establishment of Whisky Magazine and its rightful quality evaluation on Japanese whiskies is a reason and a trigger.”

A similar award-led stimulus was behind Suntory’s export drive. “In 2003, Yamazaki 12 won the Gold medal at ISC which attracted many connoisseurs in western countries. It broke the ice,” says Torii-san.

There has also been a significant shift away from blends to single malt. “In my opinion,” Torii adds, “the recent world-wide growth of single malt has indicated a change in the whisky drinkers’ view towards Japanese whisky. 20 years ago no-one in export markets showed any interest in Japanese whisky. I guess people’s reaction was ‘whisky is a Scottish drink’. That attitude was changed as whisky drinkers’ attention changed to single malt.”

The Japanese whisky category was, like Scotch, built on blends. Like Scotch, blended Japanese whisky saw a significant downturn in its major market in the 1990s which in turn led to the building of a single-malt led industry. While Kamiguchi-san sees the decline in the domestic market as being a contributory factor to the export drive, Torii-san takes a different line. “Export volume is still small compared to domestic volume, however, we think the global expansion of Suntory whisky is a very important strategy from now onwards. The domestic market has been saturated and there is huge opportunity to grow in the world.

“We are focusing more on developing Yamazaki, Hakushu and Hibiki rather than developing only one single malt brand because we believe that consumers are now seeking Japanese whisky as a whole, hence the launch of Hibiki 12 in Europe before Japan.”

Is it a matter of the world’s palate changing? Partly, thinks Torii. “Traditionally, Japanese people have been enjoying the subtle and the delicate. The fact that umami is a Japanese word may be an indication of Japanese people’s delicate palate. Given that western people are exploring Japanese cuisine and Japanese people are now enjoying foods from many cultures, we could say that things are becoming similar,” a belief which Kamiguchi agrees with. Science is at the back of this as well. Production techniques unique to the country, a quality-oriented wood policy have helped create a truly Japanese style of whisky.

With Suntory global brand ambassadors in place and increased training sessions on the part of both distillers now under way, there is a concerted effort to both build distribution and education. The fact that single casks of Hanyu, Karuizawa also sell out as soon as they appear in European markets is evidence of the strength of consumer interest.

Though Suntory is employing a three-brand strategy with support for Hibiki as well as its malts, it is the single malts which seem best placed to challenge Scotch in the medium-term. Although Japan doesn’t have the volume to compete with Scotch in blends, it can compete in single malt.

Nikka is putting on significant numbers in France, with Yoichi a major plater. Yamazaki is currently the 8th biggest single malt brand in the world, purely on sales in its domestic market and with Suntory’s export drive focusing on EU, US, Taiwan and China it is entirely possible Yamazaki can become a global top four brand.

Japan is drawing on a heritage of whisky making, science and the art of Japanese aesthetics. A long way from manufactured ersatz whisky and it is only just beginning.

Taketsuru’s forgotten mentor

An account of the life and lasting influence of Peter Margach Innes by Alan Wolstenholme.

There are many people who have contributed to the progress of the whisky industry during the centuries who are unknown today outside of their families.

Peter Margach Innes, my grandfather, would have been one, but for his meeting almost 90 years ago with Masataka Taketsuru. Until now, however, his role in the birth of Japanese whisky has never been explained fully.

Peter Innes was born in the parish of Knockando in 1884 where his father, Alexander Innes, owned the local carpentry firm. In this year, the nearby distillery of Cardow was being rebuilt, while during his childhood Knockando and Tamdhu distilleries were also constructed. It was a time of great expansion within whisky.

He benefitted from a sound but basic education at the local school and in 1900 at the age of 15 was employed at Tamdhu distillery. In 1914 he had risen to the position of “Brewer” and was appointed to Yoker Distillery in Glasgow. Now demolished, Yoker was a large distilling complex for its day, having Coffey stills as well as pot stills. It was also noted at the time of Alfred Barnard’s visit in 1887 as having a laboratory. It was here that my grandfather would learn scientific analysis to add to his practical experience. This would soon be put to praticical use.

In 1920 Sir Peter Mackie (of White Horse Whisky fame) bought Hazelburn distillery in Campbeltown and appointed my grandfather as manager who set up a laboratory in order to apply the science he had learnt at Yoker to this distillery.

Shortly after my grandfather’s arrival, the newly-wed Taketsuru-san arrived at Hazelburn to commence his 5-month long apprenticeship and set up home away from his wife’s disapproving relatives. It was at Hazelburn that Taketsuru had the opportunity to study the scientific production of malt whisky in depth under the guidance of his new mentor. A scientist himself, he appreciated the approach practised by Peter Innes and through this came to understand fully the intricacies of whisky production — so unlike the attitude he had encountered previously at Longmorn where the use of a microscope anywhere in the distilling industry was considered “unlikely”.

My grandfather was always noted as approaching the manufacture of whisky from a scientific standpoint and wrote copious research notes throughout his career. His rigour paid off. When he arrived in Campbeltown, Hazelburn wasn’t known as a particularly valuable whisky. A year after his arrival, my grandfather was being complimented by Sir Peter Mackie on the improved quality of the spirit.

Two years later, the same year his pupil was helping establish the Yamazaki distillery, he returned to Speyside where, after a short spell at Craigellachie, he took charge at Cragganmore. This plant presented him with enormous challenges as its equipment was worn out. To make matters worse, he described it as “a lawless place” where some of the employees conspired to pilfer whisky on a scale well beyond what was considered acceptable.

He set about the problems with considerable energy, rebuilding the distillery reservoir, improving the yields and stamping out the pilfering and drunkenness of some bad workers.

This new regime was not to everyone’s liking and there were muttered threats that “Innes’s bairnies will be found floating in that dam with their throats cut,” thankfully these threats proved empty!

Over time, Cragganmore became a model distillery with Peter Innes gaining the full respect of all his employees. He intended to replace the dilapidated maltings, but although the foundations had been dug, a higher authority decided that a more cost-effective plan would be to import malt from elsewhere.

A new manager’s house “Craggan Holm” was however built for Peter, his wife, Margaret Shaw, and their three children Albert, Peter and, my late mother, Christine. Taketsuru later wrote to Peter Innes there, and, using the Scots vernacular, asked after the health of the “bonnie bairnies”. Soon after, in 1925, Taketsuru returned to Scotland with a sample of whisky he had made at Yamazaki, conceivably the first time that Japanese whisky had arrived in Britain.

In her book Japanese Whisky, Scotch Blend Olive Checkland’ writes: ‘He [Taketsuru] had to admit that he still needed expert advice, which he belived could only be obtained in Scotand... It was decided that he must return to Scotland to seek Dr Innes’ advice... The European journey in 1925,…was primarily to carry a sample of Suntory’s single malt whisky so that [Innes] could test it.”

I think the word “test” is significant. Not “try”, “taste” or “nose”, but “test” according to shared scientific values that were so important to them both. Secondly, the use of the title “Doctor” is a sign of the respect that Taketsuru held for my grandfather — it was an honorific title bestowed by Taketsuru himself on the person he acknowledged as his teacher, despite Peter Innes having no advanced academic education.

It has always been assumed that this important reunion, which helped solve some of the problematic issues around distilling in Japan, took place at Hazelburn, but it actually took place at Cragganmore.

My uncle, also called Peter Innes and now aged 91, is the last surviving “bairnie”, and retains a clear memory of Taketsuru’s visit to Ballindalloch.

I don’t know if Taketsuru and my grandfather met again on the former’s next visit to Scotland in 1931, though I would be surprised if they did not, given the apparent closeness of their bond.

Sadly, by that time my grandfather’s health was failing and he died in 1934 at the early age of 49.

Taketsuru went on to found Nikka, manufacturing malt whisky faithfully according to the traditions and science which he had learnt on his visit to Scotland and particularly the valuable time spent with Peter Margach Innes at Hazelburn Distillery.

Further information

The author of this article, Alan Gordon Wolstenholme, worked for 25 years in the Scotch whisky industry starting as graduate trainee with Distillers Company Ltd and attaining the position of Distilleries Director with Wm Grant & Sons.He now runs his own company “Caledonian Solutions Limited” consulting on all aspects of Whisky. He is a member of the Institute of Brewing and Distilling, a Chartered Director of the Institute of Directors and a Keeper of the Quaich.