Obituary: Takeshi Taketsuru, whisky distiller

Takeshi Taketsuru. Picture: Contributed
Takeshi Taketsuru. Picture: Contributed
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Born: 6 March, 1924 in Fukuyama, Japan. Died: 17 December, 2014, in Tokyo

Takeshi Taketsuru, adopted son of a Scots lass from Kirkintilloch, helped turn Japan into a leading producer and exporter of “Scotch-style” whisky, taking Scotland on and even, according to some connoisseurs, sometimes winning.

The name Taketsuru is famous not only in Japan but also in the whisky industry in Scotland, where Takeshi’s uncle and adoptive father Masataka Taketsuru studied chemistry at the University of Glasgow, married Kirkintilloch doctor’s daughter Jessie “Rita” Cowan and had a vision that whisky could challenge the traditional sake in the Japanese market.

He was the first Japanese to study and master the art of distilling whisky and his vision was proved right. The Japanese developed a taste for “the water of life” and Masataka Taketsuru became known as the “Father of Japanese whisky”, launching his own company, Nikka (now owned by Asahi), and helping found the Yamazaki distillery which produces the Suntory brand.

His son Takeshi, who has died aged 90, later succeeded his adoptive father as head of the family company, Nikka Whisky Distilling, and took Japanese “Scotch” to a new level by exporting it around the world, including to Scotland. Having developed a “nose”, he also became the company’s master-blender and insisted on using traditional distilling, using coal, rather than steam or oil, to heat the stills.

After Nikka acquired the shut-down Ben Nevis distillery in Fort William in 1989, with its mascot Hector McDram, Takeshi became a frequent visitor to Scotland and funded an annual prize at the University of Glasgow in honour of his father, widely known by his nickname Massan.

Under Takeshi’s leadership, Nikka’s exports have risen to around 100,000 cases a year and in 2001 its Nikka Yoichi 10-Years-Old Single Cask was the first non-Scotch to be given the “best of the best” award by Whisky Magazine.

In Japan itself, sales have been boosted by the television drama series Massan, based on the story of the Japanese student at Glasgow University who married a “Kirky” (Kirkintilloch) girl called Rita, took her to his homeland and fathered a new whisky industry.

As a young reporter for The Sunday Post in 1969, my editor asked me to go to a working-class pub in Glasgow with a bottle of Japanese whisky and three bottles of Scotch. Shots of all four were poured, without name or label, and offered to the locals “on the house”. Needless to say, the takers were many. And the result? The majority thought the Japanese was the best “Scotch”. It caused a wee bit of a stir at the time but it was an honest “straw poll”, perhaps demonstrating that the taste of a Scotch can be influenced by the number of pints of heavy previously consumed.

Takeshi Taketsuru was born in Fukuyama, near Hiroshima, on 6 March 1924, and soon dreamed of becoming an engineer. His hero was American Thomas Edison, inventor of the electric light bulb. After the loss of his father in 1943, he was adopted by his uncle Masataka and Rita, who had got married in Glasgow at the end of the Great War and settled in Japan in 1920.

The teenage Takeshi, son of Masataka’s sister Nobuyo, survived the 1945 American bombing of Hiroshima, not far from his home. The bombing effectively ended the Second World and in peacetime the Taketsuru whisky business grew. Takeshi moved to Yoichi, on the island of Hokkaido, to be with Masataka and Rita – and join the family whisky business.

Masataka, by then with a noticeable Scottish inflection to his native tongue, had chosen Yoichi to start his distillery in 1934 because its mountainous, often snowy landscape, climate and freshwater were as close as he could find to those of Scotland. The adopted Takeshi quickly bonded with his “mum”, shared her love of music and enjoyed her nostalgic tales of growing up in Kirkintilloch, by the Forth and Clyde Canal, and in Glasgow. She also taught Takeshi’s wife Utako, a musician, to make Scotch broth and tattie scones, as well as classic Japanese dishes with a Scottish twist.

Takeshi Taketsuru is survived by his son Kotaro and daughter Minobu.