Retracing the Scottish roots of Japanese whisky - with a few cocktails thrown in for good measure

The founder of Nikka whisky learned much of his craft in Scotland
The founder of Nikka whisky learned much of his craft in Scotland
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In Japan, there is an old proverb:-

‘’Koketsu ni irazunba koji wo ezu - if you do not enter the tiger’s cave, you will not catch its cub.’’

Sometimes if you don’t take risks you cannot gain great reward, in 1918 this must have been the spirit with which Masataka Taketsuru set out on the long journey to Glasgow to study chemistry and learn the secrets of distilling in the home of whisky.

A tiger’s cave however, might have been a less daunting option, for Japan was very much an insular country in those pre WWII days and even though Taketsuru was well travelled in his homeland, Scotland must have seemed like a strange and sometimes scary new world.

He must have been an odd sight. A dapper, well-dressed Japanese man walking through Buchanan Bus Station while whistling Japanese folk songs to calm his nerves before setting off by bus to the campus hidden beneath the gothic spires of Glasgow University Chapel.

It was here that he continued his quest for knowledge. The buildings there must have been stunning to him, the strange architecture so different from the small Japanese buildings of his home town.

This would be his base for the next few years and although he would travel north to Speyside, the whisky heartland and south to Campbeltown peninsula (to study at Hazelburn distillery) it was Glasgow he would return to and eventually find his true love.

For having spent his meagre earnings on his travels he was forced to seek cheaper accommodation in the small town of Kirkintilloch, with the Cowan family. It was while living here that he found that whisky knowledge was not all Scotland had to offer, for in the company of the Mr and Mrs Cowan’s eldest daughter, Rita, he found an enduring love. The story is said that one Christmas eve, while the family introduced Taketsuru to the British tradition of the pudding, that when Rita found the ring (a symbol of marriage) and Taketsuru the thimble (the symbol of a blessed life and good luck), this was seen as the traditional sign of serendipity and blossoming love.

Though he and Rita eventually returned to Japan to be married - also where Taketsuru founded Nikka to become the father of Japanese whisky (his teachings still guide Japenese whisky making to this day) - he never forgot his adoptive homeland.


And so it was in that adventurous spirit that the competitors of the recent Nikka Coffey Blend perfect serve mixology competition must have set out with. Hailing from several major countries in Europe including France, Italy, Germany, Russia, the Czech Republic and the UK, they had indeed come from far and wide. The Competition, now in its 3rd year and traditionally held in Paris (the home of Maison du whisky, the biggest importer of Japanese whisky in Europe) has moved its setting, the organisers deciding to choose Glasgow and the beautiful Blythswood Hotel.

Stanislav Vdrna, the Nikka global ambassador is well aware of why the city was the perfect choice, ‘it just relates to the history so well, this is where the whole story [of Nikka] began, this is the birth place of Japanese whisky.’

So, it is in front of the impressive gantry of the Blythswood’s Salon bar that the competitors gather, a sense of impetus grows as each of them begins to set up their preparations within the bar itself.

Adam McGurk of the Hawksmoor in London won the British heats and wearing a nifty bow tie, cuts a classically English figure, though his demeanour is even cooler than his style. This, it seems, comes with the territory of being a mixologist. Adam isn’t nervous; he’s been to events like this before though maybe not with the prestige of this one. “I won the Jack Daniel’s 150th birthday competition recently, and as the winner I’m off to Tennessee next year.” So why wasn’t he nervous?

“Simple, I use the teachings of Bruce Lee, I’ve learned the technique, mastered it and now it’s time to forget it and concentrate on the task ahead.”

He isn’t the only competitor who’s confident either, Doreen Philipp of Germany, is the only girl in the competition but she’s not bothered by the pressure that brings, “I like to mix it up with the boys,” no pun intended, “girls offer a different perspective, we like to pay more attention to detail and presentation. Though, I do think sometimes that girls will doubt themselves more, as boys just don’t seem to worry that much.”

The other competitors are a mixed bunch, Amaury Guyot, who won the French heats, sports tattoos and a sleek hairstyle while Adam Hrapko, winner of the Czech heats is wearing much more traditional bar man attire, complete with waist coat and pocket watch. Finally standing beside each other at the bar and as contrasting in styles as peat and sherry are Russia’s winner Bubashvili Ilia, in very reserved shirt and trousers and Italy’s winner Tommaso ‘Tommy’ Colonna, a pocket dynamo of flamboyance.

With the judges arrival - Salim Khoury of the Savoy Hotel’s American Bar in London, Global Nikka representative Emiko Kaji from Japan and a fashionably late Charles Maclean, monocle in tow - the competition starts. Round one is designed to test the competitor’s ability to produce the best Manhattan using Nikka’s excellent new 100% coffey grain whisky, which prompts a wry smile from Adam as he prepares his small origami swans (garnish for his cocktails). “A Manhattan is the first cocktail I was ever taught to perfect,” he explains. A good start for team GB it seems.

What follows is a mixture of flair, technique and skill, followed by some banter between judges and competitors. With Adam producing a sterling effort “If a Manhattan made with scotch is a Rob Roy, would that make this particular Manhattan, made with Japanese whisky, a Samuroy?”, although he later confides that he stole this from a friend. It seems that although there are some nerves, that mixologist swagger is never far behind.

The second round is the real meat of the contest with competitors asked to tailor cocktails for an omakase (which translates ”I’ll leave it to you”) service, with three drinks to be created “on the fly”, to suit the judge’s specific role or request. A timed affair, they have only 15 minutes to cater for each of the judges specific needs. Each scenario would be provided by, and then the drinks themselves judged by, Charles (the drink itself), Salim (the serve) and Emico (the use of the Nikka whisky within the drink.)


It is here that the mixologists really come into their own, although the scenarios thrown at them ranged from ‘a man stood up on a date’, ‘a first timer’ and ‘first drink of the day’ the competitors reacted with typical confidence, the highlights being Tommaso’s unique ‘picnikka’ that involved a blanket, Italian songs and a lot of food (including fresh bergamot), Adam Hrapko’s Ice sculpted skull and Ilia’s Samovar (a beautiful Russian teapot). Each competitor did their best to impress until finally the judges retired to make their decision.

After an agonising wait, Stanislav stepped forward to offer the decision and in a twist, he exclaimed that two winners had been chosen. So it was that France’s Amaury and Germany’s Doreen had been judged the mixologists who had best dealt with the Omakase test. With beaming smiles and the cheering of the gathered crowd and their fellow competitor’s they accepted their awards, along with the wonderful prize of a trip to the distilleries of Nikka in Japan next year.

“I am so surprised,” exclaimed Doreen, “I barely even heard the prize, I can’t believe I’m going to a distillery, I’ve never even been to one.” As a massive fan of whisky and Japanese whisky in particular, it seemed Doreen was delighted.

Although the competition had two winners, it seemed the true winner was Nikka, a fascinating brand, with more than a few amazing whiskies. Does this signify a new, rising trend in popularity for Nikka and other Japanese whiskies like them? Jody Monteith Director of The Liquorists, who’s company regularly organises whisky events and who helped organise this one, is a keen believer and reckons they are already well established, “Japanese whisky is just becoming hugely popular, you can see that in the fact that’s even available in places like Asda and other supermarkets like it.”

Charles Maclean, renowned whisky writer and competition judge, is also a big fan.

He said: “I think in terms of malts, it’s the closest to Scotch and though it is lighter, it’s just the most wonderful drink. It’s cleaner and more transparent than the chaotic beauty inherent in Scotch, a perfect mirror to be held up to the original it imitates.”

As the Japanese would say ‘‘Douzo – lit. Please try’’ you won’t be disappointed, just remember to toast Taketsuru and his good lady Rita when you do.

For more information about Nikka and their whiskies visit .

For more information on Jody and the Liquorist’s (organisers of the event) visit