Though geographically small in size, Japan is a superpower when it comes to whisky. Initially inspired by Scotch, Japanese distillers have taken the spirit to new heights, introducing a variety of unique flavor profiles and expressions. And none of this would have been possible without the innovations of Masataka Taketsuru, founder of Nikka Whisky.
Established in 1934 (originally as Dai Nippon Kaju Co., Ltd.), Nikka Whisky was one of the first distilleries in the country, and went on to truly define the category. Looking to learn more about one of the OG Japanese whisky brands? Read on for the 10 things you need to know about Nikka Whisky.
The story begins over 100 years ago.
The history of Japanese whisky cannot be told without the mention of Masataka Taketsuru, founder of Nikka Whisky. Along with Suntory founder Shinjiro Torii, Taketsuru is considered one of the founding fathers of Japanese whisky. Taketsuru’s story — and that of the Japanese whisky category as a whole — began in 1918, when he traveled to Scotland for university.
Don't Miss A DropGet the latest in beer, wine, and cocktail culture sent straight to your inbox.
Nikka was inspired by Taketsuru’s European travels.
While in Scotland, Taketsuru studied chemistry and worked as a distiller’s apprentice — sparking his passion for Scotch whisky, which he inevitably brought back to Japan. From there, Taketsuru made it his goal to create the first “real” malt whisky in Japan.
Nikka was a result of a partnership gone sour.
The two most famous minds behind the inception of Japanese whisky, Masataka Taketsuru and Shinjiro Torii, had initially partnered up to create Japan’s first malt whisky. However, the two disagreed on the flavor profile they wanted to shoot for — Taketsuru wanted to recreate a more traditional Scotch-style whisky, while Torii aimed to create an expression that was less peaty and more palatable to Japanese consumers. The disagreement led to the dissolution of their partnership in 1934.
It was one of the first whiskies to be made in Japan.
When Torii and Taketsuru went their separate ways, they both went on to create the two first Japanese whisky distilleries in history, Suntory and Nikka, respectively.
Its founder was born into sake royalty.
Taketsuru wasn’t the first member of his family to work in the beverage industry. Rather, he was the heir to a major sake brewing empire in Hiroshima.
Nikka makes more than whisky.
Though best known for its whisky, Nikka also distills both gin and vodka under its Coffey line. The Nikka Coffey gin has been praised for its versatility by VinePair, and as a predictor of even more high-quality gins to come out of Japan.
It’s made in two Japanese distilleries.
Nikka’s two distilleries — Miyagikyo and Yoichi — make whiskies with two very different flavor profiles. Yoichi, located on the island of Hokkaido, makes oaky, peated expressions. Miyagikyo, located on the island of Honshu, produces fresher, fruitier whiskies. This allows for the extensive range of flavors in Nikka’s 17 expressions.
Taketsuru brought Scotland to Japan.
As it was Taketsuru’s mission to make a Japanese whisky with flavors similar to Scotch, he needed to duplicate the country’s terroir for maximum authenticity. Thus, Yoichi Distillery was chosen to be the first location to produce Nikka. There — near the sea, surrounded by mountains, and with a cool climate — weather patterns mirror those of Scotland.
Miyagikyo distillery’s water source is aptly named.
Miyagikyo, Nikka’s newer distillery built in 1969, is surrounded by mountains and two rivers. The distillery uses one of these rivers as a water source — a river coincidentally named Nikkawa.
It has a well-known family.
When you drink Nikka, you’re in good company. Nikka became a subsidiary of Asahi Group Holdings — 60 percent in 1954 and 100 percent in 2001 — which also owns major drinks brands like Peroni, Asahi Super Dry, and Kirin Brewing Company.