Travel and Adventure

Taketsuru Masataka

The father of Japanese whisky

Taketsuru Masataka

Taketsuru Masataka, known to his friends as Massan, was a brewer and distiller from Takehara. He’s known as the founder of Japan’s whisky industry and Nikka Whisky.

Born in Takehara to a family that had owned a sake brewery since 1733, he traveled to Scotland in 1918 to study organic chemistry and distilling. He then returned to Japan where he established a whisky distillery at Suntory and founded his own distilling company, Nikka Whisky, in 1934.

Masataka was born in 1894, the third of four sons and five daughters of Taketsuru Keijirō. The oldest sake brewery in Takehara, Taketsuru started out as a salt maker in 1651. The family turned to sake production in 1733. In Keijirō’s time, sake brewers in Hiroshima, led by Miura Senzaburō, strove to improve their brewing methods to make sake that would compete with the famous sake from Nada in Hyōgo, which boasted an outstanding brand name, and Keijirō was a key member of this group. The group’s work paid off, and in 1907, Hiroshima sake took the first and second places in a national sake competition.

Masataka was a curious and rambunctious child who enjoyed judo, and in his formative years, he was strongly influenced by his father’s commitment to process and quality.

Since his two older brothers showed no interest in the alcohol business, Masataka went to Ōsaka to study brewing. This led to his employment at Settsu Brewery in Ōsaka, known for its western style products such as Akadama port wine. Interested in producing whiskey, his superior ordered him to go and study whisky in Scotland. Masataka enrolled at the University of Glasgow in 1918, where he studied organic chemistry, followed by apprenticeships at two distilleries.

In the course of his studies, Masataka met local girl Rita Cowan, and in 1920, he married her, despite opposition from both their families. The marriage caused Masataka to split from his family.

After returning to Japan in 1920 with his bride, Masataka worked at Kotobukiya, which would later become Suntory, where he helped establish a whisky distillery just outside Kyōto, now the Yamazaki Distillery, to produce Japan’s first authentic Scotch whisky.  In 1934 he founded his own distilling company, Dai Nippon Kaju, in Yoichi in Hokkaidō, which he chose for its similarity to Scotland. He later renamed the company Nikka. Here, Masataka focused intently on quality and authenticity. Nikka whisky was first sold in 1940.

When WWII broke out, foreigners like Rita living in Japan fell under suspicion, and many were interned.  Since she had become a Japanese citizen, Rita was spared internment, but the police kept her under constant surveillance as a suspected foreign spy. After Pearl Harbor, she was shunned by her neighbours, and children would throw rocks at her home. Nevertheless, she continued to help Masataka with his business.

In 1961, Rita died of liver disease. At that time, Masataka’s grandson-in-law, Takatarō said that he had never seen an adult so distraught before. Nevertheless, Masataka later advised Takatarō to avoid international marriage. During the 1960s and 70s, Masataka drank a bottle of whiskey every evening, preferring High Nikka, the company’s second-grade whiskey, enjoying it with a snack of soy-sauce flavoured rice crackers.

Taketsuru died in 1979 and was buried in Yoichi together with Rita. A bronze statue of the couple stands beside the Museum of History and Folklore in Takehara, not far from the Taketsuru Brewery. In 2014, the story of Masataka and Rita was depicted in the highly popular NHK drama Massan.


Name in Japanese: 竹鶴 政孝

Pronunciation: take-tsuru-masa-taka 

Dates: 1894–1979

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