The story goes that whisky was introduced to Japan by Commodore Matthew Perry in 1854, on his ‘diplomatic’ mission to reverse Japan’s 220-year old policy of national isolation.

American President Millard Fillmore had tasked Perry and his team to secure trading routes and establish coal supplies for its ships, and with force if necessary. Four steam warships and two battleships arrived in Tokyo Bay on 8 July 1853. Japan recognised Perry’s superior firepower and negotiations opened. Eight months later a treaty agreed the opening of an American consulate and access to the ports of Shimoda and Hakodate for their ships.

To help sweeten the deal the Americans had brought along a suite of gifts for the Emperor, including a steam train with a section of track, a collection of agricultural implements, various small arms, and a 110-gallon barrel of Scottish whisky.

Other agreements followed, and Japan slowly opened for business, with goods including wine and spirits starting to trickle into the country.

The two centuries of Shogun subjugation had ended, but Japan was at a distinct disadvantage and needed to catch up with the perceived progress of the Industrial Revolution. The Japanese soon dispatched ambassadors and scientists to Europe and the Americas with instructions to find and return with the very best systems of governance, education, science and technology. That’s why, to this day, you can see English influences on Japan’s navy, French influences on its bureaucracy, and American influences on its central bank.

Among other things, whisky captured the Japanese imagination. There were limited and expensive imports throughout the intervening decades, domestic producers making up the shortfall with locally produced concoctions of dubious ingredients and enigmatic names.

Queen George Scottish Whisky was one such tipple which definitely did not come from Caledonia, nor had been anywhere near a pot or column still. An apocryphal story from the period talks of a ‘Scotch whisky’ labelled ‘made with Scottish grapes’ and another coming from ‘Leith, London.’

The reality was, there were many offerings made with neutral alcohol, mixed with sugar, spices and other flavourings, but none of them were real whisky.

Armed with a map of Speyside’s distilleries Taketsuru set out to visit each one in search of an apprenticeship

An early attempt by the Settsu Sake Brewery Company in late 1918 saw them send an enthusiastic, young chemistry student to Scotland to learn the secrets first-hand. It was an inspired decision. Masataka Taketsuru’s thirst for knowledge knew no bounds. On his arrival, he enrolled on an applied chemistry course at Glasgow University. Then in search of practical tuition, he headed north to Elgin to seek out JA Nettleton, the author of an exhaustive guide to the whisky industry.

Nettleton’s book, The Manufacture of Spirit: As conducted in the Distilleries of the United Kingdom, had already become Taketsuru’s bible, and he was painstakingly translating its 450 pages into Japanese.

Nettleton’s suggested fee was £15 a month, plus a few pounds more for accommodation, but this was way, way beyond Taketsuru’s fragile budget. Today, that £15 fee for revealing the age-old secrets of Scotland’s distilling tradition seems a bit of a bargain.

Undaunted, and armed with a map of Speyside’s distilleries Taketsuru set out to visit each one in search of an apprenticeship. He struck lucky, at Lonmorn, only the second he called at. The general manager, JR Grant agreed to take him on. For a week or so he was imbued with the technicalities of the distillery, recording every minute detail in his journal before returning to Glasgow to take up his studies.

At the end of his first term in December 1918, he met a young medical student Ella Cowan. Invited to visit her family, he was soon living as their lodger. Jessie Roberta, her elder sister, known as Rita, had little idea how much her life was going to change forever. Over the next year she and Taketsuru formed a strong bond through a shared love of music and literature and on 8 January 1920 they married in Glasgow.

However, Rita’s mother was outraged when she heard of the union and called for it to be annulled. Taketsuru’s parents disapproved too, but the headstrong, young couple were adamant and started their married life in Campbeltown, where Taketsuru had secured a six-month apprenticeship at the Hazelburn distillery.

Taketsuru believed that to produce whisky on a par with the Scots, he needed to remain faithful to their whole approach

In the autumn of 1920 they boarded a steamship bound for America, travelling overland to San Francisco and then onward to Japan. With his amassed fund of knowledge Taketsuru was now Japan’s pre-eminent authority on whisky.

But there were difficulties ahead. The Settsu Sake Brewery Co was suffering. Incessant inflation and destructive speculation on the newly-formed stock market had temporarily destabilised the economy. Settsu was reluctant to act on Taketsuru’s new-found knowledge.

Frustrated, Taketsuru left the firm but in 1923, while working as a high school chemistry teacher, he was head-hunted by Shinjiro Torii, a pharmaceutical wholesaler, beer brewer and wine importer who’d recently founded the Kotobukiya group, which was later to be renamed Suntory. Torii employed Taketsuru to set up Yamazaki, Japan’s first true whisky distillery, near Kyoto, in 1924. The Yamazaki distillery’s first whisky, Shirofuda ‘White Label’ went on sale in 1929.

With the distillery up and running, Taketsuru was moved sideways and put in charge of a beer brewing operation the company were establishing in Yokohama. Disenchanted and feeling the need to get back to his true calling, he resigned at the end of his ten-year contract and set about finding investors for his own project. His wife Rita had been teaching English and piano, and it was through some of her wealthy clients that Taketsuru was able to gain the financial support that he needed to start his own company.

Taketsuru passionately believed that to produce whisky on a par with the Scots, he needed to remain faithful to their whole approach. The environment where the distillery was to be established was vital. After much research he had found a site in Yoichi, a small fishing village, on Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido. Surrounded by mountains on three sides, with the sea on the forth, its cold, moist climate was as close as he was going to get to Scotland’s in Japan. Another plus was, since the Sapporo Beer Brewery had been established in 1876, barley was now being successfully cultivated on the island.

As Japan began its spectacularly successful post-war reconstruction, whisky became a very fashionable drink

In 1934 with backing in place Taketsuru and Rita moved to Yoichi to oversee construction of his new distillery. The company was called Dainipponkaju, which loosely translates as dai – great, Nippon – Japan, kaju – fruit juice. The Great Japanese Fruit Juice Company.

Taketsuru was well aware that the best whisky takes an age to age. His plan in the meantime, to keep the wolf from the door and his investors happy, was to produce cider, and apple wine. His first whisky was released in 1940 and sold under the much-shortened name of Nikka.

The following years were to prove difficult for Rita. When war broke out in 1941, she became a target of suspicion and dislike, both from her neighbours and Japan’s security departments. Her marriage and subsequent nationalisation allowed her to remain in Japan, but she was constantly watched.

Ironically, the war proved a blessing for the distillery. Through the years prior to the conflict, the Imperial Japanese Navy had taken to importing Scottish whisky ‒ it was their equivalent to the British Navy’s rum.

When war broke out, imports from enemy countries were banned. To ensure they wouldn’t go without, the Yoichi distillery was designated a naval installation. Classified as a vital war industry, Yoichi was able to circumnavigate rationing and continue to source large volumes of barley and coal. At the end of hostilities it continued to be a military supplier, only now to the US occupying forces.

As Japan began its spectacularly successful post-war reconstruction, whisky became a very fashionable drink. It was aspirational, western and modern.

Japan’s newly affluent drank imported Scotch and the increasingly high-quality malts from its two homegrown distillers. Suntory had survived, too – and so began one of the most legendary rivalries in Japanese corporate history. 

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