Playing catch-up is never easy. If you aren’t one of the originals, it’s very difficult to make a name for yourself if you’re not in the game from the start. You don’t see any cola upstarts that try to take on Coke or Pepsi. And you’d go broke trying to make a better building block than Lego. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try, and that’s exactly what happened with Japan around 1853.
Japan had very little contact with the western world for over 200 years prior to 1853 when one Matthew Perry (The Commodore, Not the Chandler) landed in Japan and said, “It’s time you all joined the world of commerce and here, take this 110-gallon barrel of whiskey, you’re going to love it”. And boy did they. But they just couldn’t figure out how it was made.
After about 50 years of trying to reverse engineer the drink, they finally sent a young chemist named Masataka Taketsuru to Scotland to learn all about this delicious concoction. In 1918 he enrolled in the University of Glasgow and meticulously recorded every aspect of the distillation process of Scotch whiskey. He returned home and partnered with a pharmaceutical wholesaler to form Suntory, which along with Nikka, are Japan’s two biggest whiskey producers.
In just a 90-year span, Japanese whiskey has begun to rival Scotch whiskey on the awards circuit. In fact, Suntory has become so good at producing award-winning whiskey in such a short time that it was able to purchase an American icon, Jim Beam. It also owns Maker’s Mark and Laphroaig Scotch. Not bad for a company that took less than 90 years to do what it took centuries for Scotland and America to perfect.