Taketoshi Kishimoto was born in 1959 in Hyogo Prefecture. He joined Nikka Whisky Distilling Co. Ltd. in 1982 and became the CEO in 2016. From April 2016 to March 2019, he served as the Chief Director of the Japan Spirits and Liqueurs Makers Association. He has inherited the pioneering spirit of Masataka Taketsuru, the founder of Nikka, also known as “The Father of Japanese Whisky,” who was passionate about producing whisky in Japan, made by Japanese people to suit the Japanese palate. We spoke to President Kishimoto about passing on Taketsuru’s zeal and upholding the quality-first principle of Nikka Whisky.
Eight Years Learning On-site Made Kishimoto the Man He Is Now
When he was little, Kishimoto dreamed of becoming a carpenter. He had a carefree childhood surrounded by nature in the Seto Inland Sea region in Hyogo Prefecture until he graduated from senior high school. He went on to study in the Engineering Department of Osaka University, and when he was job hunting in the industrial technology sector, he came across Nikka Whisky by chance.
“There were six people applying for the position, including myself. Two were going to get hired. I looked around at the other applicants and thought I didn’t have a chance, so I just took home a Nikka ashtray as a memento,” he laughs.
After joining the company, he was stationed at the Miyagikyo distillery located deep in the mountains between Yamagata and Miyagi Prefectures. Since it was such a remote place with nowhere to go besides the distillery and the dormitory, he worked in the distillery until late at night every day, getting absorbed in the process of making whisky.
“I devoted myself to making whisky for eight years at the Miyagikyo distillery, to the extent that people in the company started to say, ‘No one makes Nikka Whisky like Kishimoto.’ Living at the dorm, I became close with my colleagues and the staff, and I learned so much from them. Those eight years made me what I am today.”
Kishimoto’s unchanging passion for whisky shows through his modesty. He says that he is still grateful for the rich learning experience at the Miyagikyo dorm.
Nikka’s Pioneering Spirit: Always Challenging the Preconceptions of Whisky
In 1989, an amendment on liquor tax laws brought about a sharp rise in the price of whisky, which used to be in the low range. As a result, people grew distant from whisky, and the weak market continued for more than twenty-five years. At one point, the shipment quantity of whisky companies including Nikka even dropped to one sixth of what it had been at its peak.
It was a long, bitter winter for the whisky industry, and Kishimoto saw many colleagues—both seniors, juniors, and those in the same year—leaving the company. When his wife asked him what he was going to do, he answered, “I’m ready to die with Nikka. I’m sorry if Nikka goes bankrupt.”
“I felt even more love for Nikka,” he recalls, “and I began to think about how to rebuild the company.”
In 2001, Nikka’s “10-Year-Old Single Cask Malt Whisky Yoichi” won the overall first place in the Best of the Best Awards (now called World Whiskies Awards, or WWA), hosted by Whisky Magazine of the UK. Although Japanese whisky won recognition on the international stage, sales in Japan were still low.
It was a difficult time for management and capital investment, but Kishimoto says that Nikka never stopped investing in casks.
“There were times when we had to cease operations at a distillery or close a factory. But even in those hard times, we never gave up investing in casks. That’s the backstory of how we were able to create whisky that gained international recognition. We stayed loyal to the principle of our founder, Masataka Taketsuru. With the passing of ten years, and twenty years, it has come to fruition.”
Although he has a calm demeanor, a fierce sense of commitment and dedication towards Nikka radiates from Kishimoto’s every word.
Putting the Happiness of his Employees First, and Taking Nikka to the Global Market
These days, whisky sales both in and outside Japan is going well, and the market is growing on a steady upward trend. Even so, it is impossible to foresee what lies ahead. Kishimoto is determined to build a bright future for Nikka, which will reach its 90th anniversary since its establishment in 2024: “My aim is to preserve our high quality, but also to challenge ourselves to undertake new endeavours.”
“Of course, it’s important to promote things like increasing productivity and management that focuses on earning power, but it’s just as vital to keep creating new value for whisky and to introduce appealing products that will get whisky fans excited. I often say this to my employees.”
In recent years, Japanese whisky has been rising in fame overseas, especially in France. “My dream for the future is to make Nikka an even more global company,” says Kishimoto.
“Since I became the CEO, I’ve been putting the happiness of my employees first, above everything else. What keeps a company running is the people—not equipment, not money. I want Nikka to be a company where all the employees can say to themselves, ‘I’m glad I’m part of Nikka.’ As long as I’m in this position, I want to enrich the lives of my employees. A company that cares most about their people’s happiness, making products that are recognised around the world—I think that is a company with a strong appeal.”
It takes many years for whisky to mature. What protected and nurtured Japanese whisky, which has evolved on its own ways as a unique liquor in the specific natural environment of Japan, is the devoted work of the makers who took up the baton from the previous generation and came face to face with whisky-making to give it their all. Kishimoto’s eyes are lit with the spirit of the maker who carries the full responsibility, taking care of the life of the people who form the backbone of whisky-making.