Rita Taketsuru “the mother” of Japanese whisky

Rita Taketsuru might be largely forgotten in her native Scotland, but the same cannot said about her adopted country of Japan. Well known in some Japanese circles, the Scottish-born wife of one of Japan’s favorite sons is now almost a household name thanks to NHK’s morning drama series about their adventures.

Rita (full name Jessie Roberta Cowan) was the daughter of a doctor and the oldest of four siblings. She lived in Glasgow during her youth, where she met her husband Masataka Taketsuru.

Masataka on the other hand was born in the coastal town of Takehara about 60 kilometres south of Hiroshima. His family owned a sake brewery and had been in the business since the early 18th century. Masataka’s father wanted him to continue the trade and he intended to do so. He studied chemistry at university and when he had the chance to go to Scotland to further his studies he did. He landed there in 1918 and took courses at Glasgow University. He then took up apprenticeship at the Longmorn distillery in Speyside and later at the Hazelburn distillery in Campbeltown where he learned the secrets of whisky making.

Whisky became one of his two passions in life, the other one of course being Rita. He met her at a dinner at her house; he had been instructing her brother in judo and was subsequently invited to dinner to meet the family. Masataka and Rita became close after that, and soon, he expressed his desire to marry her. She said yes.

Resistance to the marriage was strong at the time and both families disapproved of the idea. The young couple defiantly ignored this and got married at a registry office in Glasgow in 1920.

After marrying, the two left for Japan where Taketsuru intended to build his very own distillery. It did not happen overnight though. First he met Torii san, the owner of Kotobukiya, later known as Suntory. Torii was also interested in whisky making and he persuaded Taketsuru to build the first whisky distillery for him. Taketsuru agreed, although he did not get his wish of building it in northern Japan, as Torii thought that the location was hopelessly far from markets. The first distillery was therefore built near Osaka and Taketsuru oversaw its construction. He would work there for the next 10 years. A decade later he decided to go out on his own and found a distillery in Yoichi, a small provincial town in Hokkaido which in his view was the most suitable place for whisky making as its climate was as close to the Scottish climate as one could get in Japan. And Rita stood by her husband through all this.

According to Emiko Kaji, a Nikka Whisky international sale manager, Rita played a very important part in all this. “She provided not only moral support but also financial support when they had a difficult time,” said Kaji. Rita also made efforts to adapt herself to Japanese culture and was reportedly a very good cook of traditional Japanese cuisine. Rita also taught English and gave piano lessons. She created a network of contacts which helped her husband when he needed investors for his new company. According to Kaji, “Masataka could not have overcome a lot of difficulties without the loyal support of Rita.”

The war years were difficult for both of them, especially Rita. People in general were suspicious of foreigners. The country was at war with Britain and some suspected her of being a spy. Their house was even searched because it had an antenna, which the police suspected was being used to contact British or even Russian forces.

Rita however stood her ground and the distillery prospered, partially because the war made it impossible to import Scotch whisky. The citizens of Yoichi learned to appreciate her; after she died in 1961, the main road in town was soon renamed Rita Road.

During her last years Rita spent most of her time in Zushi, Kanagawa, which is close to Tokyo. Masataka often stayed there on business and as Rita was suffering from liver disease and tuberculosis, being close to good hospitals was of the essence.

By now she has achieved country-wide fame as her story and the story of her husband have been dramatized on TV. The show, called Massan was a huge hit with Japanese housewives who are reportedly drinking so much whisky these days that the demand is difficult to meet. Whether this demand is a fad that will disappear is difficult to say; however, Rita Taketsuru, the loyal supportive wife of Masataka Taketsuru, will certainly be remembered in the years to come.