Raise a toast to Kirkintilloch’s - and Japan’s - first lady of whisky

rita takesuru portrait hand in
rita takesuru portrait hand in

THERE are few things as Scottish as a dram of whisky – the drink is one of the country’s biggest exports and known the world over for its quality.

However, in recent years Japanese distillers have produced bottles of the spirit which have been hailed as the best on the planet.

The seeds of the trade in the Far East were planted in the 1930s and one of the driving forces behind the emerging industry was a mild-mannered woman from Kirkintilloch, Rita Taketsuru – still celebrated as the ‘mother of Japanese whisky’.

Jessie Roberta ‘Rita’ Cowan’s place in history was assured the day she met Japanese student Masataka Taketsuru while he was teaching her younger brother jujitsu at the family home in Middlecroft.

Romance soon blossomed between Rita and Masataka, who had come to Scotland in 1919 to learn how to make whisky and study science at Glasgow University, and the couple married at Calton Registry Office in 1920.

They moved to Campbeltown, where Masataka learned his trade at the Hazelburn distillery, before returning to Japan in 1923.

Rita set about honing her Japanese and teaching English, while Masataka helped build a whisky distillery for the Shinjiro Torii group – a post he soon left when it became clear they were not interested in making ‘proper’ whisky, but rather a cheap alternative that would turn a good profit.

The couple faced an uncertain future but, thanks to Rita’s contacts built up through teaching, they found financial backers to start their own business.

In 1934 Masataka set up Dai Nippon Kaju KK, later to become the Nikka Whisky Distilling Company, in Yoichi on Japan’s inhospitable North Island – a location chosen because of its similarity to Scotland and its proximity to the barley, peat, coal and water required for the perfect dram.

Rita played a huge part in the success of the distillery, which turned its first profit in 1940, until her death in 1961.

In the intervening years, World War II proved a difficult period for the couple – their home was raided by suspicious police and Rita was shunned by neighbours who thought her a spy. But the war was also the making of the distillery.

With imported Scottish whisky banned, drinkers turned to native alternatives and the company flourished. In the years that followed the war, Rita played a significant role in the revival of good relations between Britain and Japan.

The couple had no children of their own, but adopted Masataka’s nephew, Takeshi – who visited Scotland in 2002 to celebrate the first bottling of a Japanese whisky by the Scottish Malt Whisky Society.

In the years since the couple’s death Masataka’s genius has been recognised by experts. In 2007 a bottle of ‘Taketsuru’ was voted the world’s best blended malt, while a year later his company’s 20-year-old ‘Yoichi’ was awarded the title of the world’s best single malt.

The company’s founders will never be forgotten. A mock-up of Rita’s Kirkintilloch living room is a key exhibit in the distillery museum and there is even a Rita Taketsuru Fan Club in Japan. Just last year the Japan Times ran a two-page feature on Rita’s influence on whisky-making.

She was buried on the hillside overlooking the distillery – a spot which remains a place of pilgrimage for lovers of fine whisky the world over.