Film tells story of Scot behind Japanese whisky

Masataka Taketsuru met Cowan in Scotland where he learned about whisky. Picture: Contributed
Masataka Taketsuru met Cowan in Scotland where he learned about whisky. Picture: Contributed
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IN JAPAN she is considered by many as the mother of the ­domestic whisky industry. But despite being the woman who helped create the country’s own dram, she remains ­little-known in the nation of her birth.

Now Scot Rita Cowan is to make history more than 50 years after her death, after it was announced that she is to become the first non-Japanese character to be portrayed in one of the national broadcaster’s hugely popular daytime dramas.

More than 20 million people are expected to tune in later this year to watch NHK’s Massan, a 15-minute story based on the tale of Masataka Taketsuru, founder of the renowned Nikka Whisky Distilling Co, and his wife Jessie Roberta, also known as Rita.

Massan, taken from the name Rita called her husband, will focus on the Japanese man who dreamed of producing a bottle of Japanese whisky and his Scottish wife.

The story of how the couple met and married in 1920 while Masataka was studying organic chemistry at Glasgow University, learning the secrets of making Scotch, is famous in Japan.

The pair are held in such high regard that there is a museum celebrating their life together, while a fan club devoted to Rita continues to make an annual pilgrimage to the couple’s distillery in Yoichi.

Born in 1896, Rita was a doctor’s daughter from Kirkintilloch on the outskirts of Glasgow. She was due to be married when her life was struck by tragedy: her fiance was killed in Damascus during the First World War, and, in 1918, her father died of a heart attack.

The following year, her mother decided to take in a lodger to help with the household finances, and Masataka, a student from Hiroshima, ­entered Rita’s life.

The 25-year-old had been sent to Scotland by his drinks company employer to crack the secret of how to make whisky successfully – working as an apprentice in distilleries across the country. The couple fell in love and, in January, 1920 they were married in ­Calton registry office.

Japanese whisky writer Misako Udo, author of The Scottish Whisky Distilleries, said that Rita had a pivotal role in Masataka achieving his dream.

“Without her, I don’t think he would have achieved what he did and would not have built his own distillery,” she said. “She helped him a lot both practically and emotionally.

“When Masataka Taketsuru was tasting whisky, Rita was there with him helping as well. When he was under a lot of stress, Rita supported him a lot.”

The whisky-maker had broken off his engagement to his boss’s daughter and was willing to stay in Scotland permanently, as he knew Rita suffered poor health, but she was equally committed to him and his career.

“Rita told him: ‘You must ­return to Japan, and if you marry me, I’ll go with you.’ That was a big step,” said Udo.

Despite not speaking a word of Japanese, in November, 1920, Rita returned. However, with Japan in recession, Masataka’s employer refused to ­invest in a costly whisky programme. Masataka resigned, and Rita took up teaching ­English to bring in money, all the while mastering the skills required to be the perfect ­Japanese housewife.

Udo said it was Rita’s commitment to Japan, her husband and his ambition that has made her story so enduring. It was not until 1934 that his first distillery in Yoichi was completed and a further six years before Masataka finally produced the first bottles of Nikka whisky.

The distillery prospered under import bans on Scottish whisky and despite an abiding homesickness – she visited Scotland for the last time in 1931 – Rita stayed the course. She passed away in January 1961 after a long battle with liver disease. She and her husband are now buried together on a hill close to the distillery.

But their legacy lives on: in recent years, Nikka’s whisky has consistently been named as one of the best in the world, while Yoichi’s main road is named “Rita Road”.

According to Udo, before it has even been broadcast, the show is already having an effect: “Producers wanted to connect Japan and Scotland together through Rita, show their similarities. I’ve already received a few inquiries from people in Japan asking to see the places in Scotland that are associated with Rita.”