A love story that lies behind Japan’s first whisky

Food & Drink - January 28th, 2014

Masataka Taketsuru and Rita Cowan made history when they brought whisky to Japan. But the woman at Masataka’s side caught the attention of many for her role in helping him realize his dream. More than 50 years after Rita’s death, her story is set for a retelling on the small screen.

Massan, an upcoming TV series by Japanese national broadcaster NHK, will portray the life of Masataka and Rita, the couple who introduced whisky to Japan.

The pair first met in 1919, when Masataka, then a 25-year-old chemistry student at Glasgow University and working for the Settsu Shuzo Company, took up lodging in the Cowan household in Kirkintilloch, Scotland. Masataka had been sent to Scotland by his company to learn whisky-making techniques and bring them back to Japan, and he was engaged to his employer’s daughter. Neither knew that their first meeting would change the course of their lives.

During his stay, Masataka learned the secrets of making whisky successfully and his romance with Rita flourished.

Masataka had broken off his engagement to his boss’s daughter in Japan and was willing to stay in Scotland permanently. But Rita was supportive of Masataka’s career and urged him to return to his country.

Despite not speaking a word of Japanese and her poor health, Rita went to Japan with Masataka in November 1920; the couple had married that year in January.

Toasted as the first lady of Japanese whisky industry, Rita played a key role in inspiring her husband to realize his dream.

“Without her, I don’t think he would have achieved what he did and would not have built his own distillery,” said Japanese whisky writer Misako Udo, author of The Scottish Whisky Distilleries. “She helped him a lot both practically and emotionally.”

She has long captivated thousands, including a fan club devoted to Rita which makes an annual pilgrimage to the couple’s distillery in Yoichi.

Masataka built his own distillery in 1934 in Yoichi. He produced the first bottles of Nikka whisky after six years. All throughout, Rita stayed by his side. She passed away in January 1961 after a long battle with liver disease. Her name continues to live on in another small way: Yoichi’s main road is called “Rita Road.”

Harry Hogan, Rita’s great-nephew, has said their story would make “a fabulous film of TV drama.” He will finally get too see that played out.

“My great-aunt was a remarkable lady and I’m always surprised at how few people in Scotland know about her.”

By Maesie Bertumen

Image: eyeonjapan.com/Flickr