FROM THE VAULTS
A passion bottled
One of the whisky world’s greatest love stories concerns young Rita Cowan from Kirkintilloch, who fell in love with her family’s Japanese lodger Masataka Taketsuru and played a key role in his dream of creating a little bit of Scotland in Japan. Richard Goslan told their remarkable story in Unfiltered issue 46 from February 2020
Who knows what could have been going through the mind of young Rita Cowan in January 1920, when she stepped inside the registry office in Glasgow's Calton district to marry Masataka Taketsuru, her family's Japanese lodger.
Rita’s fiancé had recently been killed in the First World War, a tragedy followed all too quickly by the death of her father in 1918 following a heart attack. His loss left her family in some financial difficulties, so when Rita’s sister encountered a young student from Hiroshima at Glasgow University in early 1919, she invited him to take a room in their home in the Glasgow suburb of Kirkintilloch. The fact that Masataka could teach ju-jitsu to their little brother Campbell seems to have been a bonus.
Masataka had only arrived in Glasgow in December 1918, and in summer the following year, at the age of 24, he enrolled at the University of Glasgow on a course on organic chemistry. Six months later he and Rita travelled into the city’s east end with only two witnesses to make what was known then as a “marriage of declaration” – a regular church wedding was never an option, given the opposition to the union from both Rita and Masataka’s parents.
ABOVE: Masataka’s matriculation card from Glasgow University
Masataka Taketsuru learning his trade in Scotland
The Cowan household in Kirkintilloch where Rita and Masataka met
A DISTILLED TIMELINE
Did Rita have any sense of where her life was leading? Shortly after their marriage, the couple moved to Campbeltown, where Masataka took up an apprenticeship at Hazelburn distillery for five months.
By the end of 1920 – barely a year after meeting Masataka – she had sailed out of Scotland and arrived via the United States to a new life in Japan.
“Masataka Taketsuru wasn’t your average fresher student,” says Professor Alan Wolstenholme, chair of the Scottish Distillers Association – and whose grandfather Peter Innes was the distillery manager at Hazelburn when it took on its Japanese apprentice. “He was clearly a man on a mission, to study the practice of Scotch whisky distilling and absorb as much information as he could.
“By the time he came to Campbeltown, he’d already spent time at Longmorn on Speyside and then at Bo’ness grain distillery, and then learned about batch distillation at the hand of my grandfather at Hazelburn.”
On arrival back in Japan with his new wife and armed with hugely detailed notebooks on distillation, not everything went immediately to plan for Masataka and Rita. His sponsor, the sake and shochu company Settsu Shuzo, decided not to pursue its goal of producing Scotch-style whisky, citing the post-war economic depression. While Rita helped to support themselves by teaching English and piano, Masataka found a position with Kotobukiya – later Suntory – to lead the project to build Japan’s first whisky distillery, Yamazaki, near Kyoto. In 1929, Yamazaki released the first Japanese whisky – Shirofuda (White Label) – which didn’t go down well with Japanese drinkers.
“It just didn’t work, basically because it was too Scottish,” says whisky writer Dave Broom.
“It was considered too smoky, too heavy, and it was back to the drawing board for Yamazaki, to create a lighter whisky.
“But Masataka Taketsuru was still committed to creating more of a Scottish-style spirit.”
To do that would involve the next stage in Masataka and Rita’s adventure – the search for the ideal location to construct his own distillery.
Rita in various guises when she lived in Japan
FULFILLING A DREAM
That mission took them to the northern island of Hokkaido, a landscape with a similar climate and geography to Scotland. In Yoichi, Masataka founded his own company, Dai Nippon Kaju (The Great Japanese Juice company). It started out producing apple juice products, as a precursor to whisky distillation and the birth of Nikka whisky in 1940.
“When you look out from Yoichi, you could almost be standing in Campbeltown gazing across to Davaar Island,” says Nikka’s current chief blender, Tadashi Sakuma. “Masataka’s ambitions were inspired by Scotland and its whisky, and after looking all over Hokkaido he found what he was looking for in Yoichi. His master was Scotch, and that’s clear in the location as well as in the production, using small stills and the direct coal fire heating that we still use today.”
Rita’s role here can also not be underestimated – she had encouraged Masataka to return to Japan to fulfil his dream of creating his own whisky, she had helped to find investors for the new venture through her teaching work, and she had supported the move to the back-of-beyond location in Hokkaido.
“Her influence was absolutely vital,” says Dave Broom. “You have to remember that Hokkaido was a completely illogical place to build a whisky distillery in the 1930s, a long way from all the major markets and a real no-man’s-land.
If it wasn’t for Rita, the creation of the distillery at Yoichi wouldn’t have happened. But I think from an emotional point of view there was something about that place that spoke to them, and allowed their vision to come into focus – Masataka wanted to find his own Scotland in Japan.”
Japan’s first whisky distillery, built near Kyoto
A DOUBLE LIFE
That duality between Scotland and Japan continued through the rest of Masataka and Rita’s lives, where they lived in a house at Yoichi with both a typically furnished and decorated ‘Scottish-style’ sitting room with carpets and heavy furniture, next to a traditional Japanese room with straw tatami mats and low tables.
But while the name of Rita Cowan as the ‘mother of Japanese whisky’ is relatively unknown in Scotland, in Japan she is much more widely celebrated. That’s thanks in part to a hugely successful television drama called Massan about the couple that aired over 150 hours on the national broadcaster, NHK.
Ruth Herd, co-ordinator of Mandarin Chinese at Imperial College London is from Campbeltown – and lived in the same house that Masataka and Rita stayed in during his apprenticeship in 1920. She is writing a book focusing on the couple’s connection with her hometown, and is a devotee of the Massan series.
“I’ve watched it again and again, and have given seminars on the subject,” she says. “We have no idea how famous Rita Cowan is in Japan, but I also don’t think Scottish people are aware of the extent that Japanese people find Scotland fascinating in general, in various respects but of course in their devotion to whisky.”
For those who haven’t heard about what Dave Broom describes as “one of the great love stories of the 20th century”, there is plenty more to come through the course of this centenary year, with events planned at the Campbeltown Malts Festival in May and elsewhere in the country with connections to Masataka and Rita.
“It’s not only a whisky story, and it’s not only a business story,” says Dr Niall Mackenzie from the Adam Smith Business School at the University of Glasgow, who organised an event to mark the centenary of Masataka’s enrolment at the university.
“At its heart it’s a story about the bravery of both Masataka and Rita, about international relationships, about the challenges of love across continents and the longer-term engagement between Scotland and Japan.”
That’s something we can all drink to – whether it’s Scotch or a Japanese dram in your glass.
*Job titles and information were correct as of time of writing in 2019