EP29 Mother of Japanese Whiskey


Show Notes for episode 29 of our Podcast – Mother of Japanese Whiskey.

Story Notes

Mother of Japanese Whiskey
EP29 The Mother of Japanese Whiskey

Jessie Roberta Cowan was born in December 14, 1896 in Kirkintilloch, East Dunbartonshire, Scotland. Her father was a doctor in the village. She grew up the oldest of four children, two younger sisters and a brother. 

It’s said that Rita, as she was called, had a happy childhood. But, the death of her fiancé during the Great War and the death of her father in 1918 brought on more difficult times.

With the family in danger of losing their home, they decided to open up to lodgers. And with that, entered Masataka Taketsuru.

Masataka was from Hiroshima, and had come to study in Scotland in order to take back the secrets of Scottish Whiskey to make in Japan. He enrolled in the Universtiy of Glasgow, which just happened to be close by Kirkintilloch. He came to be known by the Cowan family because sister Ella attended universtiy with him and wanted Masataka to teach their younger brother Judo. 

So, Masataka moved into the Cowan family home as a lodger.

Rita Masataka
Rita Masataka in Kimono.

By some accounts, Rita and Masataka fell in love during a singing of Auld Lang Syne. Some accounts state that it was a Christmas pudding with a ring and sixpence (help me THomas) that led them to believe their future was with each other. I like to think that it was two people who recognized a beautiful spirit in each, two people that worked hard and recognized that together they could make anything happen. But, I am a romantic.

Rita and Masataka were married in January 1920. Now, being a romantic I wish that I could have said that their families were happy and supportive and glad for the marriage. However, both families were against it and Rita’s mother even requested the marriage be annulled.

Rita and Masataka stayed together and moved together to Japan. Now, Masataka had been sent by his company to learn about whiskey to bring back the knowledge and know how, but when he returned the economy wasn’t doing so well and his company decided to change directions. Masataka, disappointed with the direction and not giving up his dreams of making whiskey, resigned from the company.

Rita supported her husband by teaching English and piano lessons. And, she worked dillengelty to study Japanese too. She also learned to cook Japanese food and even took to wearing kimono. She tried her best to adapt to her new homeland.

In 1923, Masataka started a new job with the founder of Suntory, but left in 1929 due to creative differences.

Masataka decided to open his own whiskey brewery, and decided on Yoichi, in Hokkaido. The climate, landscape, and temperature was very similar to Scotland, and he knew that it would lend itself to a very nice whiskey, as he felt they were an inportant part of the process.

Now, Rita had been teaching the wife of XX since 1926, and this man just happened to be an investor. So, due to Rita’s teaching, Masataka had the capital to start his own brewery. 

Rita had been working on her Japanese for years and I read a rally interesting story – even though her Japanese by all accounts was about native Level, she had picked up a strong Kansai accent that was difficult for her staff in Hokkaido to understand!

Now, someday I do want to come back to tell more of this story, but today is Rita’s story.

Rita and Masataka were not able to have children of their own. I read somewhere during my research that perhaps Rita had suffered a miscarriage, but I am unable to find this documentation. But they did adopt a daughter named Rima, and also adopted their nephew in order to take over the family business. So Rita and Masataka did have children, and grandchildren as well.

It’s said that Rita was a kind yet strict grandmother, giving out sweets but also making sure her children and grandchildren (and other children for that matter!) speak proper polite Japanese to their elders. In fact, there is a nursery school named for her, one she started in 195?? One can imagine her bringing love and strictness to her teaching!

Now, the brewery was lucky – during World War 2, sanctions were made against imports from many countries, and the UK happened to be one of those. That meant – no whiskey could be imported. But with a growing tast for whiskey in Japan, the brewery became classified as a vital required operation and was given access to ingredients there were being rationed.

Rita, however, was not so lucky. Looked at as a potential spy, a previously welcomed member of her community, she then became mocked, feared, and even followed by the police who suspected her of working for the enemy. Mistrust from her neighbors must have been a heavy burden to bear. Rita stayed strong through it all, and continued holding her head up and carrying on with her life. 

After the war, life settled back down. The brewery had made a good profit during the war and sales continued to increase. 

However, in 1961 Rita died from liver disease. Masataka would outlive his wife for 18 years. 

Rita’s story was not forgotten. There is a Rita road in Yoichi, and there was even a daily drama on NHK that told a paraphrase of her story. And I found out that there is even a Rita Taketsuru fan club that makes the journey to her grave each year, which since she died in January in Hokkaido isn’t an easy journey! 

I have given you a bite sized history of Rita’s life, but I hope you will explore further into this extraordinary woman’s life. If you want to learn more about Rita’s life, please visit these sites!

Poem Notes

Bashō we know was born in Iga Province, now Mie Prefecture (Honshu) in the city of Ueno, in 1644. His father was Yozaemon and as Bashō grew up he ended up with 6 siblings.

Growing up he had the name of Kinsaku. And after his coming of age ceremony he was known as Chūemon as well as Tōshichirō.


sake nomeba
itodo nerarene
yoru no yuki

As I drink my wine,
Sleep eludes me still
On this snow-swept night.


Feature Image: Rita with her husband Taketsuru.

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And another for other creative endeavours!

Heavenly Spear