The mother of Japanese whisky

The story of Nikka whisky is one of sacrifice, struggle and innovation, but also one of love. It all begins at the end of World War I, in an unlikely location over 5,000 miles from Japan.

In 1918, 24-year-old Masataka Taketsuru arrived in Glasgow from Hiroshima. He was there to study organic chemistry at Glasgow University and to learn the art of making whisky. His journey had been a long one – at the time, it took a month to sail from Japan to Scotland. He arrived into a country struggling with the post-war economic downturn, Spanish flu, and crippling levels of unemployment. Despite these challenges, Masataka settled quickly into a pattern of work and study. Soon he had found a place to stay, somewhere that felt like home.

The small town of Kirkintilloch, ten miles north of Glasgow, was home to the Cowan family. The Cowans had lived in relative comfort – their children were highly educated, interested in the arts and languages. But life was to change after the outbreak of the war. Rita, their oldest daughter, lost her fiancée, and her father died shortly afterwards. To make ends meet, Mrs Cowan and her three daughters decided to take in a lodger. Ignoring objections from their neighbours, they welcomed Masataka into their home. 

Evenings at the Cowan house were spent gathered around the piano, singing, laughing, and sharing stories and it wasn’t long before Rita and Masataka began to fall in love. By 1919, Masataka had begun a series of apprenticeships at various Scottish distilleries, but he took every opportunity to return to Kirkintilloch and see Rita. Despite opposition from her family, Rita and Masataka slipped away the following year and married at the local registry office. 

Masataka was prepared to make Scotland their home, but Rita was determined that her young husband should realise his ambition to open a distillery in Japan. Despite the fact that she had never been to Japan, didn’t speak the language and knew nothing of the customs and culture, she supported and encouraged Masataka to follow his dreams. 

Rita was quick to integrate herself into Japanese society, and was soon teaching English and piano. Masataka’s opportunity came in 1934, when the parents of one of Rita’s piano pupils agreed to finance Masataka’s dream. The couple chose Yoichi in the north of Japan as the perfect spot for their distillery, close to the sea and surrounded on three sides by mountains. It was not the obvious location for a distillery, but it was a landscape that reminded them of the land where their love had blossomed. It also had clean water, peat, and access to barley. 

They planted heather outside the distillery doors and by 1936, Masataka had begun production, making a rich and bold malt, reminiscent of the whisky he had learnt to make in Scotland. 

Masataka’s first whisky was launched in 1940. Finally, it seemed as if everything was falling into place. But Masataka and Rita’s happiness was not to last. The outbreak of the Second World War put Rita under increasing strain. Despite being a Japanese citizen, she was regarded with suspicion. The secret police believed she was a spy and accused her of sending radio messages to Allied submarines. The couple had to endure raids on their home, and even their neighbours shunned them, throwing stones at their house.  

It must have taken tremendous courage to stay strong during these years. When the war finally ended, life became more straightforward. Yoichi Distillery was flourishing – the army had developed a taste for Japanese whisky during the war, and soldiers stationed in Japan continued to enjoy it long after the war had ended. 

Today, Yoichi Distillery makes a variety of styles of whisky, although they maintain a focus on producing whiskies in the highland style, complex and rich, and with a hint of salt and smoke. Many of the fundamentals of production at Yoichi remain the same. They still use Masataka’s original strain of yeast, and their stills are coal-fired. 

Rita died in 1961 after a long struggle with liver disease. She was survived by her heartbroken husband for a further eighteen years. They are buried together on a hillside near the distillery. To this day, many people make the pilgrimage to their burial site, bringing with them heather, honey, oatcakes and haggis. They regard Rita as the mother of Japanese whisky, a brave and determined woman who encouraged her husband to follow his heart. 

 Katy Fennema, Whisky Ambassador

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