Scotch enthusiasts found it hard to swallow recently when a Japanese single malt was named the world’s best whisky. But the fact that a Scot played a key role in establishing the hard stuff in Japan may make that news more palatable for some.
Jessie Roberta Cowan, from Kirkintilloch, had little idea how much her life was going to change when a young Japanese man took up lodgings at her family home in 1918.
Masataka Taketsuru had come to Scotland to study the art of whisky-making, taking up chemistry at Glasgow University before becoming an apprentice at Longmorn Distillery in Speyside and later at Hazelburn Distillery in Campbeltown.
Masataka and Jessie – who was known as Rita – soon formed a strong bond and on 8 January 1920 they married in a Glasgow registry office.
It was the beginning of a long journey that was to end with Rita becoming known as the mother of Japanese whisky.
Shortly after their marriage, Rita followed her husband back to Japan as he pursued his dream of building his own distillery.
By 1923 he was in Kyoto, working for Kotobukiya – later to become Japanese drinks giant Suntory – tasked with building Japan’s first genuine whisky plant at Yamazaki. A decade later, he prepared to start up his own distillery at Yoichi, marking the beginnings of what was to become major Japanese drinks business Nikka.
Rita’s role in helping Masataka produce his first whisky in 1940 cannot be underestimated, according to Nikka Whisky international sales manager Emiko Kaji.
“Rita played a very important role in Masataka’s life work,” she said.
“She provided not only moral support but also financial support when they had a difficult time.
“She made every effort to adopt herself to the Japanese culture and stay with him all the time, even during the world war.”
Mr Kaji added: “It is said that she was good at Japanese cooking and served traditional Japanese dishes. Her income from teaching English and piano sometimes helped the household. Rita’s network through the job also connected Masataka with other investors to establish his own company. Masataka could not have overcome a lot of difficulties without loyal support by Rita.”
Yoichi was a world away from the bustling city of Kyoto. Based on the northernmost main island of Japan, Hokkaido, it offered a much more isolated way of life.
But Masataka saw it as the perfect place to build a distillery.
Colin Ross, from the Nikka-owned Ben Nevis distillery at Fort William, said: “He chose Yoichi because it looked a lot like Scotland, felt like Scotland and the temperature was much the same as here.”
Rita launched herself into Japanese culture, speaking only Japanese and following local traditions, but her life was to change during World War Two.
Her great-nephew Harry Hogan, from Newton Mearns in East Renfrewshire, said: “I think during the second world war it was very difficult because a lot of the Japanese turned against them – against her particularly. The story goes that even her own (adopted Japanese) daughter turned against her slightly because of the fact that she was British.”
According to Urs Matthias Zachmann, head of Asian Studies at the University of Edinburgh, the Japanese authorities also made life difficult for her.
He said: “Their house was searched because they had an antenna on the rooftop and the special police thought that she might be a spy, contacting British or Russian forces, whatever. It has been said that the company workers tried to speak on her behalf and defend her.”
But Rita stayed put and the Yoichi distillery soon prospered as the Japanese appetite for genuine whisky grew in the face of a wartime import ban.
Rita died at the age of 63 in 1961, but her legacy lives on in Yoichi, whose main street is named Rita Road.
She is also far from forgotten in her adopted nation as a whole. The story of her relationship with the man who became known as the father of Japanese whisky has just hit the small screen in Japan.
TV drama Massan is a fictionalised account of Rita’s travels to Japan and Masataka’s attempts to begin the Nikka Whisky distilling company, which is now owned by drinks group Asahi. The show has quite literally lifted spirits at the business.
Nikka Whisky International Sales Manager Emiko Kaji said: “We have been experiencing a kind of ‘Nikka boom’ or ‘whisky boom’ since the NHK drama Massan started at the end of September. Our domestic sales are growing by almost 20% and the number of the visitors to Yoichi distillery in 2014 increased by 50% compared with the previous year.”
Masataka died in August 1979 at the age of 85 and was laid to rest beside his wife in Yoichi. Rita’s life may have ended in 1961 – but for many Japanese, her spirit lives on.