At exactly a 100 years ago today on January 8, 1920 Jessie Roberta ‘Rita’ Cowan married her mother’s Japanese lodger at the Calton registry office in Glasgow. It wasn’t the man she loved at first but the freedom that would come with the marriage.
For years I have been full of admiration of one woman who has always been in the sinews of whisky history. Jessie Roberta Cowan was only in her 20s when two events would definitely mark her life. During World War I, her fiance was killed in Damascus, and then, in 1918, her father, the local GP Dr. Samuel Cowan, died of a heart attack. In the following months, Jessie’s mum Robina realized action had to be taken fast if she wanted to keep the bailiffs from their family home in the town of Kirkintilloch some 12 km northeast of central Glasgow. So it was then the Cowan family decided to take in a lodger in their large nine-bedroom home.
A whisky man
The lodger was named Masataka Taketsuru who had previously enrolled at Glasgow University as a chemistry student. The real reason Masataka had come to Scotland was his interest in the making of whisky. And it was in fact Rita’s younger sister Ella who had met him at Glasgow University, where she was studying medicine, and invited him to the house to teach judo to their brother, Campbell.
Jessie, who was known as Rita, had little idea how much her life was going to change when she got acquainted with this ambitious young man from Hiroshima. They fell in love and were married in 1920, though the Taketsuru family was against his unconventional choice of wife. Rita’s mother wasn’t impressed either, and when she found out about the marriage, she asked for it to be annulled. Nevertheless, the young couple left for their new life in Japan in November 1920.
Mother of Japanese whisky
Eventually Rita Cowan would get famous as the Mother of Japanese whisky and Japanese First Lady of whisky. She and her husband founded Dai Nihon Kaju firm in 1934 – now called Nikka Whisky and built a distillery at Yoichi, on the island of Hokkaido. She remains a legend in her adopted homeland. There is a museum which honours the couple’s memory, in Yoichi – including a recreation of their living room. One of Rita’s kimonos and other amazing artefacts are on permanent display in her hometown at Kirkintilloch Town Hall.
Please, read her life story in a wonderful recording by Olive Checkland called Japanese whisky, Scotch blend : Masataka Taketsuru, the Japanese whisky king and Rita, his Scotch wife (Scottish Cultural Press). And if you’re interested in the popular retelling of the story (Massan) of Rita and her Japanese husband Masataka Taketsuru by Japan’s national broadcaster NHK read Chris Bunting’s post on his whisky website Nonjatta.
Translation Japanse text ‘Love and whisky’ image Mrs. An Vanbockrijck (Sasaworks, Belgium)