Behind every good man is a great woman
That’s the saying, right, or something like that. However, we get the point of it all. Jessie Roberta Cowan, known as Rita Taketsuru, the mother of Japanese Whisky, was this great woman behind Masataka Taketsuru- the founder of Nikka Japanese Whisky and the first Japanese Whisky distiller.
Rita met Masataka in her native land of Scotland while Masataka was studying at University. Masataka stayed at Rita’s family home while attending school and being an apprentice at three different distilleries.
During this time, Rita and Masataka fell deeply in love. Despite heavy opposition from both sides of the family, they married in Scotland in 1920. Soon after, Rita went with her husband back to Japan to live out his dream of distilling Whisky.
Like every great story, though, it wasn’t all rainbows and unicorns. Masataka was to make Whisky for Settsu Shuzo, who invested in Masataka to learn in Scotland, dissolved because of the effects of WW1. Masataka then met Tori San, owner of Kotobukiya, what is now known as Suntory. Tori persuaded Masataka to help build and oversee the first whisky distillation plant in Japan. Masataka would put his dreams on hold for ten years.
Dreams no longer on hold
In 1934 Masataka and Rita opened the original Nikka distillation plant in Yochi. A small province on the northwest side of the country. Yochi reminded Masataka of Scotland and the ideal climate to produce his Japanese Whisky.
Through this whole time, Rita stood by Masataka as moral support and played a vital role in giving Nikka WhiskyWhisky a fighting chance. Rita fully embraced Japanese culture. Becoming fluent in the language and only speaking Japanese. She became quite a good cook of the cuisine and followed Japanese traditions. Rita also helped out financially to get them through rough times. She taught English and piano lessons. Through these teaching connections, they got investors into the Nikka company. Rita played a vital role in the success of Nikka. During WW2, however, she faced significant opposition. She was often accused of being a spy for the British government. They had their home searched because they had an antenna. Some even say their adopted daughter turned on her slightly because Ritta was British. Even though this, Ritta stood the course with Masataka. Their Whisky grew more because of the war and trade restrictions. Factory workers did try to defend Rita throughout the war.
Rita passed away at the age of 63 in 1961. Her legacy as the mother of Japanese Whisky lives on in Yochi. They have even named the main road there Rita Road.
Japanese Whisky – Coffey with a ‘Y’ distilled
The Nikka Japanese Whisky brand now has two distilleries. The original in Yoichi and the second in Miyagikyo. Miyagikyo, which opened in 1964, is located by two rivers. One of which is the primary water source for making the Whisky distilled there. Masataka wanted the second location to bring a distinctly different taste to their line of Whisky. Here he imported a Coffey still – which originated in Scotland by Mr. Aeneas Coffey in 1830. Scotland is where Masataka first worked and was introduced to this still type. They heat the still with steam instead of coals like the Yoichi distillery. This type of still, although inefficient, allows the Whisky to retain more of the grain’s natural flavors.
The Nikka Japanese Whisky brand has Coffey varieties, Coffey Grain and Coffey Malt. Both truly showcase the distinctive Coffey distilling process capabilities.
Japanese spirits and liquor association put the current labeling standards for Japanese Whisky into effect a little over a year ago, February 16, 2021. Specific criteria distinguish a ‘Japanese Whisky’ and must be printed on the label. Unfortunately, the version I have today does not meet these newly established standards. “Due to a part of the old batches in the formula was made from distillates imported from Ben Nevis and distilled in the Coffey still as part of an experiment in the past” (https://www.nikka.com/eng/brands/coffey-grain-malt/) You can learn more about the history of Nikka distillery through a new show Massan, that has reignited the intrigue of the Taketsuru family.
Whisky different ways you can find here!
Nonetheless still taste fantastic and is still Japanese Whisky. Definitely at a higher price point than my usual, but it damn sure tastes like it. I didn’t make a cocktail out of this, as I wanted the spirit to bask in its glory. A simple old fashioned with this would be excellent as well. You can find a fun variation here. Or a simple hot toddy, less lemon to let the whisky shine like this one. Or a traditional drink for a Japanese whisky, the high ball we did here. A great place to try different types of Whisky in little tasters is Flavir. There you can have a little taster or you can get a whole bottle of one of Nikka’s brands. Nikka can also be found at most local liquor stores.
Either way, you enjoy this magical liquid; it’s worth the price tag, in my opinion. On a big old block of ice or neat, it’s your choice. And I assure you both are well worth options – all made possible by a man and a solid woman behind him encouraging and supporting in every way possible.
May we all be the light of encouragement to everyone around us. You never know what it could turn into! Thank you, Rita, for embracing a culture not your own, for supporting your loved ones, and being a fundamental contributor to Nikka Japanese Whisky and Japanese Whisky as a whole.
*Information sourced from the following sites;