There are many women without whom, the world of whisky as we know it, would not be the same. Bessie Williamson from Laphroaig, Elizabeth Cumming from Cardhu and one of my personal heroes, Margie Samuels of Markers Mark.
But there’s one you may not be so familiar with, whose story crosses oceans and social norms of the time and endures through a surprising but lasting legacy. Her name is Jessie Roberta Cowan, but everybody calls her Rita.
There’s a little more history and future history you need to know. Just after the end of the First World War, there was a young Japanese man who want to make whisky. Masataka Taketsuru would make his way to Scotland, where he would study chemistry in Glasgow and apprentice under the master distillers at Longmorn (Speyside) and eventually Hazelburn (now closed, in Campbeltown) distilleries. Eventually, the work that Masataka did in establishing Japan’s first true whisky distillery at Yamazaki would result in the Taketsuru Pure Malt (aged 17 years and named for Masataka) winning the World’s Best Blended Malt award at the World Whiskies Awards in 2015. The Yamazaki 18 year old won the Best Japanese Whisky award that year.
But what happened in between? In 1918, the Cowan family took Taketsuru in as a lodger and their daughter Jessie (known as Rita) fell in love with him. They formed a deep, strong bond and married just two years later. It was shortly after they married, Masataka was ready to return to Japan, with his English bride in tow.
As most things do, the dream of opening his own distillery took another decade to come to life. As Masataka was getting ready to start his distillery in Yoichi, the earliest beginnings of what would become Nikka, Rita’s role became vital. She provided not only emotional support but also financial during the hardest times. It’s said that through the networks she established teaching English and piano lessons, she helped find the investors that would form the company with Masataka. And throughout, even during the Second World War she embraced Japanese culture, speaking only Japanese and remained with Masataka, despite some hostility. Many Japanese people and the authorities made life challenging during that time, but Rita persevered. Even the distillery workers spoke on her behalf and defended her to those questioning whether or not she may have been a British spy.
Rita stayed and so did Nikka. The import ban of the War meant a boom for Japanese whisky and the distillery became very successful. Now, Japanese whisky has a well-earned place at the table for whisky lovers and shares a certain sense of determinedness with it’s Scottish ancestry. There is a shared story between these places and it centers on shared love – of malt and between a man and a woman.
Rita died in 1961 at the age of 63. Masataka lived another 18 years before he was buried beside his wife in August, 1979. But the mother and father of Japanese whisky live on in memory. The Japanese whisky business continues to boom and worldwide demand for their spirit is greater than ever.
So this is it. The Taketsuru Pure Malt (a non-age statement version). And here’s to drinking to a legend and a woman behind the bottle who loved and persevered. Happy Mother’s Day, Rita. Thanks for the malt.
There is a portion of this blend aged in sherry casks for richness, which comes through on the nose
Nose: There is a portion of this blend aged in sherry casks for richness, which comes through on the nose immediately. Then fruit – those typical sherry characteristics of plum and raisin, with the lighter notes of green apple, honey, cereal. There’s a hint of charcoal.
Palate: Sherry fruit, of course, that develops into chocolate, coffee and a hint of light cream and smoke at the end.
Finish: Smoky, grainy (the barley appears) and with a hint of that coffee bean.