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The Woman Who Took Whisky to Japan: Remembering Rita Cowan Taketsuru

Tony McNicol [Profile]


The story of the award-winning, globally known Nikka Whisky brand all began in a small town near Glasgow, where a doctor’s daughter met an ambitious young Japanese chemist. traveled to Kirkintilloch to trace the footsteps of Rita Taketsuru.

“When I was younger, I just knew that my great aunt lived in Japan,” says Harry Hogan. It was only later, he confides, that he became intrigued by his family’s remarkable history. 

In the office of his family-run catering company near Glasgow in Scotland, photos are spread out across the table before us. There is also a small collection of memorabilia from Japan: books, magazines, videos, even a manga comic. They all feature his great aunt.

Rita Taketsuru (second left) visits her mother (far right) in Scotland, 1931. Pictured with niece Valerie (far left) and daughter Rima (center). (© Tony McNicol)

She was none other than Rita Taketsuru (née Cowan), wife of Taketsuru Masataka, the founder of Nikka whisky. For four decades she helped her husband build one of Japan’s most successful and best-known whisky distilleries.

One of the photos shows Rita on a visit to Scotland in 1931. She is sitting on a sofa with a small girl on her knee: Hogan’s mother Valerie. Hogan’s grandmother, Lucy, was Rita’s younger sister. 

Sitting next to Rita is Rima, the adopted daughter she had brought back to Scotland to meet her own mother, who is also in the photo. It was the second and last time Rita would return to visit Scotland.

Unlikely Beginnings

Jessie Roberta “Rita” Cowan was born in 1896 in the town of Kirkintilloch, near Glasgow. According to Olive Checkland’s book Japanese Whisky, Scotch Blend, the most detailed account of Rita’s life, she had a happy childhood. She was the daughter of a local doctor, and with her three siblings lived in one of the town’s finest houses. But her coming of age coincided with the later stages of World War I.

Many young men of her generation were killed in the Great War, including the man she had been engaged to marry. Then, in 1918 her father died of a heart attack, and the family quickly found itself in difficult financial straits. Checkland records that Rita’s father, Dr. Samuel Cowan, was owed £514—then a considerable sum—by 400 patients when he died. With the family breadwinner gone, Rita’s mother even considered selling the nine-bedroom home.

Taking in a lodger was an ordinary enough way to help make ends meet, and the family did just that. But there was nothing ordinary about the man who came to live with them. He was a young, fiercely ambitious Japanese chemist named Taketsuru Masataka. Rita’s younger sister Ella had met him at Glasgow University, where she was studying medicine, and invited him to the house to teach judo to their brother, Campbell.

It’s tempting to imagine reasons that the young couple became attracted to one another. Masataka may well have been lonely so far from home. Perhaps Rita felt trapped by her difficult family situation, making the handsome, exotic, and earnest Masataka appear as a ticket to an exciting new life. 

They fell in love and were married in 1920, though the Taketsuru family—from a long line of wealthy and well-connected Hiroshima sake brewers—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.

Close Family Ties

Of her siblings, Rita was closest to her sister Lucy. “My grandmother was a great letter writer,” recalls Hogan. “Rita was always in contact with Lucy.” In fact, Lucy was the only member of the family to visit the Taketsurus in Japan, making the long trip in 1959, just two years before Rita’s death.

Harry Hogan (seated, center left) and mother Valerie visiting members of the Taketsuru family in Japan in 1998. They were welcomed by Rita and Masataka’s adopted son, Takeshi (far left). (© Tony McNicol)

Hogan’s grandmother was also close to the Taketsurus’ adopted son Takeshi, who went on to run Nikka Whisky. Hogan remembers that Takeshi’s itinerary on his regular visits to Britain would include both the company’s London office and a trip to a distillery still owned by the company in northwest Scotland. He would visit Lucy on the way, arriving at her modest home in a limousine with a large company entourage. 

Members of Hogan’s family have been in contact with Nikka Whisky and the Taketsuru family for many years. In 1998, he and his mother Valerie travelled to Japan at the invitation of the company. They visited the town of Yoichi in Hokkaidō and attended the opening of the Nikka Whisky Museum there.

  • [2014.09.18]

Tony McNicol is a writer, photographer, and translator. Having spent 15 years living in Japan, he is now based in the South West of England. His work can be seen at

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