Japanese Nikka Whisky

Nikka Whisky

This is the story of the life of a legendary couple intertwined with the history of one of Japan's best known whiskies.


“THE VISIONARY” (20/06/1894 – 29/08/1979)

Masataka Taketsuru, seen as the father of Japanese whisky, was born in 1894 into a family that had been sake producers since 1733.

After training as a chemist, he was hired by an Osaka-based company, Settsu Shuzo, which was planning to produce a Japanese whisky. The young Taketsuru was therefore sent to Scotland in 1919 in order to acquire the necessary technical knowledge and a minimum of experience. He studied at Glasgow University, where he learned about the art of blending and distilling. He quickly became passionate about this Celtic spirit, and decided to devote his life to it. His dream was to create a malt distillery in Japan.

When he returned to Japan in 1920, he realised that the project for which he had been recruited was not going to see the light of day. And, following the 1922 stock market crash, he lost his job. A year later, he joined the Kotobukiya group, for which he built a distillery close to Kyoto. This is how he became the father of the very first Japanese whisky in 1924. In 1934, he decided to strike out on his own. Masataka Taketsuru remembered from his experience in Scotland that the environment was essential for producing a quality whisky.

He was a visionary who created the company Nippo Kaju and undertook the construction of the Yoichi distillery on Hokkaido. In 1939, he began his first blends. War broke out, but this did not stop him from bringing out his first bottle in 1940. In 1952, the company definitively adopted the name Nikka Whisky. His growing success enabled him to establish a second distillery in 1969 on the island of Honshu close to the city of Sendai. Masataka Taketsuru died ten years later, aged 85.


“THE MUSE” (14/12/1896 – 17/01/1961)

Jessie Roberta Cowan, a Scotswoman born in Glasgow, met Masataka Taketsuru in 1919 in Scotland. He was teaching martial arts to her brother. It was love at first sight. The two fell madly in love, and married in January 1920 in Glasgow. They lived in Campbeltown for a few months – close to the Hazelburn distillery where Masataka was continuing his training – before moving permanently to Japan. Jessie was warmly welcomed. She changed her name to Rita and became perfectly integrated in Japan. She mastered the language in just a few months.

She was a resolutely modern and determined woman, and did not hesitate to take on a job teaching English when her husband became unemployed in 1923. She also accepted to live alone for a while when he went to live in utter poverty in Yoichi to supervise the building of the distillery. Throughout her life, Rita provided loyal support to her husband and his vision to establish whisky in Japan. She was able to contribute even more due to the fact the couple was childless. Later in life, they adopted one of Masataka's nephews, Takeshi, whose family perished at Hiroshima.

Above and beyond that catastrophe, the Second World War was a difficult time for Rita. She was seen as an "enemy" in a nationalist context, and was obviously torn between the two worlds. At the end of the war, she became one of the main architects of the reconciliation between Japan and the United Kingdom. Yoichi and Kirkintilloch, her hometown, are now twinned.

More than the success of her husband, her history and personality made her an extremely popular figure in Japan during her lifetime. She passed away in 1961, aged 65, without ever having returned to Scotland, or even Europe.
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