Intrigued by the chemistry of distillation – and especially of Scotland’s national drink – Masataka Taketsuru and his wife brought the art of whisky-making to Japan.
The whisky mystery
Masataka Taketsuru was born near Hiroshima in 1894 to a family of sake brewers. Brought up in a drinks-producing family, it was natural for him to get a job at a Japanese drinks firm after leaving school. The company he worked for was intrigued by Scottish whisky. Although the Japanese were now familiar with the methods for making other western drinks, such as beer and brandy, the art of distilling whisky was still unknown.
Masataka was sent to Scotland in 1918, but he made time to visit many of the wineries in San Francisco along the way. He arrived in December 1918 and immediately enrolled as a student at the University of Glasgow, taking courses in organic and applied chemistry. Over the next few years, he combined his studies with apprenticeships at many of the local whisky distilleries to learn the trade.
It was here that he met his wife, Rita Cowan. She was born in Kirkintilloch, near Glasgow, in 1896, as one of four children to the local doctor. She was comfortable in her family home until, in her twenties, two deaths rocked the family. Her fiancé was killed in Damascus during the First World War, and shortly after, her father died from a heart attack. Faced with grief and the loss of income provided by her father’s practice, Rita’s family took in a lodger – Masataka Taketsuru.
The two fell in love shortly after and married in a simple ceremony in 1920, despite opposition from family and neighbours who disapproved of their interracial marriage. They both moved to Japan the same year, and Masataka resumed his job at the drinks company he had worked for. However, he was disappointed – his managers were more interested in quickly-produced and cheaply-flavoured spirits than the complex whisky he desired to make.
Masataka resigned from the company and was supported for a while by Rita, who taught English to local children. News of his journey to Scotland had got around, and he was offered a job by Shinkjiro Torii, the founder of another drinks company. The Taketsurus moved to Yamakazi, near Kyoto, and it was there that Masataka produced Japan’s first whisky.
Although this was a great success for Masataka, he was not happy in Kyoto. He was constantly embroiled in disputes with Torii about how the whisky should be produced, which displeased his manager. He was eventually demoted from whisky production and put in charge of a beer factory in Yokohama, but, disillusioned again, he left the company. Once again, he was dependent on Rita’s English tuition for support.
Masataka realised that the only way to produce the high-quality whisky that he wanted would be to set up his own distillery, and Rita’s connections made this possible. For several years she had been tutoring the wife of Shotaro Kaga, a successful business owner. She introduced her husband’s plans to him, and he, along with two other investors, agreed to back Masataka’s business.
However, when they heard where Masataka wanted to set up his distillery, they nearly reconsidered. He had chosen Yoichi, a town on Japan’s most remote and undeveloped island, Hokkaido, as his base. But Masataka insisted that this was the only place in Japan with the barley, peat, coal, and spring water required to make proper whisky, and the investors relented. His company, Nikka Whisky, was set up in Yoichi in 1934 and began producing its first whisky in 1940.
While this was a happy time for both Rita and Masataka, the Second World War brought many challenges. Although Rita had become a Japanese citizen in the 1930s, as a foreigner she was frequently under suspicion. She was watched by secret police, who suspected her of possessing radio equipment to communicate with allied submarines and made frequent raids on her home. Later in the war, her neighbours and friends also isolated her and local children threw rocks at her house.
Despite the hostility of the town, the distillery prospered during the war. Japan’s Imperial Navy was a major market for imported Scotch whisky, but with exports from allied countries banned, the demand for native whisky soared. Masataka’s distillery was even classified as a war industry, which allowed it to be supplied with large amounts of precious barley and coal.
After the war, the Taketsurus continued to grow their business, opening further distilleries around the country. Unable to have children of their own but looking for an heir to inherit the business, they adopted Masataka’s nephew Takeshi, who married and had two children – grandchildren to the Taketsurus.
Rita’s health, however, declined, and she died in 1961 after suffering from liver disease and tuberculosis. Masataka was distraught, but went on to outlive his wife by 18 years. The company he founded still exists today, and its whisky is now regarded as among the best in the world.
Words by Stephen McCarthy
Images courtesy of Asahi Breweries
Published July 2014