The Story of Japanese Whisky
霍根辦公室的桌上擺放著幾幅照片，還有日本的書籍、雜誌、錄影帶和漫畫。每一樣東西都會讓人回憶起他的大伯母。她就是竹鶴莉塔（Rita Taketsuru，1896－1961年）。這位英國女性與Nikka Whisky創始人竹鶴政孝結婚，直至Nikka成長為日本首屈一指的威士忌製造商的40年間，一直扶助著自己的丈夫。
Jessie Roberta Cowan（暱稱：Rita）於1896年出生在格拉斯哥附近的Kirkintilloch。Olive Checkland撰寫的《Japanese Whisky, Scotch Blend》詳細介紹了莉塔的一生，據該書記載，莉塔與醫生的父親Samuel Cowan、母親和三個兄弟姐妹一起住在堪稱小鎮上最美麗建築之一的住宅裏，度過了幸福的少女時代。
為貼補家用而收留房客或許是通常的做法。而當時來到莉塔家的卻是一個有些不同尋常的男子，他就是充滿激情的年輕日本釀造技師竹鶴政孝。莉塔的妹妹Ella在格拉斯哥大學（University of Glasgow）學醫時認識了政孝，邀請他到家裏教弟弟柔道。
Lucy與後來繼承了Nikka Whisky經營工作的竹鶴夫婦養子竹鶴威關係也不錯。據說威會定期訪問英國，視察Nikka Whisky的倫敦事務所和公司旗下位於蘇格蘭的蒸餾廠，還經常與一幫隨從的部下乘坐加長車前往Lucy樸素的家中拜訪。
事情源於曾任地方議員的Bobby Coyle注意到了鎮公所外的日本遊客團隊。由於當時到訪小鎮的日本人還不是那麼多，所以Coyle帶著好奇心向他們詢問了來訪的原因，這才知道他們是Nikka Whisky的員工。他們到這裏是為了參觀當時已經用作鎮公所的舊Cowan住宅。1987年3月4日的當地報紙以「為何日本人喜歡到Kirky來？——感動了東洋島國的少女」為題，大篇幅報道了這個故事。
之後，Kirkintilloch與余市町的交流便一直持續到了今天。1988年，Strathkelvin市（Kirkintilloch的下轄市，現在的East Dunbartonshire市）和余市町結為了日英之間首對姊妹城市。為了紀念這一事件，Strathkelvin市的議員代表團訪問了余市町。當地議員Diane Campbell告訴我：「據說當時余市町的人們穿著蘇格蘭短裙演奏風笛，對議員團表示了歡迎。」
一家蘇格蘭的小型博物館展示和服是非常罕見的事情。儘管如此，但並不是所有觀眾都感興趣，甚至有些人投予了嚴苛的目光。East Dunbartonshire市博物館振興主管官員Peter McCormack表示：「也有一些女性認為（日本的）和服是服從與束縛的象徵。但我認為莉塔的和服是體現英國與日本友好關係的珍貴藝術品。」
我去霍根的事務所時帶上了一瓶Nikka「PURE MALT BLACK」。遞上酒去，霍根馬上準備了玻璃杯。「口感爽滑可口」——如此評論之後，他說要送我禮物，然後從辦公室一個角落的餐具架子上拿出了一個紅色小箱子。裏面放著Nikka在蘇格蘭最高峰腳下擁有的Ben Nevis蒸餾廠生產的調和威士忌（Blended Whisky）及品酒杯。這是他經常用來贈送給客戶和工作夥伴的禮物。
箱子表面用金色文字寫著「家族威士忌（The family whisky）」。
“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.
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.
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.
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.
Putting “Kirky” on the Map
Rita’s hometown of Kirkintilloch—better known locally as Kirky—doesn’t have too many claims to fame. Its best-known son is Thomas Muir, the eighteenth century political reformer, and until the early 1980s few in the town knew it had a famous daughter too—albeit mainly famous in Japan.
But things changed when a local council official named Bobby Coyle spotted a group of Japanese tourists outside the council’s chambers. Intrigued, because it was rare for the town to welcome Japanese travelers, Coyle enquired as to why they were there. He quickly learned they were a group of Nikka employees who had come to see the Cowan’s old family home, Middlecroft, which was at the time serving as the local council offices.
The story is recorded in a double-page feature in the local newspaper, dated March 4, 1987. The headline was: “Why the Japanese Have Such a Yen for Kirky: The Lass Who Caused a Stir in the Orient.”
So began a special relationship between the distant towns of Kirkintilloch and Yoichi that continues today. In 1988, the Strathkelvin council (which governed the district that then included Kirkintilloch) signed a twin town agreement with Yoichi, the first such agreement between Britain and Japan. To mark the occasion, a delegation from the council travelled to Yoichi. “Apparently, they were greeted by a fully-kilted pipe band,” says councilor Diane Campbell.
When new council offices were built in 1985, the Cowans’ elegant former home Middlecroft was demolished, despite some apparent talk of Nikka Whisky wanting to disassemble it brick-by-brick and ship it to Hokkaido. A purple-painted nightclub called Tantra now stands close to the spot.
All for Love
So it is that probably Kirkintilloch’s strongest remaining physical link to Rita is a kimono and obi sash she once owned. Presented to the town in the 1980s, they are now on display in the local Auld Kirk Museum.
Peter McCormack, the museums development officer of the East Dunbartonshire council, says that the small display on Rita was only set up this July. With an NHK drama based on Rita’s life scheduled to begin soon, he’s hopeful the town might become a destination for some of Scotland-bound Japanese tourists. “Glasgow, Edinburgh, Kirkintilloch,” he jokes.
A kimono is, perhaps, an unusual item to find in a small Scottish museum. Many visitors are intrigued, although some take a somewhat stern view, says McCormack. “Some women see the kimono as a symbol of compliance and fitting in,” he explains, “but I see it as an interesting social artefact for the relationship of friendship between two countries.”
Certainly, locals are intrigued by the town’s unexpected link with Japan. “It’s a wee story,” he says. “People are interested in it.” Having said that said, he does note that there is an element of chagrin involved too. The story is, after all, about Scotland “giving whisky away to the world.”
“At least it was done for love rather than industrial espionage,” McCormack concludes. “It’s nice to think that it was done by a woman who was supporting her husband through thick and thin.”
NHK’s upcoming drama will focus on the many challenges that Rita had to face in a far and foreign land. “They had to bob and weave to make ends meet,” says Harry Hogan. “It was pretty tough in the early stages.”
Whisky Empire with a Century-Long Heritage
Almost a century after Rita and Masataka met, though, the fruits of their struggles are available in Glasgow’s well-stocked whisky shops and bars and around Britain. When the young Taketsuru arrived in Glasgow—probably the first Japanese person ever to study whisky making—who could have imagined that his whisky would one day be holding its own against Scotland’s best?
That success has prompted more interest in Rita of late, says Hogan. “The whisky has done it—a few articles about how the Japanese are beating the Scots at their own game.”
I’ve brought a bottle of Nikka Pure Malt Black with me to Hogan’s office. It doesn’t take long for him to find a whisky glass.
“Very smooth, very nice,” he says.
But then, to my great surprise, he tells me that he has something for me too. He opens up a cupboard in the corner of the office and takes out small red box. It’s a blended whisky and tasting glass gift set from the Nikka-owned Ben Nevis distillery set at the foot of Scotland’s highest peak. Hogan had them made as presents for clients and associates of his company.
Something catches my eye among the gold lettering on the box.
“The family whisky,” it says.
(Banner image: Taketsuru Mastaka and his wife, Rita.)
The Scottish mother of Japanese whisky
Scotch enthusiasts found it hard to swallow recently when a Japanese single malt was named the world's best whisky. But the fact that a Scot played a key role in establishing the hard stuff in Japan may make that news more palatable for some.
Jessie Roberta Cowan, from Kirkintilloch, had little idea how much her life was going to change when a young Japanese man took up lodgings at her family home in 1918.
Masataka Taketsuru had come to Scotland to study the art of whisky-making, taking up chemistry at Glasgow University before becoming an apprentice at Longmorn Distillery in Speyside and later at Hazelburn Distillery in Campbeltown.
Masataka and Jessie - who was known as Rita - soon formed a strong bond and on 8 January 1920 they married in a Glasgow registry office.
It was the beginning of a long journey that was to end with Rita becoming known as the mother of Japanese whisky.
Shortly after their marriage, Rita followed her husband back to Japan as he pursued his dream of building his own distillery.
By 1923 he was in Kyoto, working for Kotobukiya - later to become Japanese drinks giant Suntory - tasked with building Japan's first genuine whisky plant at Yamazaki.
A decade later, he prepared to start up his own distillery at Yoichi, marking the beginnings of what was to become major Japanese drinks business Nikka.
Rita's role in helping Masataka produce his first whisky in 1940 cannot be underestimated, according to Nikka Whisky international sales manager Emiko Kaji.
"Rita played a very important role in Masataka's life work," she said.
"She provided not only moral support but also financial support when they had a difficult time.
"She made every effort to adopt herself to the Japanese culture and stay with him all the time, even during the world war."
Mr Kaji added: "It is said that she was good at Japanese cooking and served traditional Japanese dishes.
"Her income from teaching English and piano sometimes helped the household.
"Rita's network through the job also connected Masataka with other investors to establish his own company.
"Masataka could not have overcome a lot of difficulties without loyal support by Rita."
Yoichi was a world away from the bustling city of Kyoto. Based on the northernmost main island of Japan, Hokkaido, it offered a much more isolated way of life.
But Masataka saw it as the perfect place to build a distillery.
Colin Ross, from the Nikka-owned Ben Nevis distillery at Fort William, said: "He chose Yoichi because it looked a lot like Scotland, felt like Scotland and the temperature was much the same as here."
Rita launched herself into Japanese culture, speaking only Japanese and following local traditions, but her life was to change during World War Two.
Her great-nephew Harry Hogan, from Newton Mearns in East Renfrewshire, said: "I think during the second world war it was very difficult because a lot of the Japanese turned against them - against her particularly.
"The story goes that even her own (adopted Japanese) daughter turned against her slightly because of the fact that she was British."
According to Urs Matthias Zachmann, head of Asian Studies at the University of Edinburgh, the Japanese authorities also made life difficult for her.
He said: "Their house was searched because they had an antenna on the rooftop and the special police thought that she might be a spy, contacting British or Russian forces, whatever.
"It has been said that the company workers tried to speak on her behalf and defend her."
But Rita stayed put and the Yoichi distillery soon prospered as the Japanese appetite for genuine whisky grew in the face of a wartime import ban.
Rita died at the age of 63 in 1961, but her legacy lives on in Yoichi, whose main street is named Rita Road.
She is also far from forgotten in her adopted nation as a whole.
The story of her relationship with the man who became known as the father of Japanese whisky has just hit the small screen in Japan.
TV drama Massan is a fictionalised account of Rita's travels to Japan and Masataka's attempts to begin the Nikka Whisky distilling company, which is now owned by drinks group Asahi.
The show has quite literally lifted spirits at the business.
Nikka Whisky International Sales Manager Emiko Kaji said: "We have been experiencing a kind of 'Nikka boom' or 'whisky boom' since the NHK drama Massan started at the end of September.
"Our domestic sales are growing by almost 20% and the number of the visitors to Yoichi distillery in 2014 increased by 50% compared with the previous year."
Masataka died in August 1979 at the age of 85 and was laid to rest beside his wife in Yoichi.
Rita's life may have ended in 1961 - but for many Japanese, her spirit lives on.