The Remarkable Tale of Rita Cowan (Taketsuru) – The Mother of Japanese Whisky

Despite whisky having somewhat of a reputation for being a drink primarily enjoyed by men, you may be surprised to learn that there are numerous women who play a key role in the production and development of the drams we all know and love today. In fact, some of the Master Blenders responsible for some of our favourite whiskies here at the GreatDrams HQ are women.

Emma Walker, Rachel Barrie, Stephanie Macleod, and so many more besides are just some of the active Master Blenders responsible for producing some of the finest drams to ever grace the stills.

As you can probably tell, today, I want to focus on women in the world of whisky. Specifically, one woman. A woman who is fondly referred to as the ‘Mother of Japanese Whisky’. A woman who helped establish a company you may have heard of called Nikka Whisky.

That woman was Rita Cowan (Taketsuru) and it is her remarkable story I want to share with you today.

Early Life

Born Jessie Roberta Cowan on the 14th of December, 1896, in a town called Kirkintilloch, East Dunbartonshire near Glasgow, Rita Cowan was a Scottish-Japanese entrepreneur who married Masataka Taketsuru, the man who is officially credited with founding Nikka Whisky.

Rita was born into a middle-class family and was the daughter of a doctor. She was the eldest of four siblings and had a keen interest in other cultures and ways of life, even from a young age.

She lived a normal life and got engaged and then married at a young age, just before the start of the First World War. Sadly, her husband was sent off to fight and tragically lost his life. Rita and her family were devastated, as you’d expect.

Before she was 20, she was a widow and had no idea what to do next. Then, like something out of a romance novel, a mysterious stranger from a foreign land entered her life, setting forth a series of events that would revolutionise the world of whisky forever.

Meeting Masataka

Masataka Taketsuru was born in Osaka, Japan on the 20th of June, 1894. He was born into a sake brewing family, and should he choose to continue the family business, he would likely be set for life. However, sake wasn’t the spirit he had his heart set on producing.

Sake, which is a traditional Japanese rice wine (which tastes delicious by the way, especially with sushi) was nothing new or unique in Japan. He wanted to bring a new spirit to his homeland, and so he set his sights on whisky.

Having majored in brewing at the Osaka Technical High School, he was fascinated by whisky, and wanted to bring it to Japan. The problem was, the only places that currently produced whisky were Scotland and Ireland.

Photo Credit: Nikka

Remember, back then, you couldn’t jump on YouTube and watch a tutorial on how to produce whisky, or head on over to the GreatDrams blogs to learn more about this amazing tipple. The distillers in Scotland and Ireland had passed on their secretes for generations. If Masataka was to learn how whisky was produced, he needed to visit Scotland.

After travelling to Scotland he would enrol at the University of Glasgow to study chemistry. This would help him understand whisky distillation. Whilst there, he met Rita’s sister Ella. Now, there is conflicting info here regarding how he met Rita, so apologies, but I’m doing my best.

One story goes that, after meeting Ella, she asked him if he would teach her younger brother Judo. Once he arrived at the house and laid eyes on Rita, it was love at first sight.

The other version of events is that, in order to save money, Masataka would lodge with Rita’s family. In any event, the two quickly fell in love and began a romantic relationship.

Rita’s family did not approve, especially considering her husband had died so soon prior, but we can’t help who we fall in love with.

Learning Whisky

Now in a relationship, Masataka and Rita began showing a keen interest in whisky. This was largely down to Rita wanting to support her man, and support him she did.

Masataka travelled the whisky regions in Scotland, and worked as an apprentice as numerous distilleries, including Longmorn in Speyside, and Hazelburn in Campbeltown.

After a couple of years, Masataka was happy he’d learned all he needed to learn. The time had come for him to return to Japan and continue the next phase of his dream. The problem was that he had fallen in love with Rita, and didn’t want to leave her behind. Despite her family objecting, Rita chose to travel back to Japan with Masataka. Before that however, they got quietly married in 1920.

I really admire Rita here. She was travelling to a new country with different cultures, different ways of life, different food and drink, and a different language.

After arriving in Japan, the pair had to essentially start from scratch. They moved to Osaka and Rita supported them by taking on a job as an English teacher while Masataka tried to find a company to invest in his whisky vision.

Finally, three years later after approaching drinks company Kotobukiya, who would later become drinks giant Suntory, they agreed to invest in his vision by offering him a 10-year contract in 1923. This was the start of something much bigger.

The Birth of Nikka Whisky

After 10 years, and overseeing the production of the Yamazaki Distillery in Osaka and Japan’s first ever whisky, Masataka’s time with Suntory came to an end. Without him, Suntory wouldn’t be the juggernaut it is now. In fact, Japanese whisky probably wouldn’t even be a thing.

Despite their generous offer, he wanted to make it on his own, and so the couple looked into creating their own whisky company – Nippon Kaju.

They travelled to Hokkaido in the northwest. This was because the region had a climate much similar to that of Speyside in Scotland. This, they believed, was the secret to a fine whisky. They quickly built a distillation and got to work, producing an alcoholic apple juice in the meantime. By 1940, their first batch was complete.

The whisky was remarkable. It had fruity, honey, oak, and woody notes with just a hint of smoke. They called it Nikka, after their business. Eventually the business would also be re-branded as Nikka Whisky, due to how amazing their drams were.

The couple, unable to have children of their own, adopted instead. Adopting Masataka’s nephew when he was 20 years of age in 1933, as well as a daughter named Rima, in 1930.

As successful as the couple were, times were tough. As WW2 broke out, because Rita was British and Japan had sided with the Axis against the allies, the locals turned on her. She would be shouted at in the street, and have rocks thrown at her windows. Japan’s military police would even raid their home several times and accuse her of being a spy for the West, which was of course nonsense. Again, this isn’t confirmed so don’t shoot the messenger, but I’ve even read stories of Rima, Rita’s adoptive daughter, turning on her because tensions were so high.

Thankfully, the war ended, tensions eased, and Nikka Whisky went from strength to strength.


Sadly, Rita would develop liver failure and Tuberculosis later in life, and on January the 17th, 1961, she passed away at 64 years of age.

Masataka died 18 years later in 1979 and the two are buried together on a hillside overlooking the distillery that made their hopes and dreams come true.

Nikka Whisky has won multiple awards and medals over the years, and is a wonderful wee dram that I’d happily drink again and again. With its notes of freshly mowed meadows, aromatic flowers, fruits, winter spices, and oak, all tied together in a finish leaving you with toffee, caramel, vanilla, and ripe summer berries, it’s easy to see why Nikka is such a popular dram.

Had it not been for Rita Taketsuru (Cowan) however, it’s likely this amazing whisky wouldn’t even exist. That’s quite a legacy to leave behind.

That was the remarkable tale of Rita Cowan – The Mother of Japanese Whisky.

If you love whisky as much as we do, be sure to head on over to and check out the huge range of whiskies we have available.

Stocking Scotch primarily, we offer a wide range of exotic, rare, award-winning, and unique whiskies that you can’t find anywhere else. We also have an extensive array of whisky blogs where you can learn more about your favourite drams from here, and all over the globe.

Photo Credit: Dekanta

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My name is Greg, and I’m a brand strategy consultant, writer, speaker, host and judge specialising in premium spirits. My mission is to experience, share and inspire with everything great about whisky, whiskey, gin, beer and fine dining through my writing, my brand building and my whisky tastings.

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