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The First Japanese Whiskey Distiller Made… Bourbon?

June 21, 2021

Story: Susannah Skiver Barton

art: Allie Sullberg

Jokichi Takamine's application of Japanese techniques to American distilling nearly changed the industry forever. More than a century later, he's finally getting his due.

Much has been written about Masataka Taketsuru, often called the “father of Japanese whisky,” who learned distilling practices in Scotland and brought them back to Japan in the early 1920s. His efforts to create native Scotch-style whiskies spawned the two leading whisky companies in Japan today, Suntory and Nikka, and he has been widely lauded for his pioneering contributions, even becoming the subject of a popular soap opera.

But he was not the first Japanese distiller to make whiskey.

Three decades before Taketsuru’s first distillations, another Japanese chemist shook up the whiskey world—and nearly changed the identity of bourbon in the process. Born in 1854 to a samurai-physician father and a mother whose family owned a sake brewery, Jokichi Takamine enjoyed a robust Western-style education just as Japan was opening up to the rest of the world. His aptitude for chemistry won him a scholarship to study in Great Britain, after which he returned to Japan to investigate how modern science could improve traditional industries.

In 1890, after marrying an American woman, Takamine established the Takamine Ferment Company in Chicago and quickly connected with the Distillers’ & Cattle Feeders’ Trust, aka the Whiskey Trust, which was producing 80 percent of the country’s whiskey at that time. There he worked on modifying the koji process, typically used in the production of sake, shochu and other alcoholic beverages, for use with corn. The science of his process was kept secret, though Takamine received a series of patents in the United States and Europe that solidified his claim to “taka-koji” or “taka-diastase”—the first patents on microbial enzymes in the world.

Here’s why Takamine was so eager to protect his process. Whereas most whiskeys are made with enzymes born out of the malting process (or else rely on added enzymes) to convert starches to sugar (known as saccharification), koji achieves the same result far more efficiently and eliminates the malting process altogether. It’s also cheaper: Propagating koji takes less than two days, versus a week or longer to make malt, and Takamine was using wheat bran as a substrate, rather than more expensive barley. Plus, alcoholic ferments from koji-processed grains contain fewer volatile compounds, and can be distilled with little to no cutting of heads or tails—meaning less waste and even more cost savings.

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Takamine’s genius started with applying a traditional Japanese process to a Western industry, but he showed remarkable business savvy as well. Having worked at Japan’s Bureau of Patents and Trade Marks in the 1880s, he understood the potential fortune to be made through patenting his ideas. Though it’s unlikely he would have been able to patent the traditional koji process in his home country, where its use was deeply rooted and widespread, no one in America had ever heard of it. In the innovation-mad Gilded Age, that made it fair game. Patent secured and koji process in place, Takamine was poised to make his partners, and himself, very wealthy.

That is, until bad luck, worse timing and the hammer of trust-busting struck. In 1891, amid a flurry of newspaper reports on how Takamine’s method was set to shake up the industry, a fire destroyed the distillery that was being used for his experiments. Though foul play was likely involved, it was never proven; regardless, the damage set the project back. Takamine persevered, eventually getting up to speed enough to mash 3,000 bushels of corn a day, and producing a whiskey called Banzai. Finally, in December 1894, the Whiskey Trust’s Manhattan, Illinois, distillery began fully employing Takamine’s koji process. Two months later, however, the entire company was put into receivership, in part due to antitrust legislation and overextended finances.

His partnership crushed, Takamine left the whiskey business behind. He went on to license his Takadiastase enzyme to the pharmaceutical industry and, eventually, he isolated adrenaline, a medical advance that has saved countless lives. Yet despite his considerable achievements—and his gift to Washington, D.C., of the famed cherry blossom trees along the Tidal Basin—Takamine’s story is rarely told in either his home or adopted country (though there is a charming manga about him created by an enzyme manufacturer). “Takamine is not very well known in Japan,” says Christopher Pellegrini, founder of Honkaku Spirits. “He was successful somewhere else, and for whatever reason that hasn’t won him the shine that I believe he fully deserves.”

But Pellegrini and his partner, Stephen Lyman, are attempting to bring Takamine’s story to light with a new eponymous whiskey, produced at Shinozaki Distillery in Fukuoka Prefecture. They sought permission from the Takamine Family Trust, which had previously forbidden his name to be used for a commercial product but was swayed by the homage to his first major, forgotten breakthrough. “We’re trying to revive one of his failed experiments, something that could have been really big but wasn’t, just because history screwed him, essentially,” Pellegrini says.

The whiskey itself, made with koji-saccharified pearled barley and distilled twice in a pot still, is delicate but well-structured, perfumed with stone fruit, and surprisingly viscous for its 40 percent ABV. It’s unique among Japan’s current whiskey offerings, even standing apart from other koji whiskies made with rice. Given its grain bill, pot still production, and partial maturation in used barrels, this doesn’t much resemble what Takamine was making in Illinois 130 years ago, but it shows the promise of his method and offers a tantalizing hint at what bourbon could taste like today, had his efforts not been thwarted. Happily, we’re in boom times for American whiskey like never before, so the question that now looms is which bourbon distiller will be the first to resurrect the Takamine method.

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Susannah Skiver Barton writes about whisky and spirits from across the globe. She spent several years leading Whisky Advocate and Market Watch as a senior editor and won the Alan Lodge Young International Drinks Writer Award in 2020. More at susannahskiverbarton.com.