Did a Japanese distiller working in America create a whole new kind of whisky over a century ago?

Did a Japanese distiller working in America create a whole new kind of whisky over a century ago?

What if whisky makers used Koji mould, usually used for making sake and shochu, instead of malting barley?

Production | 17 Oct 2022 | Issue 186 | By Stefan van Eycken

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It’s human nature to be fascinated by ‘what-if’ scenarios, and this one applies to whisky: there was a point in the mid-1890s when, if things had panned out differently, whisky making in Japan, America, and potentially elsewhere in the world, too, would have developed along entirely different lines.

Jokichi Takamine was born on 3 November 1854 in the Takaoka district of the Kaga Domain (present-day Toyama prefecture). Born to a samurai physician father and a mother from a sake-making family, he was the oldest of 13 children. At the age of 10, he was sent to Nagasaki by the lord of the Kaga Domain to study English and Western science. After continuing his education in Osaka and Tokyo, Takamine moved to the UK, where he studied industrial engineering at the University of Glasgow (and elsewhere) between 1880 and 1883. To put this into perspective, this was 35 years before Masataka Taketsuru, the 'father' of Japanese whisky, arrived in Glasgow.

Takamine’s journey after his studies in the UK is a fascinating one, but, fast-forwarding to 1890, he moved to Chicago and established the Takamine Ferment Company to develop a digestive aid using koji amylase. Takamine patented the process of using koji, a type of mould used in sake brewing, in the USA and several European countries and, in 1891, he started working for the Illinois Whiskey Trust, based in Peoria, with the intent of applying his method to the production of whisky. At the time, the Whiskey Trust was the largest spirits maker in the States, owning 65 distilleries nationwide and being responsible for 80 per cent of all spirits made in the US.

While working for the Whiskey Trust, Takamine fine-tuned his ‘Takamine Process’. Because koji amylase breaks down starch into glucose, it is a more efficient way to make whisky than using malted grains. In essence, it sidesteps the need for malting. A few weeks into production using the Takamine Process, the Manhattan Distillery in Peoria burned down in mysterious circumstances. In early 1895, the rebuilt distillery was closed, production ceased and the new owners reverted to malting. What happened to the whisky made using the Takamine Process is anyone’s guess, but whisky production in America and elsewhere might have been very different if circumstances – some say, circumstances engineered by the maltsters – hadn’t conspired against the use of koji

Takamine went on to greatness in the field of medicine (he isolated adrenaline in 1900) and died a wealthy man in New York in 1922, but his koji spirit process seemed destined to remain a mere footnote in the history of whisky production. Then, in 2018, Stephen Lyman, a shōchū expert from the US, now based in Japan, became intrigued by Takamine. “I came across the Takamine method in my research for The Complete Guide to Japanese Drinks,” Lyman relates. “As I dug into the history of Japanese whisky from an American writer’s perspective, I came across a couple of old internet pages that described his life in surprising detail. Having never heard of him, I dug into some more reliable sources... The whisky-making part of his life lasted only a few years. It’s really what he did afterwards that sealed his legacy.”

Unbeknownst to Lyman, a close friend had been following the Takamine trail, too: Michiaki Shinozaki, of Shinozaki Brewery & Distillery, a famous barley shōchū producer from Fukuoka. “We became frequent drinking and dining companions when he would come to New York City for sales visits. He would also make time for me, when I would visit Fukuoka," Lyman continues. “On one of those evenings out, he told me about the first Japanese person to make whisky in America. It was only later, when I mentioned Takamine to him as part of the research for my book, that we put two and two together and realised we were talking about the same man. I commented that it would be cool if a Japanese distillery could revive the style. He smiled and told me, ‘we already have’. ”

Michiaki Shinozaki had been fascinated with the Takamine Process since he first learned of it. In time, he managed to persuade his father to let him start producing and filling casks of double-distilled, koji-fermented, 100-per-cent barley distillate.

The easiest way to understand Shinozaki’s interpretation of the Takamine method, and how exactly spirit is produced, is by highlighting the differences with traditional malt whisky production. “There is no hot side to the fermentation process,” says Lyman. Rather than using malted grains and a boil to extract the sugars, the koji mould (Aspergillus kawachi, in this case) does this job. The mould grows filaments called hypha into the polished and steamed barley grains. (Lyman explains that the ‘polishing’ process is similar to that used in sake making.) In this feeding process, both amylase and protease are created. Amylase saccharifies the grains and the protease breaks down proteins into amino acids.

Lyman says that steamed grains make for a perfect substrate for koji fermentation, but koji has a hard time breaking through the hard outer husks of most grains, so polishing is implemented to remove this barrier. It also has the added benefit of removing most of the fats and proteins (and other impurities) that are concentrated in the bran and hull and near the surface of the grain.
For the koji spirit produced by Shinozaki, 40 per cent of the mash bill is steamed and inoculated with koji spores. After nearly two days of propagation, the koji-inoculated barley is moved into the primary fermentation with water and yeast. “At this point,” Lyman continues, “multiple parallel fermentations kick off. The koji remains active, converting the remaining starches to sugar, while the yeast converts these sugars into alcohol.” A few days later, the remaining 60 per cent of the barley mash bill is added to the primary fermentation, and more water is added to create the main fermentation. This runs for about 10 days, and, by the end of the process, the mash has reached 17–18% ABV.

It’s important to stress that Shinozaki’s production method is a reinterpretation of Takamine’s recipe and there are some notable differences. Takamine appears to have used a different koji species (Aspergillus oryzae, used in sake-making) and a different grain substrate (wheat or oats) before adding corn to the main fermentation. “Innovations in grain polishing and an improved understanding of the composition of wheat and oats made these undesirable koji substrates for Shinozaki,” Lyman points out. “Also, his company has a nearly 40-year history working with barley koji fermentation. Corn is an uncommon agricultural product in Japan, so that was also replaced with polished barley.”

Finally, a different koji mould was used – the kawachi mutation is now a preferred koji strain for distilled alcohols because it creates citric acid during inoculation, which helps protect the fermentation.

The fermented mash is double-distilled in stainless steel pot stills at atmospheric pressure. It’s approximately 43% ABV after the first run. This is diluted back down to 20% and distilled a second time, resulting in a spirit that is, again, approximately 43% ABV. This is done entirely to comply with the Japanese regulations on shōchū storage as, despite the unique production process, this spirit is made under a shōchū-making licence and nothing over 44.9% ABV is permitted. The spirit is then filled into casks at 43% ABV.

“The low cask entry proof is part of what lets it punch above its weight,” Lyman points out. “Relatively little water is added when it’s bottled.” Aiming for “a more American expression”, Shinozaki decided to use mostly (90 per cent) virgin oak for the maturation, while the remainder is aged in ex-bourbon barrels.

As the maturation progressed, Shinozaki realised they were making a delicious product. The trouble was that it couldn’t legally be sold as whisky in Japan since it didn’t contain any malted grain and wasn’t made under a whisky-making license. One market where the use of koji didn’t preclude the product from being called a whisky was the US.

“Michiaki Shinozaki suggested I start an import company,” says Lyman. “It wasn’t the first time he had suggested this, but it was the first time he offered me a specific product to sell in the US. I was hesitant at first. I’ve never been a business person and my interest in Japanese spirits has always been more academic and historic than profit-driven.” Together with fellow shōchū enthusiast Christopher Pellegrini, Lyman set up Honkaku Spirits and agreed to take on the Takamine brand as a ‘koji whiskey’ for the overseas market. “The Shinozaki family has ramped up production since, so, whereas our current allocations are quite limited, in a few years we will have more available.”

In an interesting twist, the new Japanese whisky standards were announced just a few weeks after the launch of Takamine Koji Whiskey in the US. With stricter definitions, albeit only for members of the Japan Spirits and Liqueurs Makers Association (JSLMA), a clear line was being drawn between what was and what wasn’t ‘Japanese whisky’. “Fortunately for us,” Lyman goes on, “we had intentionally not branded Takamine as a Japanese whisky, even though it’s entirely made in Japan. Since it was a revival of a US whisky style, we even used the American spelling (with ‘e’) rather than the Japanese spelling... Where perhaps we don’t comply with the standards is the use of Japanese calligraphy on the label, but that had been created... before the standards were announced. Nevertheless, in order to play nice with the JSLMA, we are in the process of evolving our packaging to a more American-style appearance.”

In the US, the reception of Takamine Koji Whiskey has been overwhelmingly positive. Blind tastings with some of the most experienced whisky buyers in the country had them guessing it was a 100-proof, 15-year-old wheated bourbon. “Not a bad place to be for an 80-proof, eight-year-old koji whisky,” Lyman muses.

Inevitably, with a product this unique, there are discussions about what it really is – and what it ought (not) to be. Japanese whisky purists tend to argue that it is not a whisky because there isn’t a long and continued history of whisky production using koji fermentation in Japan. This is true, but that is more due to the vagaries of history – like the American regulatory climate in the late 19th century, failed koji experiments by Taketsuru in Scotland, and the protectionism among Japanese whisky giants today – rather than inherent cultural anomalies.

“There was no history of malting in Japan until beer brewing began during the Meiji Restoration – the same time period in which Takamine grew up – but, today, malting represents the standard for Japanese whisky-making,” Lyman points out. “And yet, there is now a 1,300-year history of koji fermentation in food production in Japan and a more than 500-year history of making koji-fermented grain-based spirits in Japan. Why malting would be favoured over the indigenous fermentation method feels almost like a missed opportunity to me.”

An objection sometimes heard amongst whisky enthusiasts in the US is that Takamine Koji Whiskey is ‘just shōchū’. In Lyman’s view, this misses the mark completely. “The fundamental characteristic of authentic shōchū is that it expresses the character of the base ingredients thanks to single pot distillation. Once a double-distilled grain distillate spends enough time in oak, that character is masked to such a degree that it can no longer be considered shōchū. If it can’t be considered whisky, then what is it?”
An increasing number of shōchū makers are selling their barrel-aged shōchū as (Japanese) whisky in the US. What is opaque to the consumer, in most cases, is whether their product is double-distilled (as Takamine originally did and Shinozaki is doing today) or whether it’s single-distilled. “Virtually all authentic shōchū is single pot distilled,” Lyman points out. “Virtually no whisky is. I do not know if that’s a clear distinction for people in the whisky world, but it is for me and for other shōchū aficionados. A single pot-distilled shōchū put in a cask is a cask-aged shōchū. When you practise double distillation, however, it no longer cleanly fits the traditional style of authentic shōchū... Put it in a cask and, to my mind, it has become whisky.”

Products that don’t conform exactly to categories that have been in place for a long time tend to attract discussion and controversy. At the same time, it’s clear that, in a parallel universe, the experiments of Jokichi Takamine and the type of spirit produced by Shinozaki could have been what defined Japanese whisky today. Whichever side of the debate one falls on, barrel-aged koji distillate opens up a whole new world of flavour and aroma profiles. In Lyman’s view, “it’s something to embrace, not criticise.”
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