By Chris Middleton

The Other Manhattan project

Thwarted experiments that threatened the distilling industry
The Manhattan Project that secretly developed the atomic bomb in the early 1940s was preceded by another ambitious Manhattan project half a century earlier. Ground zero was the Manhattan distillery in Peoria, Illinois. Despite arson, sabotage and espionage attempts, it was a government regulation that was responsible for scuttling this radical advancement.

The Manhattan project began as the collaboration between two men. The distilling baron, Joseph Greenhut and the Japanese scientist, Dr. Jokichi Takamine. Joseph Greenhut was president of the Distillers and Cattle Feeders Company, known as the Whiskey Trust. By 1891, the Trust was manufacturing more than 85 per cent of the US alcoholic spirits through eighty-six distilleries.

The Trust aggressively used pricing to control the marketplace and news of Takamine’s revolutionary ‘Japanese process’ would give the Trust another competitive advantage; reduce the cost of a gallon of whisky by 20 per cent and decimate the competition.

Takamine was a graduate of Tokyo University and post-graduate of Glasgow University specialising in an Asian fungus that saccharified grain starch into sugars. In February 1891, the Trust contracted Takamine’s company, including his team of Japanese scientists to adapt this new process to distilling whisky. The first experiments were secretly conducted at Trust’s Manhattan distillery in Peoria.

What was so threatening about Takamine’s fungus? His new process would replace the malting and mashing stages. For millennia the Asian fungus, koji (Aspergillus oryzae) was used to make sake and Asian rice liquors. Now the traditional and costly malting method looked like being superseded.

He had discovered a method to acclimatise this fungus to corn. This big grain represented over eighty per cent of the grain bill for making American whisky in the late 19th Century. Spreading koji fungus over corn and small grains in a warm, moist environment koji’s filaments penetrated the grain’s starch content, excreting enzymes that converted the starches to sugars.

Almost simultaneously, yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) could be added to start the fermentation process to make alcohol. Maltsters were heavily invested in the Trust and felt imminently threatened malted grain could be replaced, saving distillers and brewers from 50 to 300 per cent on the cost of grain malting alone. Malting grain in the 1890s took 100 hours, koji fungus achieved diastatic conversion in 48 hours.

Despite arson, sabotage and espionage attempts, it was a government regulation that was responsible for scuttling this radical advancement.

In the first year, the Trust expected to save over $3 million. More remarkable were the claims this process produced higher alcohol levels than malted grain, yields of 20% ABV, versus 6% ABV when traditionally malted. This discovery enabled Takamine to register in February 1894 the world’s first microbial patent.

The storm clouds were gathering the day the Manhattan and Monarch distilleries began commercial production on December 1, 1894. These distilleries were specially fitted for the Taka-koji process for each to distil more than 2,500 bushels a day, representing four million gallons a year. Then the Trust was blind-sided by a Federal Court judgement. Within two months it was placed into receivership. Ironically, the cause was not the 1893 economic depression nor creeping State Prohibitions.

It was the 1890 Sherman Act designed to prevent monopolistic conglomerates gaining control of industries. In early 1895, the Trust was broken up due to its anti-competitive practices.

In more recent years, intrepid distillers in Japan, and the West are again employing this process to make whisky and spirits. As sake declines in Japan, some of the 1,400 sake breweries are converting to distilling whisky.

Universities researchers are actively investigating new fermentation applications for food and beverages development, such as kombucha. We appear to be on an exciting new threshold where experimental fermentation could usher new directions for whisky, all thanks to Takamine’s East Asian fungus.