Review: Takamine Koji Whiskey

Japanese chemist Dr. Jokichi Takamine was granted the first-ever patent for a microbial enzyme in the United States in 1894. It was for his Takamine Process to use koji to make enzymes for whiskey. The same year “the father of Japanese whisky,” Masataka Taketsuru, was born. Dr. Takamine’s work in the field pre-dates nearly the entire history of Japanese whisky. Tonight we’re drinking the first whiskey to carry his name and pay homage to the man by being fermented with koji. It’s called Takamine Whiskey.

Takamine Whiskey is made by Asakura, Fukuoka-based Shinozaki. The company’s goal is to “contribute to society with products made using koji.” As of this writing, the 8-year matured, 40% abv Takamine Whisky isn’t available in Japan. Instead, it’s exported to the US by Honkaku Spirits.

The story of Dr. Takamine’s work with whiskey re-emerged a few years ago, thanks in part to this great post in 2017 by Boston Apothecary. At the behest of the Peoria, Illinois-based Whiskey Trust, Japanese chemist Dr. Jokichi Takamine tried to teach the US spirits industry how to use koji to make whiskey more efficiently in the late 19th century. Unfortunately for Takamine, the Whiskey Trust was a pretty dangerous place to be in those days. Although the Trust’s members were “no longer interested in the price of dynamite,” Takamine’s distillery burned down under mysterious circumstances. While he was able to restart his experiments after the fire, the Whiskey Trust was still embroiled in a financial scandal. Takamine’s project was shut down to prevent “unfair advantage.” His whiskey got lost to history.

Until now. It’s a great story, already told better by Kanpai Planet than me, and there are plenty of rabbit holes to go down if you click around. Why fungi like koji can be more efficient than malting, the history of Whiskey Trust, and Takamine’s story before and after Peoria. In manga form, too. Per a recent Whisky Galore article (English translation forthcoming), Shinozaki did quite a lot of experimentation using koji to make Takamine’s whisky, attempting to reproduce his process as accurately as possible.

Did they succeed? The official site for Takamine Whiskey says it’s “made with the patented Takamine Process,” so they must have, to some degree.

The rabbit hole we’ll go down for this review: what exactly is that Takamine Process? The answer is complex because Takamine filed patents in several different countries, and the Takamine Process itself evolved as the doctor’s experimentation was ongong. An early patent filed in the US in 1889, for example, somewhat simply describes using koji to make wort stronger. We’ll take a look at his 1894 “Process of Making Diastatic Enzyme” below.

The Takamine Process (1894 version)

The process of preparing and making diastatic enzyme, which consists in mixing the spores of the specified fungus with comminuted or broken grains of cereals, from which the greater part of starchy matter has been removed, subjecting the mass thus obtained to the proper temperature and moisture, thus allowing the fungus to develop abundantly, then mixing with the mass thus obtained, in about the proportion specified a fresh mass of comminuted or broken grains of cereals, from which the greater part of starchy matter has been removed, then extracting from this mixture the soluble matter contained therein, then precipitating the solid matter contained in said extract, then washing said precipitate, and, finally, drying, all substantially, as and for the purpose specified.

U.S. Patent 525,823

There’s a lot to digest from this wonderful example of a 19th-century sentence. This later version of the Takamine Process is for “preparing and making diastatic enzyme,” i.e., an enzyme capable of converting starch into sugar. Instead of malted barley, this enzyme could be added to a mash of corn/rye/other grains to convert starches to sugar for fermentation. Distill it, mature it, and you have whiskey.

“The specified fungus” here refers primarily to Eurotium oryzae, later renamed Aspergillus oryzae. Better known to us as koji. However, in the patent text, Takamine says, “other mold fungi belonging to the genus Aspergillus, and to the genera Mucor, and Pennecilium may also be used.” So while it might not be as efficient, the Takamine Process is flexible enough to be used with fungi such as Pennecilium camemberti, ordinarily utilized for Camembert cheeses. If you read through this Canada patent he was granted in 1891, he points out that one of the issues with existing koji-making processes is that the fungi were limited to Aspergillus oryzae.

Another key aspect of the 1894 US-patented Takamine Process is where he specifies that it’s for cereals with “the greater part of starchy matter removed” (i.e., bran). He had many reasons for later preferring bran that we won’t go into here, but this sets the Takamine Process apart from the more widespread, centuries-old processes of propagating koji on rice, ala sake, and shochu. In the world of sake, since the Heian period (794-1194 AD), rice has been polished to remove the bran (proteins and fats found closer to the outer surface of the grain), as these can negatively impact the sake’s aroma and flavor. Polishing exposes the starchy endosperm of the grain that the koji spores attach to. This version of the Takamine Process is broader, instead saying that certain fungi grow better on certain kinds of grain given the correct permutation of ammonium salts, potassium salts, magnesium salts, calcium salts, phosphates, and alkaline carbonate. A permutation that might be better achieved by using just the bran.

There’s a historical background here. One of the reasons Takamine went to America is that he was contracted by the Whiskey Trust in Peoria, Illinois, to help them improve their economies of scale when making whiskey. Given the Trust accounted for some 40% of all of the whiskey production in America around this time, they were incredibly interested in any competitive advantage they could gain to further increase their vice grip on the US’s whiskey supply.

By using koji, the Takamine Process increased alcohol yields versus malt by 12-15% overall, so that’s already a win for the Trust. But perhaps more importantly, it required no malted barley whatsoever. Takamine says his process’s “proposed use is encouraged by the fact that the cost of malt is subject to fluctuations according to the crop conditions of barley while bran is exempt from similar market conditions.” He also quotes Dr. Niels Ortved, Chief Chemist of Hiram Walker & Sons, of Walkerville, Ontario, Canada. “On account of the numerous great variations in the price of barley malt (in two consecutive years the price varied 100 per cent), it would be of great value to the distilling industry if a converting medium of moderate and more uniform price could be employed instead of barley malt.”

So wheat bran was Takamine’s preferred medium for this evolved Takamine Process. Wheat bran is the pericarp, testa, and aleurone of a grain of wheat. The part of the grain that isn’t the starchy endosperm. Since wheat bran is a byproduct of milling wheat into flour, it was readily available and affordable.

On top of that, the Takamine Process allowed the extracted enzymes to be dried and thus easily stored for future use.

Takamine’s work with whiskey pre-dates Japan’s first bonafide whisky distillery at Yamazaki or even Torii-san’s establishment of Torii Shoten–the predecessor to Suntory–in 1899. It’s a fun exercise to think through how different things would be today if the use of fungi in whisk(e)y became widespread in the US, Japan, or both.

The Takamine Process at Shinozaki’s Shindo Distillery

Back to the present. So, is Shinozaki making their diastatic enzyme by propagating koji on wheat bran?

If we describe the Takamine Process from its early “using koji to manufacture alcoholic liquids,” then absolutely, they’re doing it.

For capturing the essence of the Takamine Process as it was employed in the US around 1894, I’d say Shinozaki has two options: a) throwing the koji propagated low-starch cereals (“Taka-Koji”) into the mash as-is, or b) isolating the enzyme from Taka-Koji and adding it to the mash (“Taka-diastase”).

The mash bill of Takamine Whiskey is reportedly 100% pearled two-row barley (40% koji propagated barley, 60% unmalted barley). This means it contains no wheat, and the barley in there certainly doesn’t have the “greater part of starchy matter […] removed.” It’s the opposite: pearled barley is barley with the husk and the bran removed. Only the starchy matter remains.

Shochu, as you know, also uses koji for converting starch to sugar before and during fermentation. Barley shochu uses unmalted pearled barley. So rather than wheat bran later favored by Takamine for whiskey production in Peoria, it sounds like Takamine Whiskey’s saccharification and fermentation is achieved with a more standard, shochu-ish koji multiple parallel fermentation of pearled barley.

On the other hand, after fermentation, Takamine Whiskey is distilled twice. That’s a more whiskey-like approach than any single-distilled honkaku shochu.

Let’s put the technicalities aside and take a step back. Dr. Takamine himself would probably be thrilled if anyone uses some fungi to make whisk(e)y, regardless of how it’s propagated and irrespective of the grain. The economic realities and clients of his day just pushed him towards wheat bran.

And what if it’s better that Shinozaki didn’t recreate the Takamine Process precisely as described in that later US patent? American whiskey from the Whiskey Trust was more a commodity than a luxury in Takamine’s time. Takamine was himself a scientist. He dealt in numbers like diastatic power, yields, proof, and LPA, trying to extract as much alcohol as efficiently as possible from a given volume of cereal mash. He says nothing about aroma and flavors in his writings. Instead, an Iowa State College paper from 1939 describes the results of Hiram Walker’s experiments with the Takamine Process in Canada, in 1913:

However, a slight off-flavor or odor was produced in the alcohol, and since the flavor is of paramount importance in beverage alcohol, Takamine’s preparation has not found favor in the alcohol industry.

Saccharification of Starchy Grain Mashes for the Alcoholic Fermentation Industry, L. A. UNDERKOFLER, ELLIS I. FULMER, AND LORIN SCHOENE

I have no clue what a “slight off-flavor or odor” might have been a century ago. Is it something we’d still call an off-flavor or odor today, or were they simply not used to the aroma of a mash fermenting with koji?

In any case, global markets for grain and tastes for whisk(e)y have certainly changed in the 120+ years since Takamine was granted his patents. Let’s find out if Takamine Whiskey is a good match for me today.

Review: Takamine Koji Whiskey

Because Takamine Whiskey doesn’t use any malt whisky, it’s not a whisky per the Japanese legal definition. Thus, it’s not a “Japanese whisky” per the JSLMA regulations. Suppose you prefer to ignore the Japanese law and industry definitions since it uses all local barley and koji for fermentation. In that case, you could quickly call it one of the most Japanese whiskies in existence.

Across the Pacific, being “distilled from a fermented mash of grain” and having “the taste, aroma and characteristics generally attributed to whisky,” US law says it’s a whiskey. Honkaku Spirits themselves call it a “Koji Whiskey.”

Nose: Sweet of caramel, fruitiness of green apple, and floral notes like marigold and honeysuckle. 
Palate: Soft and velvety, but too much so. Slight hints of vanilla, oak, and that’s about it. Don’t look for a lot of depth here.
Finish: Short with salty caramel, bitter oak, and malt if you search hard.
Score: C+
Price paid: Free; this was a sample provided by the Japan Whisky Research Centre. In the US, it retails for 99 bucks. 700ml, 40% abv.

Takamine Whiskey is, at this point, a better conversation piece than it is a whiskey. You can argue until you’re blue about how efficient koji’s multiple parallel fermentation is, but at least for whiskey, your spirit ultimately needs to hit the cask at an abv high enough to pick up a profile. Despite eight years in the cask, I’m not really finding one here. At the same time, if you just want an easy-to-drink whiskey that’s not overbearing, this might be your dram.

Since several years ago, Shinozaki has offered a liqueur called “Asakura” here in Japan. They’re not allowed to call it whisky in this country, but the specs align nicely with those of Takamine Whiskey: it starts life as double-distilled barley shochu, spends eight years in American oak casks, then gets too brown to be called shochu. They even mention Dr. Takamine on the product page. That one is 3,300 yen! It would be great to put Asakura head-to-head with Takamine Whiskey to see if there’s a big difference.

In any case, the whiskey made by Dr. Takamine using his namesake process in the 19th century was probably much different. I’m sure he’d still be happy to see fungi like koji getting representation in the US whiskey market again!

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