People like to say that it’s the little things that matter. Yet, most end up forgetting this saying and prefer to focus on the bigger or flashier things. While fictional, this scene from the Last of Us TV show adaptation reminded us that we should fear and respect microbial organisms called fungus. I guess one of the reasons for underestimating or forgetting about these small organisms is because we don’t see them. The saying “out of sight, out of mind” comes to mind.
When people talk about whisk(e)y, most of them mainly focus on the age statement and/or cask influence. Very few talk about yeast, which is a type of fungus. I blame the marketing of big brands, as they seem to make yeast seem irrelevant. It’s easier for lazy marketing to put the focus on exciting wood. But think about this: without yeast, there would be nothing to start fermentation. That would mean we can’t turn sugar-converted-starch from grain into (hop less) beer. No beer means there’s nothing to be distilled into whisky. If there’s no distilled product, what would we do with all those casks?
Speaking of yeast, do you know what other fungus is used in producing alcohol? It’s a mold called koji. To those unfamiliar with Japanese alcoholic beverages, koji is needed in producing shochu and nihonshu (sake). Koji is also necessary in the production of soy sauce and miso. What surprised me, and I’m sure this will also surprise you, is that koji can also be used to make whisky.
The brand of whisky that uses koji is called Takamine. It’s named after Jokichi Takamine. I’d like to give a huge thanks to the Japan Distilled podcast for making the world aware of him. You can listen to part 1and part 2 of the episodes.
I encourage you to listen to the podcast episodes. But to summarize, Jokichi Takamine was born on November 3, 1854 in Takaoka, Japan. This was a unique time to grow up in Japan, due to the country being focused to open up to the world thanks to Commodore Perry’s gunship diplomacy. He was born to a samurai physician father. His mother came from a sake-making family. This indicates he grew up well-off.
He learned English with a Dutch teacher who was based in Dejima, Nagasaki. Later on, he went to study medicine and chemistry at the Imperial University of Tokyo, and he became part of the 1st graduating class of applied chemistry of the university in 1879. He then got a scholarship to study abroad. The scholarship let him study western industrial engineering practices in the University of Glasgow until 1883. This is the same university that the eventual godfather of Japanese whisky and founder of Nikka, Masataka Taketsuru, would attend in the early 1900s.
Upon returning to Japan, he worked in the Japanese government to modernize paper making, sake brewing, and indigo dye production. In 1884, he was sent to New Orleans as a commissioner to the Cotton Centennial Exposition, where he was reportedly treated like nobility, despite the samurai class being abolished. This is where he would meet his eventual wife, Caroline Hitch.
He returned to Japan to work for the government in 1885. They assigned him to become the interim director of Japan’s patent office. Shortly after, he established Asia’s first superphosphate mine. After earning enough money, he stopped working for the Japanese government in 1887 and returned to New Orleans to marry Caroline.
For their honeymoon, they traveled the US via train. After this, they moved back to Japan where they had their two children, Jokichi Jr and Ebinizer. At the behest of his mother-in-law, he moved his family to Chicago in 1890. In the same year, he established the Takamine Ferment Company. Caroline’s mother also introduced him to the head of the Illinois Whisky Trust.
By 1891, he patented the use of koji in the US and UK. He also licensed his patent to the trust, which was the largest producer of distilled spirits in the US in the late 1800s. We can infer that coming from a sake-making family and learning chemistry likely helped him come up with this idea.
Using koji to saccharify (break down) barley’s starch into fermentable sugar made whisky production cheaper as it wasn’t as expensive as malting barley. Unfortunately, a “mysterious” fire occurred at the Manhattan Distillery in Peoria, IL. This was where the koji whisky experiments were undergoing. The distillery was repaired and the experiments continued until commercial production was greenlit in December of 1894.
I’d like to point out that Sundown Towns were still being practiced around this time, lasting from around 1890 to 1960, which is a reminder that America was a highly racist country then. There was also a Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, which prevented Chinese laborers who had left America from returning.
What’s more unfortunate for Dr. Takamine was the State of Illinois and the Justice Department enforced the Sherman Act to break up the Illinois Whisky Trust months later. The Manhattan Distillery’s new owners switched back to malting. Dr. Takamine tried using the federal court to get his patents back, but lost, as the patent was considered an asset and was sold to the new owners.
After this, his previously patented Taka-diastase digestive enzyme (also using koji) and isolating adrenaline helped make his family wealthy. Later on, he also founded the still-active Nippon Club, a private club in New York City for Japanese businessmen.
What’s considered his greatest contribution to American culture is his donating cherry trees that ring Washington DC’s Tidal Basin, as well as trees in Baltimore, MD and New York City. He passed away on July 22, 1922. His mausoleum is in Woodland Cemetery in the Bronx.
Today’s Takamine whisky is produced at the Shinozaki Distillery, Fukuoka. This is a 100% barley whisky where the barley didn’t undergo any malting due to the use of koji. Of course, yeast is still used via the parallel fermentation similar to sake and shochu. This was aged in a mix of ex-bourbon casks and virgin oak.
Takamine 8 Year Koji-Fermented Whiskey – Review
40% ABV. 750ml. USD $99.99 from K&L Wines. Bottled in 2021. (Different year different recipe)
On the nose: I mostly get a sharp, quick, and vague aromas of herbs (along the lines of basil and thyme) with date molasses. But, this quickly vanishes and is followed by longer lasting aromas of mild oak, cinnamon, brown sugar, coconut sugar syrup, vanilla, cocoa powder, and savory mushrooms.
In the mouth: I taste light and peppery notes of chocolate, caramel, vanilla, toffee and brown sugar, caramelized orange peel, dates and some form of sweetened ginger.
If you buy a bottle of this and end up having a hard time figuring out the flavors, please remember to let this breathe. When I first opened my bottle, I couldn’t make sense of it. But after returning to the bottle after a month, it opened up more.
I don’t really know what to think of this. It doesn’t taste like any whiskey I’ve ever had. The ex-bourbon and virgin oak give this a bit for familiarity. But it doesn’t have the usual cereal or malty or fruity notes I get from the typical Scotch and/or Japanese whisky. This isn’t a knock on the whiskey. I think it’s just the effect of the koji on the barley.
Aside from seeming unfamiliar, the texture of the whisky feels thin. I guess it’s due to the 40% ABV. Most of the flavors I get here are (I think) from the low ABV plus strong wood influence. Which, to me, takes away from the potential complexity and having additional layers of flavor. For an unusual style of whiskey, I’d like to taste the distillate more. Because distillates, no matter the distillery, will always be unique. I hope a version of this gets aged and bottled in refill casks so I can taste more of the distillate.
Despite these comments, this is in no way a bad whiskey. It’s just different. If this is accessible to you and you’ve been wanting to try a different whiskey, this is what you’ve been waiting for. Hopefully the score won’t dissuade you readers from trying this. As regular readers will know, I tend to prefer spirit-forward spirits these days. Also, think of this. This is a style of whisky that could have been more popular before Nikka and Suntory came about if it weren’t for a series of unfortunate events for Dr. Takamine.
On the other hand, because this is a Japanese whiskey, this will also make a different Japanese highball. After all, Japanese whiskey was originally made to be diluted. The most popular would be Japanese highballs, but there’s also something called mizuwari, which is basically whiskey cut (diluted) with water. Mizu means water. Wari means cut. I’m one to drink high end whisk(e)ys in Japanese highballs as I’m a sucker for them. But since this review has gone on long enough, I’ll review this diluted soon.