Jokichi Takamine was the first Japanese scientist to distill whiskey using koji instead of barley malt

How a 19th Century Whiskey Pioneer Became Japan’s First Cultural Ambassador to New York City

In the late 19th Century, Dr. Jōkichi Takamine tried to teach the American liquor industry how to use koji to make whiskey more efficiently. But things did not go as planned––when rivals from the powerful Maltsters Union were accused, but never convicted of burning his Peoria, Illinois distillery to the ground in 1890.

Destined for success in biotech, Jōkichi Takamine (Born 3 Nov. 1854, Takaoka, Japan – Died 22 July 1922, New York City) would acquire great wealth through his discovery of the hormone adrenaline and go on to becoming Japan’s first philanthropist and unofficial cultural ambassador to New York City.


Jōkichi Takamine (pictured with his Samurai father.
Samurai Father with son, Jōkichi Takamine, Born Nov 3, 1854, in Takaoka, Japan and July 22, 1922 in New York City)

Takamine was born on November 3, 1854, in the small town of Takaoka in Toyama Prefecture on the west coast of Japan. The son of a Samurai, Takamine was eager to better understand “foreign science,” so the Japanese government sent him to the University of Glasgow in Scotland where he learned English and studied agriculture.

The same university Masataka Taketsuru, aka “The father of Japanese Whisky” would attend a half century later.

Takamine’s whiskey fermentation process was not new. The koji method of fermentation has been used in Japanese spirits and culinary arts for centuries. Only Takamine was the first to patent this process for making whiskey in the United States. 

A cheaper and more efficient way to distill whiskey from grain using Koji mold
Takimine's Patented "Koji" Process for Whiskey Making

The Takamine patent is for “preparing and making diastatic enzyme,” capable of converting starch into sugar using a species of mold called “koji”. So instead of malted barley, this enzyme could be added to a mash of corn, rye and other grains to convert starches to sugar for fermentation.

“The specified fungus” here refers primarily to Eurotium oryzae, later renamed Aspergillus oryzae.” otherwise known as koji. U.S. patent 525823

Jokichi met his wife Caroline in New Orleans
Jokichi met his wife Caroline in New Orleans

Takamine met his American wife while in New Orleans where he attended the 1884 New Orleans Cotton Exposition and took up residence to study agriculture as Japanese Commissioner. They left America for Japan for a brief time, but returned to the United States to pursue whiskey distilling and to please his American wife unhappy living in Japan.


Unfortunately for the Japanese chemist, partnering with the Distillers and Cattle Feeders’ Company of Peoria, Illinois, aka The Whiskey Trust was dangerous business. Takamine’s Koji method greatly reduced the cost of manufacturing, making him a direct threat to the livelihood of traditional maltsters––that sourced their enzymes for making whiskey from malted barley.

Suspicious fire burned Takamine's distillery to the ground
Suspicious fire burned Takamine's distillery to the ground

If Takamine’s operation were to succeed, the maltsters stood to lose everything and it gave them every reason to put him out of business for good. 

In 1890, a suspicious fire burned Takamine’s distillery to the ground. Even though it was rebuilt into 1894, the distillery was put into receivership by a Chicago Court and changed back to the old process just two months later.


Takamine left whiskey the industry and returned to medical research in New York where he would discover how to isolate the chemical adrenaline. A monumental scientific achievement that made him very wealthy. His contribution to whiskey making is rarely mentioned, a mere footnote to his contribution to Japanese cultural cultural exchange in New York City and Washington D.C.


In 1905, Dr. Takamine established The Nippon Club, a gentleman’s club for Japanese Americans and expats Japanese nationals in New York City. The first Japanese social club established in the U.S. that to this day promote business and cultural exchange between the two countries through various events, workshops and cultural classes.

Japan Society logo

Takamine founded a Japanese society in New York City in 1907, which became known as the Japan Society of New York. To this day, the organization provides a platform for promoting an understanding of Japanese culture, language, and arts among American audiences.

The Japan Society is currently located at 333 E 47th St, New York, NY 10017
The Japan Society is currently located at 333 E 47th St, New York, NY 10017



Dr. Jōkichi Takamine minted his reputation as Japan’s first unofficial cultural ambassador to the United States, donating the first cherry blossom trees to New York City and Washington, D.C.

Spring Cherry blossoms blooming in Flushing Meadows Queens
Spring Cherry blossoms blooming in Flushing Meadows Queens
Cherry blossoms in bloom at the Jefferson Memorial, Washington D.C.
Cherry blossoms in bloom at the Jefferson Memorial, Washington D.C.



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