“Whiskey and Cherry Blossoms” sounds like an answer from the game show Jeopardy. Connecting the two requires other words that are just as curious: Peoria and the Whiskey Trust, the Empire of Japan, koji, U.S. Patent No. 411231, immigration, dyspepsia, adrenal glands and the White House. The common thread through all of these words is a largely forgotten pioneer of biotechnology, Dr. Jokichi Takamine, whose impact is still felt in distilling.

Peoria and the Whiskey Trust

In the 1880s, distilled spirits were abundant in the U.S. To reduce market volume and increase revenue, distillers entered into pools to limit production volume. These early pools failed for lack of enforcement against uncooperative members and because of the low cost of market entry for new distillers. In 1887, the Distillers and Cattle Feeders Trust emerged and became known as the Whiskey Trust. Its home was Peoria, IL, on the Illinois River, which connected Peoria to St. Louis and Chicago. The land surrounding it provided corn, and cold water was abundant. By the early 1890s, the Whiskey Trust produced more than 80% of the spirits in the United States. As the Trust gained member distilleries, most were closed and/or dismantled to limit production and guarantee compliance, respectively.

The Trust looked for ways to discourage competition. Keeping the prices of distilled spirits as low as possible made entry less attractive. The tiered system offered another opportunity—a so-called vertical restraint. On this system, the Whiskey Trust sold to rectifiers who produced brand-name liquors, usually after redistillation and flavoring (maturation in oak to yield straight whiskey was more time-intensive and had a different consumer base). From rectifiers, the product was sold to wholesalers who subsequently sold to retailers before it finally reached consumers. The Trust required partner rectifiers to use Trust spirits exclusively.

Looking next to reduce manufacturing costs, the Trust took notice of Jokichi Takamine. It had learned of Takamine’s strategy for achieving higher alcohol yields over the traditional process, and it wanted an exclusive license to his methods.

The Empire of Japan

Jokichi Takamine was born in 1854, the same year Commodore Perry sailed into Tokyo Bay to open Japan to the Western world after 200 years of isolation. He studied applied chemistry in Tokyo, and the newly formed Meiji government selected Takamine as one of several scholars to study in Britain and bring Western methods back to Japan to insure the nation’s competitive future.

Takamine wound up in Glasgow studying the manufacture and use of fertilizers, so when he returned he was placed in the Ministry of Agriculture and Commerce. During this period, he also spent time as the acting chief of Japan’s new Bureau of Patents and Trade Marks.

At age 30, Takamine was sent to the Cotton Exposition in New Orleans. Here he would meet and marry Caroline Hitch, as well as visit South Carolina to look at the rock source of the “superphosphate” fertilizers. His success sharing his knowledge back in Japan led enthusiastic Japanese industrialists to create the Tokyo Artificial Fertilizer Company, in 1887, and put Takamine in charge. He and Caroline moved to a home next door to the fertilizer company, which showed profit after two years. While managing these affairs, Takamine independently pursued the use of Western methods for the production of paper, dyes and sake. Sake is made using koji.

Koji

Koji is the common name for Aspergillus oryzae, a fungus (mold) associated with rice. A. oryzae is able to degrade starch and execute fermentation (commonly with yeast). Accordingly, A. oryzae is employed to make soy sauce, bean paste, rice vinegar, miso and nectars including sake and shóchú. To make an analogy to whiskey production, koji plays the role of malt and yeast’s assistant by providing the enzymes for mashing and a complementary metabolic pathway for alcohol production (and resulting congeners).

Takamine saw the advantages of koji fermentation over traditional malt. A. oryzae produces large amounts of enzymes that degrade starch, as Takamine believed, better than malt enzymes. Also, the fungus can be harvested in days or weeks compared with barley’s six-month growing season.

A. oryzae and yeast differ in a couple key ways. While yeast is best grown in liquid culture, A. oryzae thrives when grown on solids like ground cereals, bran or whole grain rice. In addition, the environment created by the koji method allows organisms to survive in liquids containing high concentrations of alcohol.

Takamine’s insight was to reverse the direction of cultural influence and to take Japanese koji methods back to the West. The only requirement was that he protect the idea.

U.S. Patent Number 411,231

With momentum provided by patents awarded in 1887 (England) and 1888 (France and Belgium), Takamine was awarded U.S. Patent Number 411,231 entitled “Process of the Manufacture of Alcoholic Liquids” in September 1889. The U.S. patent allowed Takamine exclusive use of the long-standing methods for making sake and shóchú for the manufacture of distilled spirits in the United States and elsewhere.

How can an ancient art of the East be patented in the West? “Novelty” in patent law often tips on what a “person having ordinary skill in the art” knows. The techniques that Takamine protected, while well-practiced in Japan,  were unknown to people of ordinary skill engaged in the production of whiskey in the United States.

Takamine’s expressed goal in ’231 was to ferment alcoholic liquor of strengths up to 18% alcohol as opposed to the 5-6% alcohol attributed to European vinous yeast. The merit of the invention rested on reducing “the cost of labor, fuel, the amount of capital, the size of the manufacturing plant” to 1/3 the scale given the 3x improvement in alcohol production. The “breakthrough” rested on the use of koji in addition to barley and yeast.

The one-page patent rests on two claims:

“The process of making alcoholic liquors, which consists in fermenting a suitable solution or wash with the aid of moyasi fungus and distilling the product, as herein set forth.”

“The process of making alcoholic liquors, which consists in fermenting a suitable solution or wash with a mixture of moto and koji and distilling the product, as herein set forth.”

The first claim indicates that the distillate produced used the fungus. “Moyasi” is defined as a yellow powder that contains the fungal spores (capable of producing the diastase necessary for starch breakdown). “Moto” is defined less transparently. Today, “moto” refers to a yeast starter culture. It seems reasonable to assume the same was true then, although in the patent, Takamine independently refers to the use of yeast, moto and koji. That is, koji’s role was to ultimately yield diastase while yeast from moto accomplished the fermentation. Further obfuscating Takamine’s intent, later patents use the term “ferment cells” in referring to the organism(s) responsible for fermentation whether yeast, fungal or both in combination.

Immigration to America


Having protected the use of koji methods to make alcohol from non-rice cereals in the patent, Takamine created an opportunity. In 1890, he immigrated with his family to Chicago, where he established the Takamine Ferment Company and strengthened his intellectual property position with a flurry of patents filed between 1891 and 1894. The patents “tied up the loose ends” and established Takamine’s exclusive rights in this realm. Because each step of the koji process was unknown in the United States, Takamine blanketed the methods employed (along with improvements) to complete the fabric of intellectual property. While all eight patents filed between 1891 and 1894 are interconnected, one would prove to be the linchpin connecting whiskey and cherry blossoms: patent ’823, which describes the production of Takamine’s diastase, the fungal enzyme useful for starch degradation.

It is somewhat ironic that Takamine’s early years were motivated (and funded) primarily by the desire of Japan to import Western methods. Instead, Takamine emigrated to the USA bringing valuable Japanese know-how with him, but this know-how still had to be proven to the Whiskey Trust.

How the Whiskey Trust came to know of Takamine’s process is uncertain. As early as 1891, newspapers started reporting on the Trust’s investment in the “Takamine process” and the advantages that it might convey. Takamine was in Peoria, and by September, newspapers were reporting on successful implementation of the Takamine process inside one of the Trust’s distilleries. By 1894, Takamine was in charge of an entire distillery, and shortly thereafter the Trust had contracted rights to the process which was estimated to be worth $1.5 million per year.

While things looked good for Takamine, the Trust was not faring so well. It was continuing to combat the entry of new distillers, but in late August of 1894, a larger problem appeared. The Whiskey Trust incurred significant tax debt by withdrawing spirits from bonded warehouses. While the issuance of Takamine’s eight patents could have been cause for rejoicing, instead the Trust’s president was scrambling to find money to pay the tax liability, among other obligations. The Trust was put into receivership in February 1895, and accounting irregularities were discovered shortly thereafter. By May of 1895, newspapers reported that Takamine was successful in getting a release from the exclusive contract with the Trust. The disintegration of the collaboration weighed heavily on Takamine, but opportunity and reward were in his future.

Dyspepsia and Parke, Davis and Company

During the course of the legal battle for annulment of the Whiskey Trust license agreement, Takamine fell gravely ill and was transported to Chicago. While hospitalized, Takamine noted the high-starch diets of patients as well as the frequent complaints of stomach upset. The connection was clear. Instead of degrading starch found in cereals, his diastase might also be used to degrade starch in the stomach of people suffering from amylaceous dyspepsia (the common starch-based stomach upset). Takamine embraced his freedom from the Trust and was rewarded with a new product through partnership with Parke, Davis and Company. Taka-Diastase was advertised by July of 1895, marking the beginning of the field of biopharmaceuticals.

Takamine’s diastase had other uses and new products appeared including those for the manufacture of pectin (Clarase), in textiles (Polizyme) and in baking bread (Superise). While Takamine would continue to file patents on processes and machinery to advance the production of diastase as well as give scientific lectures on the subject, his relationship with Parke, Davis and Company led him to a new area of inquiry, which he pursued from his new environs,
New York City.

Adrenal Glands

Sitting atop each kidney is a small, triangular wedge of tissue that went largely ignored for almost 1,400 years—from the late second century, when it was first described, until the 17th century, when investigators suggested that these “abnormalities” might link the nervous and circulatory systems. By the mid-1800s, it was known that removal of the adrenal glands led to death.

In 1893, two London physiologists showed that the adrenals contained a substance that raised blood pressure, an observation that might translate into a useful intervention for many medical emergencies. In 1898, Addison’s disease (adrenal insufficiency) was treated with adrenal gland extracts. The medical and commercial values of these observations did not escape the broader community, including Parke, Davis and Company. The company recommended that Takamine attempt to purify and identify the active molecules of the adrenal extract. Takamine, who had just earned his first of two doctorates, took it up eagerly.

In 1900, a scientist working for Takamine obtained pure adrenaline crystals and defined the composition of the elusive hormone. Takamine filed five patents on November 5, 1900, describing the isolation of adrenaline. The results were later verified by workers at Parke, Davis and Company. By 1901, the company introduced adrenaline to the medical community.

The White House and the Cherry Trees

The royalties from diastase and adrenaline made Takamine wealthy. While he continued to maintain a laboratory, he increasingly focused on the deteriorating relationship between Japan and the United States. Takamine founded the Nippon Club of NYC, a hub for cultural exchange, in 1905. The New York Times reported regularly of Japanese dignitaries visiting the club and dinners hosted by its president, Takamine. The paper also reported that these visitors would engage captains of industry and finance, tour military bases or call on the White House or President Taft’s summer home. As a prominent Japanese scientist living in New York, Takamine became a de facto ambassador. It was in this capacity that Takamine facilitated the appearance of Japanese cherry trees along the Potomac River in Washington, D.C., and at Grant’s Tomb in New York.

The opportunity arose when first lady Helen Taft wished that the banks of the Potomac River be beautified to encourage their use. The monuments, except that to Washington, did not yet exist. The idea of cherry trees was advanced by Dr. Fairchild of the USDA and Eliza Skidmore, a writer and photographer for National Geographic who, after visiting Japan, had lobbied for the cherry trees since 1885. The Washington Post reports that Dr. Takamine facilitated the gift (working with Fairchild and Skidmore), perhaps by initiating discussions with the Japanese as well as offering to pay for expenses. The formal announcement of the gift appeared in the papers in 1909 when The New York Times reported that Mayor Ozaki of Tokyo had offered 20,000 cherry trees as a gift to President Taft for the banks of the Potomac River. Unfortunately, the first trees to arrive in Washington from Japan in 1910 were infested and ultimately destroyed. In 1912, healthy trees arrived and were planted in Washington in late March by a group including the first lady Helen Taft and the wife of Japanese ambassador. Trees were planted around Grant’s Tomb in the following month.

Such is the tale of Jokichi Takamine, whiskey and the cherry blossoms.

The story of Takamine’s impact on the production of whiskey is not over, though. Consider the Standards of Identity (27 CFR 5.22) where bourbon is defined as “whisky produced at not exceeding 160° proof from a fermented mash of not less than 51 percent corn… and stored at not more than 125° proof in charred new oak containers.” The code is silent on the source of enzyme that accomplishes mashing and what organism executes fermentation. From this statute, the door would appear to be open for the use of A. oryzae (or other fungal organisms) for both mashing and contributing to fermentation.

The Scottish Whisky Regulations, however, are far more specific. The 2009 rules state that mash be “converted at that distillery into a fermentable substrate only by endogenous enzyme systems; and fermented at that distillery only by the addition of yeast.” While “endogenous” is not defined in the regulations, the other stipulation is that “Scotch whisky is that from water and malted barley (to which only whole grains of other cereals may be added).” The use of A. oryzae or other microorganisms is forbidden.

The Irish take the middle ground. The 1980 regulations stipulate that the mash of cereals be “saccharified by the diastase of malt, with or without other natural diastases” and “fermented by the action of yeast.” Here, other natural diastases are allowed. Presumably, Takamine’s process, which relied on fungal organisms that are naturally occurring or were domesticated from naturally occurring organisms would count as “natural.” It is less clear if the enzymes produced as genetically engineered variants (improved versions) of malt enzymes or Taka-Diastase could be employed.

The route to American whiskey favors the use of yeast for fermentation although other organisms like A. oryzae could be employed to create novel flavors. As for mashing, the “get-it-done” spirit of this country shows through. A host of diastases produced by a range of microorganisms are available to the distiller. Many of these have been engineered for higher thermal stability so that they are more active in a hot mash tun following gelatinization. While these enzymes are created using tools from molecular biology that have emerged over the last 40 years, the folks that make them today are following in the steps of Takamine with the same ardent spirit of exploration, advancement and entrepreneurialism.

So, to honor Dr. Jokichi Takamine, let us all raise a toast: To a whiskey scientist overlooked for the Nobel Prize, to a pioneer of biotechnology, to an immigrant who improved the health of untold numbers, to a philanthropist focused on peace, to a bearer of flowers for our capital, a hearty kanpai!

Acknowledgments: The author wishes to thank the library staff of Texas Christian University   for help in research, Bill Shurtleff for helpful discussions and Rob Arnold for thoughtful reading of the manuscript.