In the 53rd episode of the Japan Distilled podcast, we complete Jokichi Takamine’s improbable journey and reflect on his legacy. This is the 2nd in a 2 part series so if you missed episode 52, we recommend you go back and have a listen about Jokichi Takamine’s formative years.
Theme Song: Begin Anywhere by Tomoko Miyata (http://tomokomiyata.net/)
Mixing and Editing: Rich Pav (https://www.uncannyjapan.com/)
STEPHEN LYMAN discovered Japan’s indigenous spirits at an izakaya in New York City. He was so enthralled that he now lives in Japan and works in a tiny craft shochu distillery every autumn. His first book, The Complete Guide to Japanese Drinks, was nominated for a 2020 James Beard Award.
MATT ALT is our first guest host! Author of numerous books including his most recent, Pure Invention: How Japan Made the Modern World, is an exploration of Japan’s incredible post-war rise to commercial diplomacy juggernaut. He’s also an accomplished drinks writer and cocktail historian.
If you have any comments or questions about Jokichi Takamine, please reach out to Stephen or Matt via Twitter. We would love to hear from you.
Immigrating to the US
In 1890, at the behest of his mother-in-law and to the relief of his wife Caroline, Jokichi Takamine moved his family to Chicago, Illinois where he established the Takamine Ferment Company.
Illinois Whisky Trust
By 1891, Jokichi Takamine had patented the use of koji for alcohol production in both the US and UK. In the same year, he licensed his US patent to the Illinois Whisky Trust, the largest producer of distilled spirits in America in the late 19th century.
The Chicago Tribune ran an article claiming that whisky was to become cheaper thanks to the proprietary Takamine Process. Exactly two weeks later, there was a mysterious fire at the Manhattan Distillery in Peoria, IL, where the koji whiskey experiments were underway. Not dissuaded, the distillery was repaired and experiments continued until commercial production was greenlit in December 1894.
Sadly, in February 1895, the State of Illinois and Justice Department enforced the Sherman Act to break up the Illinois Whisky Trust. The new owners of the Manhattan Distillery reverted to malting. Dr. Takamine sued in federal court to get his patent back, but he lost – the patent was considered an asset sold to the new owners.
A New Start
Health problems and potential backlash toward him and his family resulted in Jokichi Takamine moving with his family to New York City in 1897. By 1900 he had isolated adrenaline in his Harlem laboratory. This coupled with his previously patented Taka Diastase digestive aid had made him and his family very wealthy.
He’d gained notoriety back in Japan as well so when the St. Louis World’s Fair concluded, the emperor gave the Japan Pavilion structure to Takamine. This was a replica of one of the emperor’s summer palace, which Takamine moved by rail to the Catskills in Upstate New York where it was renamed Shofuden. Today it’s being renovated by private owners. Their Instagram is wonderful.
Dr. Takamine would spend the remainder of his life focused on philanthropy and attempting to help bridge American Japanese relations. He founded the Nippon Club, a private gentleman’s club in NYC for Japanese businessmen. It’s still active today.
And in perhaps his greatest contribution to American culture, he donated the cherry trees that ring the Tidal Basin in Washington, DC, as well as trees in Baltimore, MD, and New York City.
Sadly, he would die relatively young on July 22, 1922 at the age of 67. He is interred in his mausoleum in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.
Dr. Takamine remains a giant in his own right. The first person to isolate a human hormone, the first Japanese person to make whisky, the donation of the cherry trees to the US, founding a still existent pharmaceutical company in Japan, and establishing a gentlemen’s club that is still active over 100 years later.
Sadly, his son Jokichi, Jr., passed unexpectedly under mysterious circumstances in his early 40s and Ebenezer struggled to keep the family business afloat. He was finally granted American citizenship just a couple years before he died. Caroline would remarry, but when she died in her 80s, she was laid to rest beside Jokichi Takamine.
Of course, he is gone, but not forgotten. His koji whiskey lives on in Takamine Whiskey from the Shinozaki Distillery in Fukuoka, Japan, imported to the US by Honkaku Spirits. Available at fine retailers in many states.
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