The back story
When it comes to Japanese whisky, the world seemingly can’t get enough. Exports soared to $373 million in 2021 — an 18-fold increase over the past decade, according to figures from Japanese officials. The U.S. remains one of the biggest markets for the product, which is often compared to Scotch in its flavor profile. Around $50 million of the Japanese spirit was exported to the U.S. in 2020.
But what if there was a Japanese whisky with a very American twist? In a sense, that’s the story of Takamine.
Though the spirit is made in Japan, it honors a Japanese man who made his mark largely in the U.S. — one Jokichi Takamine (1854-1922). He came up with the process of using koji fermentation, which is common in the production of sake and other rice products, and applying it to whisky to give it a decidedly different flavor profile.
Though Takamine studied at Tokyo Imperial University and started his career as a chemist in Japan, he eventually made his way to the U.S., where he experimented with whiskey making for a period. Ultimately, though, his landmark achievement was his isolating of the hormone adrenaline, which proved critical in medicine. It also made him a very wealthy man — and one who continued to honor his native country in various ways. Those famed blossoming cherry trees in Washington, D.C.? They were donated in part by Takamine.
Jump ahead several decades for the next chapter. In 2019, Stephen Lyman and Christopher Pelligrini, two spirits-savvy American ex-pats living in Japan, learned that a Japanese distillery had revived Takamine’s koji-fermentation process. That led them to work on bringing the spirit to the U.S.: “Once I learned the story (of Takamine), I was just blown away,” says Lyman. Thus, Takamine Whiskey, as they decided to call it, came to America.
The spirit has proved quite popular since its introduction here last year. Lyman says the initial shipment of 600 cases sold out in five months.
What we think about it
On the surface, Takamine tastes much like other Japanese whiskies — think a highly refined Scotch, with a gentle, warming flavor and a hint of caramel-like sweetness. But to my tastebuds, the distinct difference is that umami quality, a roundness in the mouthfeel that is almost a taste unto itself. In all, a satisfying and unique whisky — and one that’s well worth trying.
How to enjoy it
Lyman says this is a whisky meant to savored on its own — meaning it might get lost in a cocktail with multiple ingredients. He suggests trying it on the rocks, though I do like it neat. Lyman also says it can be used in a highball — that is, one part whisky and three to four parts soda water.