A trailblazer’s quixotic quest to bring Japanese rice whisky to America
In the world of whisky, there’s nothing new under the sun. Single malt, bourbon, single pot still: very old news. Whiskies based in corn, wheat, rye, and oats: made for centuries. There’s very little about whisky that isn’t deeply established, just as there are very few whiskies that qualify as anything more than a slight riff on the standard categories.
But a truly novel whisky has emerged in the last decade, one that isn’t an iteration on an existing style, but something set totally apart: koji whisky, or as it was originally known, Japanese rice whisky. Though brand new, this spirit is rooted in ancient production techniques. And its modern form has sparked controversy and questioning about the nature of whisky itself.
One of the first people to realize koji whisky’s potential was a soft-spoken redhead from Georgia named Chris Uhde. “It tasted like 1970s tax-stamp bourbon—it reminded me of Old Taylor,” he says about his first sip, which his friend, an importer of Japanese spirits, poured from an unlabeled sample bottle.
Uhde had no information about the spirit other than its age (6 years old) and the fact that it was made at a shochu distillery. The obscurity didn’t matter, though, because the liquid tasted so good. “I tried it and I just thought it was fantastic.” He recalls saying to himself: “This is whisky.”
When he found out his friend had no plans to import the beverage, Uhde jumped at the chance to do so himself. There was just one problem: a spirit, in order to be imported, needs an official classification as a specific type of alcoholic beverage. Koji whisky had no classification. Technically, the liquid wasn’t whisky. Nor was it shochu. Nor was it really anything. Yet.
Not shochu, not whisky
Shochu is Japan’s original distilled spirit, with a history dating back hundreds of years. It can be made from dozens of ingredients, but always includes koji, a fungus that transforms the base ingredient’s starches into fermentable sugars, imparting unique flavors along the way. Though typically unaged, shochu is sometimes matured in wooden casks, but a quirk of Japanese law requires the final spirit to be extremely pale—meaning barrel-aged shochu is usually heavily filtered, stripped of both color and flavor.
That law means that unfiltered, barrel-aged grain shochu, like what Uhde initially tasted, can’t be considered shochu—and it tastes, as he discovered, akin to mature whisky. But in Japan, a spirit can only be officially classified as whisky if made at a distillery with a whisky license; additional, voluntary standards also mandate the use of malted grain in production. Uhde’s new favorite spirit failed on both counts.
This left barrel-aged grain shochu in a kind of limbo without classification or a clear path to market in Japan. But Uhde discovered that once a spirit leaves Japan—i.e., once it’s exported—it gets to write its own ticket.
Persuading the authorities
For two years, Uhde worked to get the liquid into the U.S. He started by convincing two distilleries with ample stocks of barrel-aged shochu—Ohishi and Fukano—to partner with his importing company, ImpEx Beverages. Uhde’s wife, Kumiko, a native of Kumamoto, where both distilleries are located, helped with the persuasion, and filled in the gaps of Uhde’s spotty language skills. “[She] was able to filter out whatever I said into proper words,” Uhde laughs.
Unlike a typical importing arrangement, in which a whisky is already complete when a deal is signed, Uhde collaborated with the distillers to develop the products, from branding and packaging to the liquid itself. “We worked together to talk through what the flavor profile was going to be; we made sure that there was enough stock for that,” he says, adding that in the years since, they’ve developed new expressions by following the evolution of different casks and understanding how and when the liquid is at its peak.
On the legal side, the problem wasn’t the Japanese government, which, according to Uhde, wasn’t concerned about how the spirits were sold abroad. “As long as it’s leaving the shores, they don’t care.” The problem was the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB). This agency regulates the classification of spirits, and usually requires little more than a label to approve an imported spirit. But something as unprecedented as Japanese rice whisky stumped the agency, even though another brand, Kikori, had navigated the process not long before.
“Fifty percent of the people would be like, this is great; let’s have fun. And fifty percent would be like, you guys are a bunch of snake oil medicine dealers and you should burn in hell and this isn’t whisky and how dare you use that name.”
Uhde found himself trapped in a maze of regulatory bureaucracy. The burden fell to him to prove that his product should rightfully be classified as whisky and imported as such. “It was a lot of non-answers,” he says. “You’d send in something and you just wouldn’t hear anything back.”
Eventually, after innumerable rejected applications and tail-chasing exercises, Uhde broke through. Koji whisky, as it turns out, has a helpful past. Yes, it’s made from fermented grain and aged in a barrel—two key requirements for whisky in the U.S.. And no, koji was not technically an additive, which is disallowed for many classifications of whisky. But most importantly, as Uhde discovered, koji had infiltrated America’s whisky industry before. In the 1890s, a Japanese distiller named Jokichi Takamine used koji to make whisky in Peoria, Illinois. On the cusp of potentially revolutionizing American whisky production, Takamine’s employer, the Whiskey Trust, was put into receivership, and koji whisky was mothballed for almost 120 years.
The precedent Takamine set, however, provided Uhde with his last piece of unimpeachable proof that his products were, indeed, whisky. TTB was convinced, the whisky received its official classification and stamp of approval, and celebrations ensued. Uhde’s new whisky style had finally arrived.
Haters to the left
The vindication was short-lived. As soon as Uhde’s Ohishi and Fukano lines launched in early 2017, the backlash from consumers began.
“Fifty percent of the people would be like, this is great; let’s have fun,” he says. “And fifty percent would be like, you guys are a bunch of snake oil medicine dealers and you should burn in hell and this isn’t whisky and how dare you use that name.”
The critics came from all angles: “rice isn’t a grain.” “Koji isn’t allowed in whisky-making.” “If it can’t be sold as whisky in Japan, it’s not whisky.”
Some worried, perhaps with good reason, that broadening the definition of Japanese whisky would open the door to products that confused and deceived consumers.
Arguments of this kind, as any visitor to an internet whisky discussion board knows, happen all the time. But for a fledgling category like koji whisky, such broad denunciations and criticism can threaten its entire existence.
Koji whisky’s moment arrives
Uhde admits he’s as stubborn as they come, a quality that helped him persevere through the early firestorms. He pressed on, confident that when people tasted the spirits, they’d understand what he had seen instantly: this is whisky. “Slowly we started winning people over,” Uhde remembers. “Because at the end of the day, the juice is good enough.” Sales back that up: both Ohishi and Fukano have sold out of their annual productions every year since launching.
But Uhde’s whisky didn’t just attract consumers; it attracted adherents and evangelists ready to champion the cause of koji whisky. Jason Fukeda, store manager at Hawaiian retailer Fujioka’s Wine Times, even traveled to Japan to visit Ohishi and Fukano in person, returning with a deep understanding of the people and processes behind the brands. “I’m not going to shove anything down someone’s throat or stand on a soapbox, but I do feel a responsibility to advocate for them,” he says. Likewise Joe Capella, co-owner and spirit buyer at Everson Royce, says he was one of the first retailers in Los Angeles to offer koji whisky: “It’s very possible I could’ve been wrong [about it],” he admits—but he wasn’t, as customer interest and sales proved his instincts right.
Though still small, the entire koji whisky category is flourishing far beyond what seemed possible just a few years ago. Ann Soh Woods, founder of Kikori, and one of Uhde’s few early competitors in the Japanese rice whisky space, hardly used the word koji in the early days because it introduced such confusion. “It’s funny because I spent so much time avoiding that word and now they want to put it on the menu,” she says. “I don’t have to explain it anymore.”
In the few years since Kikori, Ohishi, and Fukano debuted, more have followed, like Shibui, Teitessa, and barley-based Takamine, named for the Peoria distiller who first made koji whisky. Uhde recently began importing two more koji whiskies, barley-based Hakata and Ikikko, made from rice and barley.
“We’ll take credit for helping to raise some noise and raise awareness of the category as a whole,” Uhde says, but that’s as much as he’s willing to accept. He now thinks of the endeavor as a means to “expand the pie” of whisky, making it appealing to people who don’t like the traditional styles. “I just wanted to do it . . . it was just cool. It was like making a piece of art.” Yet at the same time, “we’re reanimating or bringing into life something that was historical,” he says. “We’re contributing to what whisky can be, and I don’t think there’s a greater honor than that.”