Discovering Shochu: Episode 2 – History of Shochu Pt. 2
Reasonating History and Geography of Its Heartland
Areas covering Kyushu and Okinawa are relatively small by comparison to Japan’s total land mass, however, they house more than half of the 470 total breweries producing Shochu in Japan. What makes it so surprising is the myriad of interesting honkaku shochu products which have developed as a result of the local region’s cultural, historical, and geographic influences. From within this relatively small territory come brews of rice, barley, sweet potato, and molasses, each sounding off their own unique Umami charm, highlighting the natural flavors derived from their locally sourced ingredient.
The Kyushu Island consists of seven prefectures, with each region showing strong allegiance to their own particular Shochu type. Economic, political and geographic circumstances all transpired to form the Shochu found in that particular area of Kyushu.
Northern Kyushu – Mugi Shochu
In the northern prefectures of Fukuoka and Saga, from the Edo Period to around World War II, a strong and distinctive kasutori shochu was being produced using sake lees, a by-product of sake production. Back then, sake was made available only to the privileged, therefore, the working class was left with only the residual kasu lees with which to distill kasutori shochu, also called sanaburi shochu, for use at their rice cultivation ceremony. Later, in post war Japan, the image of kasutori shochu took a turn for the worse due to rice shortages, leading to the use of vastly poorer quality ingredients. For this reason, and due to changes in consumer preferences, distilleries ceased using sake lees, and turned to rice and barley to produce shochu.
Nagasaki – Iki Shochu
Iki Island off Nagasaki Prefecture is known for its robust and particularly complex flavored barley shochu, using rice koji as a sub ingredient. Their distilling method is believed to have originated in the Korean peninsula, a close neighbor to Iki. The island had long been rich in rice cultivation, so naturally, sake was being produced there. However, during the economically difficult times of the Edo Period, the Shogunate levied high tariffs payable with rice. It wasn’t much later that sake producers were replaced by barley shochu distilleries. Today, Iki Shochu is recognized by the World Trade Organization, explicitly as a barley shochu produced on the Island of Iki, using one part rice and two parts barley.
Oita – Mugi Shochu
Contrary to Iki’s hearty brew , Oita Prefecture is known for its light and fruity barley Shochu, produced using only one sole ingredient, barley. Historically, during the Edo period, Oita was known as a Sake Kingdom and had plenty of sake lees to process into kasutori shochu, alike Fukuoka and Saga Prefectures. Along with distillation technology advancements, Oita started to utilize barley which was in abundance from the twice a year harvest, where today, Oita has grown to become the Barley Shochu Kingdom. Here, Sanwa Shurui produces Japan’s best selling barley shochu, IICHIKO, a name from their local dialect meaning “iidesuyo” or “very good”. Its light and fruity flavor has a solid consumer following and has paved the way to redefine shochu as a modern and stylish drink.
Kumamoto – Kome Shochu
Kumamoto Prefecture is known for its rice production and naturally, for their rice shochu. A major concentration of distilleries are found in the Hitoyoshi basin located in Kuma, a region of southern Kumamoto. This basin, surrounded by high mountains causes widely fluctuating daily temperatures, and with clean underground spring waters leading to the swift moving Kuma River, produces the ideal condition for rice cultivation. Rice shochu produced here is called “Kuma Shochu”, an officially registered name by the World Trade Organization. Currently, there are 28 distilleries producing Kuma Shochu. Takahashi Shuzo’s HAKUTAKE SHIRO with its highly fruity aroma is reminiscent of a premium Ginjo sake, clean and smooth, with hardly any tail. It is the most popular rice shochu in Japan.
Miyazaki – Imo Shochu
Miyazaki Prefecture produces a variety of shochu including sweet potato, chestnut, corn, and the aromatic and clean flavored buckwheat that Miyazaki is most known for. Because of its warm climate ideal for settling and farming, Miyazaki attracted many samurai and merchants from faraway lands who brought with them their unique possessions. This area was quick to assimilate new cultures and influences. From Oita to the north, Miyazaki adopted their barley shochu production, and from Kagoshima bordering to the south came sweet potato shochu. A majority of shochu makers in Miyazaki today produce sweet potato shochu due to its recent media focus and heightening popularity among young consumers.
Kagoshima – Imo Shochu
Kagoshima Prefecture, or Satsuma as is known by its old name, is famous for sweet potato Shochu, produced by combining various types of sweet potatoes. Sweet potatoes came from China by the way of the Ryukyu Islands (present day Okinawa), and arrived in Kagoshima in 1705 when a lone fisherman named Riemon Maeda brought it upon his return trip to Ryukyu. Due to Satsuma Peninsula’s relatively poor soil filled with volcanic ashes and little nutrients to support rice and barley cultivation, the ruling Satsuma clan encouraged farmers to grow the heartier sweet potatoes for sustenance. This gradually replaced the rice and millet ingredients once used as the main component for Satsuma shochu.
Today’s best selling sweet potato Shochu is SHIRANAMI from Satsuma Brewery. Shiranami set new standards in this category by repositioning the once brash and rugged image of sweet potato shochu through introducing their brew of highly elegant and sophisticated sweetness, and a mild fragrance. IKKOMON is another highly popular, premium grade sweet potato Shochu. This also made news by becoming the only Shochu using no other ingredients other than sweet potatoes, while most others use rice koji for saccarification.
Amami Island – Kokuto Shochu
Amami Islands off the Kagoshima coast is known for Kokuto shochu produced from sugar canes. It’s a unique shochu with a gorgeously sweet aroma and a full, well-rounded flavor. It’s said that sugar cane was brought from China to Amami Island in 1610, just one year before the Shimazu clan’s invasion of Okinawa and Amami was occupied by Satsuma. Historically, since sugar was a major income source for the Satsuma clan and considered a rare commodity, it was originally not used as a shochu ingredient. The production of Kokuto shochu got started in WW II, when mainland Japan cut off their food supplies. Kokuto shochu was officially categorized as “shochu” in 1953 upon the return of Amami Islands to Japan after a short occupation by the United States.
Okinawa – Awamori
Okinawa brought the first distilled spirit to Japan, Awamori. More than 500 years ago, distillation technology and Thai rice crossed the South China Seas from Siam (present-day Thailand) to Ryukyu . Awamori is the only distilled spirit which is made 100% of Thai rice and black koji. Brewed, then jar aged for three years, the liquid matures into a fragrant and mellow brew called Kuus. Aging jars containing Kuus are arranged in chronological order, and as portions of the oldest brew are tapped for bottling, that jar is refilled with the contents of the next succeeding jar. This continues, in succession, from the older to the younger jars.
This fraction blending technique is similar to the Spanish Solera system used in blending aged sherry. Although Okinawa and Spain are worlds apart, there seems to have been some sense of connection between the minds of those wholeheartedly dedicated to liquor production. If there had been any early exchange where the solera ritual had traveled from Spain to Okinawa via Thailand or vice versa, that would have taken many difficult journeys by those to produce superior alcoholic beverages.
Proof: 50 Proof
Made with select barley and natural spring water, the name iichiko is derived from the words “very good” in the local dialect of Oita prefecture.
Outstanding aroma combined with excellent body. iichiko SILHOUETTE is a genuine shochu that further refines the taste of iichiko.
Proof: 48 Proof, 50 Proof
Insistent on quality, Shiro is created from just the essentials, select rice and the pure and mineral-rich water of the Hiyoshi Basin. The full, rich aroma and crisp taste is truly a gift of nature.
Emitting a charming and elegant scent of superior quality rice coupled with a light-tasting fruity body.
Sweet Potato Shochu
Proof: 48 Proof, 50 Proof
Produced by Satsuma Shuzo located in the well-known Satsuma potato growing region. The soil of Shirasu Plateau is composed of volcanic ash which is ideal for growing Satsuma potatoes.
Made with 100% carefully select top grade Kogane Sengan sweet potato and clean spring water, Satsuma Shiranami has a dry, robust taste with natural sweetness of sweet potato and aroma.
Sweet Potato Shochu
Proof: 50 Proof
Made with sweet potato Koji. This makes Ikkomon a very special shochu since other Imo Shochu are generally made with rice Koji. This allows the real sweet potato flavor to come out without the influence of unwanted tastes derived from other materials.
It has a light sweet potato aroma and an earthy, almost smoky flavor. The aftertaste remains a bit smoky until it fades away.