Let’s Talk Shochu

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Let’s Talk Shochu

Move over sake, there’s another Japanese spirit in town—shochu.

The origins of Japan’s national spirit are a bit murky, but the spirit can be traced all the way back to the 16th century. Today in Japan, shochu is enjoyed primarily with meals as it pairs extremely well with food. The spirit has continued to grow in popularity in Japan, and an increasing number of bars and restaurants in the country are now serving shochu.

Whereas sake is a brewed spirit, shochu is a distilled liquor. Shochu is typically distilled from rice, barley, sweet potato, buckwheat, or sugar cane. For the purposes of this article, we will focus on rice shochu.

Skillful master distillers called Toji make shochu. To make rice shochu specifically, a distillery and its Toji start with a rice base that is steamed, which both sterilizes the rice and helps to dissolve starches. After the rice is cooled, koji is produced by sprinkling koji-kin (mold) on the rice. This forms koji mold, which creates enzymes as it grows that break down starch into fermentable sugars. Three types of koji mold are used in the production of shochu, which impart specific characteristics and tastes: white (most common), black, and yellow. (Note: Koji is also used to make traditional Japanese seasonings like soy sauce and miso.)

Next are the two stages of the fermentation mash known as moromi. In the first moromi, the rice koji is mixed with water and yeast to convert the sugars into alcohol. This fermentation takes about a week. In the second moromi, sweet potato that has been washed, steamed, cooled, and crushed is added to the mash and the mixture is fermented for about two weeks.

Distillation, or the purifying of the moromi, occurs next. There are two types of distillation—single and consecutive. Single distillation is a very traditional distilling method and is used for making “otsu-rui” or “real-thing” shochu. The consecutive distilling method removes any components without alcohol and results in a very pure, almost tasteless and odorless product.

Depending on the quality desired, the shochu is then stored and aged accordingly in clay vats, tanks, or wooden barrels. From there, water is added to reduce the alcohol content of the original shochu (known as genshu) to between 24-36% depending on the type of shochu. The shochu is then bottled and shipped out.

The Kumamoto Prefecture is particularly well known for its production of rice shochu, which is known as Kuma shochu. The shochu is mixed and ground with water from the underground stream of the Kuma river, a totally pure water source. There are 28 distilleries in this area, and the shochu produced in the hitoyoshi area of Kumamoto is protected with a geographical indication from the World Trade Organization to indicate its origin.

This past February, Bar Business Magazine Publisher Art Sutley along with mixologists Phil Wills and Mia Mastroianni had the privilege to travel to Japan and the Kumamoto Prefecture to learn more about shochu. The eye-opening experience helped shed light on this spirit that’s just starting to emerge in the U.S.

“There is no better way to understand a liquor category than to be with the people that make it,” says Sutley. “There was such a passion for what these distillers are producing and a strong connection to its history. They ensure they encompass the tradition of the distillers before them.”

The group got to learn about the shochu-making process at five different distilleries: Takahashi Distillery, Fukano Distillery, Sengetsu Distillery, Torikai Distillery, and Rokuchoshi Distillery.

Torikai Distillery. This distillery boasts over 400 years of history and started producing shochu at the end of the Edo period (1600-1868). At this time, the family also produced sake, vinegar, miso, and soy sauce.

While most Kuma shochu is made from white koji, Torikai is unique as it uses yellow koji. “We think the Kuma area used to use yellow koji back in the day,” explains Kurato Torikai. “To get back to the basics, we use yellow koji. By using yellow koji and ginjo techniques (which means rice is polished to less than 60% of it’s original volume), we produced the first shochu with a rich ginjo flavor.”

Also separating Torikai from the pack is its selection of certain yeasts, use of low temperature, and long-term fermentation process, which takes twice as long compared to ordinary shochu production.

The result is the distillery’s Ginka Torikai, a shochu with a distinctive ginjo aroma, reminiscent of tropical fruit, and a mellow taste.

Sengetsu Distillery. Founded in 1903, the distillery is named after the beloved Hitoyoshi Castle of the Kumamoto Prefecture and has been producing rice shochu exclusively for 120 years. Its storied history includes its third Toji being named a “contemporary master craftsman” by Japan’s minister of health, labour, and welfare—the first time that happened in the shochu industry. Today, the distillery’s current and sixth Toji follows the technique of that third Toji.

A few things that separate the Sengetsu Distllery are its still, which it designed on its own. It also only uses new oak barrels for aging, never secondhand ones. Sengetsu offers single-distilled shochu as well as Mugon Shochu, which is undiluted and aged in oak barrels for over 10 years.

Fukano Distillery Founded in 1823, the Fukano Distillery is currently run by the seventh generation of the family, CEO Seiichi Fukano. The distillery values quality over quantity and only a few casks are bottled each year. The shochu is 100% handmade in the traditional way using a combination of malted and un-malted rice and a clay pot for distillation.

Takahashi Distillery. With multiple locations, including one in Taragi whose founding dates back 120 years, Takahashi makes the very popular Hakutake Shiro shochu brand, which is the number-one selling premium rice shochu in Japan.

Photos: Art Sutley.

Rokuchoshi Distillery. An innovator in the world of shochu, the distillery was the first to install a genatsu pot still. The distillery is known for its premium aged shochus, and it is always developing its aging methods, which is done in new oak barrels only.

Even in just this one region of Japan focusing on rice shochu, there are vast differences between the methods of the distilleries. “What particularly intrigued me about the process of producing shochu was the fact that there are so many methods that can be utilized to create categorically the same product. The shochu-making process is rather complex, using only rice, barley, sweet potato, or buckwheat as the base grains, with different areas geographically focusing on each style, and the base used can produce a vastly different variety of shochu, which can either be light, mild, fruity and fresh, or alternately be rich, heavy, and complex,” says Mastroianni. “There is no one definitive way to produce shochu, but the passion behind each distillery we visited was the common denominator.”    

Many of these distilleries have U.S. distribution for their shochu, and they hope for the product to take hold with consumers and bars here in the States.

Sutley sees plenty of room for the spirit on cocktail lists. “The US market is always searching for the next exciting component for cocktails,” he says. “I see this fitting nicely into the bartender’s arsenal of ingredients for exciting cocktail builds and signature cocktail lists.” 

Mastroianni agrees. “I 100% believe there is not only a home for shochu in the U.S. market, but I think it could potentially thrive here and emerge as the next international trend in cocktails,” she says. “Not only is it delicious on its own, but each variety offers a diverse palate for cocktail development, not to mention bringing in the inclusive story of its indigenous environment, rich history, culture, and growth in popularity among all demographics in the Japanese market. I believe the U.S. is ready for shochu.”

The different styles of shochu can take bartenders in many directions when developing a cocktail. “The lighter, citrus forward styles are a bit more neutral so they’d need to be treated delicately—as a base spirit that wouldn’t be overpowered, but perhaps paired with a light ingredient that would highlight the subtle flavors that naturally come forward in the shochu,” says Mastroianni. “The richer and bolder styles of shochu have a bit more versatility. They can be enjoyed as a highball, but I could easily see them being paired with vegetal and earthy ingredients, or even play nicely with some of the botanicals commonly found in gins.”

Wills sees opportunities in the market for aged and unaged shochus. “It has such a unique aroma that is so different than any other libations we currently have behind our bars,” he says. “Shochu pairs well with a variety of ingredients. The less aged shochus work well with simple things like citrus and sugar syrup to create a variation of your classic Daiquiri. The barrel-aged shochu is bold enough to be made in any variety of whiskey cocktails including Old Fashioneds and Manhattans.

“Because of the complexity that shochu has when barrel aged, I see this style being used the most. It has flavors similar to whiskey yet is light and has a gentle mouth feel.”

A big part of introducing shochu to consumers is through education—first of bartenders and bar owners who can trickle that education and story down to consumers. “As U.S. bartenders learn more about shochu and are able to taste it, I think we will see a rise in the creation of cocktails with it,” says Wills.

The Fukano Distillery says that establishing shochu as a main ingredient in cocktails and developing shochu-based cocktails, will help to spread the Japanese spirit in the U.S. market.

Torikai Distillery agrees. “In Japan, shochu is drunk during meals, so we drink shochu neat, on the rocks, or with water or soda. Shochu has a wide variety of taste and character, so you can enjoy it by adding simple things,” says Torikai. “But we also expect American consumers and bartenders to find new ways to drink it, which we never imagined.”

Shochu’s tradition as a food pairing can also be played on here in the States since it pairs with more than just Japanese cuisine. “With its wide variety of tastes, it can match any type of cuisine, and I think that once U.S. bartenders have the chance to explore and play with the spirit, it can easily come to the forefront by being a base spirit or modifier and will be seen and featured within many cocktail menus,” says Mastroianni.

One thing’s for certain—Japan made shochu believers out of Mastroianni, Sutley, and Wills.

“The distillery tours provided so much information on a spirit that I had no information about,” says Wills. “What I hold dear to my pallet is the journey of shochu I experienced with each sip. What I hold dear to my heart from the distillery tours is how passionate, caring, hard working, and inviting everyone was to share the great spirit of this incredible country.”

Mastroianni was also struck by each of the distillery’s passion. “I was personally blown away by the generosity of all of our hosts who genuinely shared the passion with which their products were produced. They were so forthcoming with knowledge, history, culture, and pride, and it was absolutely contagious,” she says. “I am forever changed by this experience on the other side of the world, and will do my best to honor and translate their passion into each and every shochu cocktail I produce.”   

Bar Business Magazine would like to thank Japan Airlines and the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO) for their roles in this incredible trip.

Importner/Distributor Info

Takahashi Distillery

Importer/distributor: Mutual trading https://lamtc.com/

Torikai Distillery

Importer Progressive Beverages, Inc.

Distributors: see http://www.torikaishochu.com/distributors.php