In the 18th episode of the Japan Distilled podcast, your hosts Christopher Pellegrini and Stephen Lyman turn their noses into the wonderful style that they’ve taken to calling aromatic shochu.
Mixing and Editing: Rich Pav (https://www.uncannyjapan.com/)
CHRISTOPHER PELLEGRINI Vermont born and bred, long-time Tokyo resident and author of The Shochu Handbook, Christopher learned about delicious fermentations as a beer brewer at Otter Creek (Middlebury, VT). He now spends most of his waking hours convincing strangers that shochu and awamori are unlike anything they’ve ever tried before.
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.
Stephen and Christopher spend far too much time seeking out uncommon shochu styles.
If you have any comments or questions about this episode of Japan Distilled, please reach out to Stephen or Christopher via Twitter. We would love to hear from you.
Honkaku shochu can be a confusing spirits category due to the wide breadth of ingredients that it can be made from. Unlike, for example, mezcal, which must be made with agave, authentic shochu can be made from over 50 different ingredients and that is a gross oversimplification since there are approximately 50 different potatoes that can be used as well as over 100 different rice varieties.
As we learned in previous episodes, sweet potato, barley, and rice are the most popular ingredients, comprising of between 90% and 95% of domestic sales by volume. Two other styles, kokuto sugar and soba (buckwheat) make up a lion’s share of the remaining sales volume. Everything else comprises about 1% of annual sales. That includes sake lees shochu and what we have taken to calling aromatic shochu. While some of the ingredients we consider aromatics will contribute starches or sugars to the fermentation and will raise the total alcohol production, they are primarily used for their flavor and aroma characteristics.
Without further ado, here is a complete list of the approved ingredients:
cereal grains (e.g., rice, barley, buckwheat)
tubers (e.g., sweet potatoes, potatoes)
ginseng (multiple species)
red algae (tsunomata and tsurutsuru)
No other ingredients can be used to make authentic honkaku shochu and at least for now, no more ingredients will be approved. We suspect that will be the case until there is a demand for a new ingredient. Ginger, perhaps?
These aromatic shochu are most often made with a rice or barley koji fermentation with more rice and/or barley added to the main fermentation. At some point during the main fermentation, the aromatic ingredient is added. This may be done from the start of the main fermentation or just a day or two before distillation depending on what aromatic profile the master brewer-distiller is hoping to achieve.
These aromatic shochu are nearly always vacuum distilled to preserve the light aromas and mute the grainy expression of the rice or barley.
What is never done is adding the aromatic to the distilled spirit. That is strictly prohibited.
AROMATIC SHOCHU MENTIONED ON THE EPISODE
Perhaps the most popular aromatic shochu overseas, Beniotome sesame shochu has a telltale roasted sesame aroma. Sweet and rich. Almost like dessert.
Made by Munemasa Distillery in Saga Prefecture, these aromatic expressions are simply brilliant. The lemongrass, while not an approved ingredient, is lovely and the green tea is exactly what a green tea shochu should be. Made with Ureshino Green Tea.
RIHEI GINGER SHOCHU
Another non-approved expression, Rihei is a ginger shochu made by Ochiai in Miyazaki Prefecture. At 38% ABV, its clearly designed for cocktails.
Silvervine (matatabi) is a relative of catnip. This vacuum distilled expression is bright and expressive and very much like a light digestif, but without any added sugars.
CHIRAN TEA CHU
A wild one. Made with both local sweet potatoes and local green tea, Chiran Tea Chu is an extremely flavorful aromatic shochu.
Makiba no Yume
A premium rice shochu with a twist – milk. Makiba no Yume carries a nice lactic finish and is beautiful with bubbles.
Chestnut shochu is primarily made on the island of Shikoku, just to the northeast of Kyushu. This is a very popular brand in Japan and can sometimes be found overseas.
Do you have a favorite aromatic shochu not mentioned on the show? Please let us know!