In the 13th episode of the Japan Distilled podcast, your hosts Christopher Pellegrini and Stephen Lyman take a deeper dive into barley shochu. This continues a multi-part series breaking down the various subcategories of honkaku shochu, which are classified by ingredient type in the main fermentation.
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 were both introduced to the world of authentic Japanese honkaku shochu through barley shochu. Stephen remembers his first brand (iichiko), Christopher, alas, does not.
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.
Barley Shochu Origins
While the earliest shochu was almost assuredly made of rice, barley shochu likely appeared quite soon afterward. Farmers and fishermen in Kyushu were growing rice, barley, millet, wheat, and other grains, but since rice was the taxable commodity during the Edo era, the farmers would have had an incentive to use other grains for their spirits.
Japanese barely is almost always 2-row or 6-row barley with 2-row barley being most common for shochu production. Most barley grown in Japan is used for beer, barley tea, and food production, but some of it does find its way into pot stills for shochu and whisky making. Barley is typically harvested in May and rice is planted int he same fields shortly afterward. As such, shochu made from fresh barley is produced in the summer months.
However, most barley consumed in Japan is imported. The most common import countries are Australia, Canada, and the US. Australian barley is often considered the most suitable for shochu production, though the reason remains a mystery.
Unlike whisky and beer production, the barley used in shochu is polished before use. As with rice polishing for shochu production, the barley is usually polished to between 85-90% of the original weight. This pearled barley is most similar to what is used in European barley soups.
Barley shochu can begin with either a rice koji fermentation or a barley koji fermentation. By production volume, 100% barley shochu (made with barley koji) is most common. However, it is believed that the earliest barley shochu were made with a rice koji starter fermentation.
Barley shochu produced on tiny Iki Island (just 20km – 12 miles end to end) qualifies for the WTO recognized Iki Shochu designation. However, this shochu must be made using 1/3 rice koji in the starter fermentation with 2/3 barley added to the primary fermentation. There is no requirement to use Iki-grown barley, but an Iki water source must be used. Just 7 distilleries on Iki Island produce this style.
However, most barley shochu is actually produced in northern Kyushu (Saga, Fukuokka, and Oita prefectures) with Oita Prefecture leading annual production volume due to being the home of two very large producers, Sanwa Shurui (who makes the best selling iichiko) and Nikkiado (who makes their eponymous brand).
These two distilleries in particular broke out in the 1970s and 1980s due to their innovative use of vacuum distillation (Nikkaido) and blending (Sanwa Shurui).
Recommended Barley Shochu Brands
The Chingu brand from Iki is made by hand and is available in both atmospheric (brown bottle) and vacuum (green bottle) expressions. The atmospheric Chingu drinks full bodied while the vacuum is light and expresses very well with soda.
Available in foreign markets, Yamanomori is a full-bodied atmospheric distilled Iki shochu. Only very lightly filtered for a long finish.
IKI SUPER GOLD
Iki Super Gold from Genkai Distillery is a very popular brand nationally in Japan. Barrel aged, but still compliant with the color restrictions now in place for shochu. Vacuum distilled and just 22% ABV, it is a very light, easy-drinking barley shochu.
OITA BARLEY SHOCHU
Nikaido’s US export brand is Kitchomu, which comes in a ceramic jar rather than glass bottle. This brand is vacuum distilled (and very hard to find a picture of online – if anyone has one, please send it our way!). Nikaido made a name for themselves by innovating in the world of 100% barley shochu and vacuum distillation.
The iichiko line comes in a variety of expressions from Sanwa Shurui. They took Nikaido’s vacuum distilled concept and perfected it through blending.All are 100% barley and represent a blend of different base distillates. Their most recent release, Saiten, is designed for bartenders.
FUKUOKA BARLEY SHOCHU
Tsukushi is a 100% barley shochu from Nishiyoshida Distillery in Fukuoka. The white label expression is lighter while the black label is more full-bodied.Their sister brands Ark Jakuunbaku and Kintaro are unfiltered and made from roasted barley respectively. Pretty much everything Nishiyoshida makes is worth trying.
SAGA BARLEY SHOCHU
Mizu shochu is an export brand from Munemasa Distillery in Saga Prefecture. Only 12 shochu distilleries operate in the prefecture and Munemasa is easily the msot prolific. Unlike most shochu, Mizu clocks in at 35% ABV so it will hold up as a cocktail base. As a result of the tireless efforts of the brand’s founder, Mizu is now one of the most popular shochu brands available in the US.
MIYAZAKI BARLEY SHOCHU
HYAKUNEN NO KODOKU
If any brand challenges Kanehachi for the title of the most famous brand of barley shochu in Japan, Hyakunen no Kodoku may be the top competitor. A 40% ABV barrel aged barley shochu, it is rich with strong vanilla and oak flavors. Beautiful packaging as well. The name translates as “100 years of solitude” as the distillery owner was a fan of the magical realist novel of the same title.
Christopher and Stephen pretty strongly agree that their favorite barley shochu are both from small distilleries in Oita.
Kanehachi is likely the most famous barley shochu in Japan, at least among 25% expressions. Atmospheric distilled, rich, lush, and very hard to find.
Taimei is a 100% handmade barley shochu from tiny Fujii Distillery in the mountains of Oita.
If we missed anything, please let us know, but this should keep you busy for a while.