In the 30th episode of the Japan Distilled podcast, your hosts Christopher Pellegrini and Stephen Lyman swim into uncharted waters. That is the water of life, eau de vie. An uncommon spirits style that’s only very recently begun capturing the attention of Japan’s spirits community.
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 have an almost insatiable thirst for well made spirits.
If you have any comments or questions about malt vs. koji, please reach out to Stephen or Christopher via Twitter. We would love to hear from you.
What is Eau De Vie?
At its most basic, eau de vie is French for “water of life”, but most often refers to unaged (or very lightly barrel aged) fruit based distillates. In Western Europe there is a long history of home distillation of eau de vie (known as schnapps in Germany). When made from fruits with high sugar content, the fruits or their juices are fermented while for fruits with lower sugar content they are usually macerated in neutral spirit before redistilling to capture the aromas of those fruits. They are very much designed to be reflective of what they are made from.
With regard to Japanese eau de vie, it is no surprise that a country so adept at making gorgeous aromatic shochu, would also be able to produce some wonderful eau de vie.
Nikka Apple Brandy
As we mentioned on the last episode, Nikka’s first alcohol product was an apple brandy after they fermented and distilled unsold apple juice. This was likely unaged or only lightly aged so it could have been considered an eau de vie. We are unsure if this was the first fruit distillate in Japan, but it was certainly one of the earliest.
Modern eau de vie in Japan has departed from the western European traditions in that two of the three eau de vie makers use honkaku shochu as the base spirit before macerating fruits, botanicals, herbs, spices, or even vegetables before redistilling to capture the aromas.
At the forefront of this is Kagoshima based Sata Souji, which has turned their know how with making high quality sweet potato shochu and turned it toward some stellar Japanese eau de vie and gin expressions. They’ve gone all in, importing vintage European copper pot stills to do the work of capturing the gorgeous aromas of everything from Japanese plums to cumin to sansho peppercorns.
Mitasayo Botanical Distillery
The Mitasayo Botanical Distillery, which opened just a few years ago in a former municipal botanical garden in Chiba Prefecture, has focused on making true fruit-based eau de vie in the European style with single orchard expressions of all sorts of Japanese fruits from around the country. Really stellar output that is sold out nearly as soon as its put on their website.
Up in the mountains of Gifu Prefecture, you’ll find the microdistillery Tatsumi. This one man show run by Shohei Tatsumi, who began production in 2017 after learning how to make shochu in Kyushu. He makes everything in his tiny production runs in a very traditional wooden still.
With runs of less than 500 bottles per product, he stuff is almost impossible to find, but if you do happen across it, try it. Fascinating stuff.