In episode 57 of the Japan Distilled podcast, your host Stephen Lyman is joined by author and podcaster Jim Rion for a deep dive on sanaburi shochu, one of the original forms of kasutori shochu.
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.
JIM RION moved to Yamaguchi Prefecture almost 20 years ago and has since become both an ambassador for the area and also an unquestioned expert in all things Yamaguchi booze. He’s the co-host of the Sake Deep Dive podcast and recently published his first book, Discovering Yamaguchi Sake: a taster’s guide to Breweries, Culture, and Terrain.
Stephen and Jim bonded over sanaburi shochu exploration.
If you have any comments or questions about this episode, please reach out to Stephen or Jim via Twitter. We would love to hear from you.
We first introduced kasutori shochu in episode 17 where we did touch briefly on sanaburi shochu, also known as sanabori shochu. To get some background, please listen to that episode before this one if you haven’t already.
In this episode, Jim Rion joins Stephen to dig into perhaps the most traditional style of kasutori shochu, sanaburi shochu, which dates back to the Edo period when sake lees were distilled to remove the residual alcohol so the lees could safely be used as fertilizer.
Today sanaburi shochu is classified as seichou kasutori shochu, which would be literally translated as “orthodox sake lees shochu” referring specifically to the fact that this is a very traditional production method. The lees, which are solids, are mixed with the hulls of threshed rice to create space to allow steam to pass through the lees.
This mixture is placed into a traditdional seirou mushi still, which is a large wooden structure in which steam is passed through to evaporate the alcohol, which is re-condensed when it hits a large metal cauldron on top that is filled with cold water.
This style of kasutori shochu was originally associated with a Shinto ritual, which is where the sanabori/sanaburi name came from. This is believed to have originated at the Dazaifu Tenmangu Shrine in Central Fukuoka Prefecture and the production style is still associated with the region.
In fact, the 4 brands that are still sold commercially are all concentrated in western Honshu (Yamaguchi and Shimane) or northen Kyushu (Fukuoka and Saga). However, during the Edo era when there was a push to increase rice production due to a growing population, sanaburi shochu was being made all across Japan to produce fertilizer with the shochu being a byproduct.
Due to the rustic distilling methods, the drink itself is heavily grain or cereal forward with plenty of umami and lots of funk. Not for the faint of heart.
Today we are only aware of 5 brands on the market being made by 4 different sake breweries. Perhaps the most famous and the one with the highest annual production (about 1,500 bottles) is Yaku Dou Kabuto from Morinokura Brewery in Jojima, Fukouka. This brand is produced two weeks a year during the spring and is then rested for 12-13 years before release. It’s bottled at full proof (usually around 35% ABV). The first bottling was the 2002 vintage.
Morinokura also makes the Hitachiyama brand, which is a bit more affordable and not aged quite so long.
The other Kyushu based brand is Yamafuru from Narutaki Brewery in Karatsu, Saga, which is bottled at 25% ABV. We are uncertain how long it is aged before bottling.
Up in Yamaguchi, where Jim lives, Sakai Brewery produces the Nishikigawa brand in stealth baby blue packaging. Not the flavor profile we would expect with this bottling.
Finally, in Shimane Prefecture, Toyonoaki Brewery makes the Shippo sanaburi shochu, but it is so rare that the only pictures available online are from the brewery website’s product page.
More to Explore
This is, of course, a very unusual shochu style and not only is not much produced, it’s hard to find. If you track some down, please let us know what you think!