In the 12th episode of the Japan Distilled podcast, your hosts Christopher Pellegrini and Stephen Lyman take a deeper dive into rice shochu. This begins 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 would both be happy to live in Hitoyoshi, Kumamoto, home to rice shochu, if only it weren’t so far from anywhere you could live without a car.
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.
It is safe to assume that the earliest shochu produced in Japan was made of rice since sake had been made in Japan for hundreds of years prior to the introduction of the pot still. However, since shochu production started with moonshine made by farmers and fishermen, it’s possible another grain was predominant in the early days. The most likely candidate would be millet, which today is animal feed, but was a staple in the peasant diet of Edo Era Japan.
Japanese rice cultivation started in Northern Kyushu around 1,000 BCE. Over the intervening 3,000 years, Japanese rice evolved into the modern short-grain rice favored in Japanese cuisine and beverage traditions. This rice tends to be lower in proteins and fats than long-grain varieties cultivated in other parts of Asia, which lends itself to the clean, sweet profile preferred in modern sake.
Well over 100 rice varieties are used for sake and shochu production in Japan. These range from standard Japanese table rice to Yamada Nishiki, considered the king of premium sake rice. Yamada Nishiki is a tall rice variety, making it prone to damage during the frequent summer typhoons.
Most shochu uses Japanese food quality rice polished to approximately 85-90% of the original grain size. Just enough to remove the hull, bran, and any unwanted impurities in the surface layer of the grain. That said, some rice shochu does use higher quality rice for premium brands and sometimes at higher polishing rates.
Rice shochu differs from other styles of shochu in that it is made with 100% rice. No other ingredients other than water, yeast, and koji mold are included. A single exception might be lactic acid when yellow koji is used to protect the fermentation from other invasive organisms.
Rice shochu produced in the Kuma River Basin in Kumamoto using local spring water and Japanese rice is eligible for the Kuma Shochu WTO designation.
The water comes from the Kuma River, which has been selected as one of the most pristine rivers in Japan many times. The basin is situated in mountain plains just south of the Kyushu Mountain Range.
Brands Recommended in Order of Appearance
Hakutake Shiro (center) is Japan’s best-selling rice shochu. Vacuum distilled, easy-drinking, fruity, and light. Kinjo (left) and Ginrei (right) are barrel-aged sake yeast expressions, respectively.
These 3 expressions from Sengetsu Distillery are available in many export markets. Sengetsu (left) is the main brand. Kawabe (center) is made with a more sake-like process. Mugon (right) is barrel-aged and bottled at 40% alcohol.
Torikai is the only product made by Torikai Distillery. With a 45-day ginjo style low-temperature fermentation, Torikai is essentially distilled junmai ginjo sake. Umami laden, but with wonderful ginjo yeast aromas.
Toyonaga Distillery makes a line of wonderful handmade shochu, the most popular of which is the white-labeled vacuum distilled expression. The black-labeled version of the same name is atmospheric distilled. They also make Jigaden, which we introduce below.
NON-KUMA RICE SHOCHU
From Kumamoto, but not from the Kuma River Basin, Amakusa is made on Amakusa Island and this rice shochu saved the former sweet potato shochu distillery from going bankrupt when Hakutake Shiro took over the local market.
HAKKAISAN RICE SHOCHU
Hakkaisan Brewery in frigid Niigata Prefecture makes premium sake, but also sells this popular rice shochu brand in Japan.
Yamasemi is from the famed Kuroki Honten/Osuzuyama family of distilleries in Miyazaki. A very light example of an atmospheric distilled rice shochu.
Motoko is a long-aged rice shochu from Furusawa Distillery in Nichinan, Miyazaki. Bottled at 35% alcohol after being aged in a combination of ceramic pots and enamel tanks for more than 9 years.
Mellowed Kozuru lays claim to being the first barrel-aged shochu and has been in continuous production since 1957. Komasa learned a thing or two about barrel aging through Mellowed Kozuru and is about to release their first Single Malt Whisky from the Kanosuke Distillery, which shares land (but not equipment or ingredients) with the shochu distillery that makes this brand.
Christopher’s shout out on the show was Musha Gaeshi. What he was drinking during recording was Akatsuki (another favorite of his).
Musha Gaeshi is made at the smallest distillery in Hitoyoshi. Atmospheric distilled and completely handmade. Absolutely lush. If you can find the black label (aged 10 years in ceramic), drink it.
Made in the mountains of northern Miyazaki, Akatsuki is the only brand from this tiny distillery.
Stephen’s favorite is Jigaden, a handmade rice shochu produced by Toyonaga Distillery from organic rice grown in their own rice paddy behind the distillery. Unfiltered, so it’s got flavor for days.
During the recording, Stephen was sipping on Shiraitsuki, a 30-year-old rice shochu from Sengetsu, makers of Kawabe and Mugon mentioned above. Deep mineral, caramel, and grain flavors. Available at the distillery, but not many other places.
If we missed anything, please let us know, but this should keep you busy for a while.