In this episode of the Japan Distilled podcast, your hosts Christopher Pellegrini & Stephen Lyman introduce you to the wonderful world of shochu, Japan’s traditional craft spirit. Most people outside Japan think of sake as Japan’s national drink and are more familiar with Japanese whisky, but shochu outsells sake and whisky in Japan. In fact, more shochu is made in Japan every year than tequila in Mexico. But what exactly is it? In this episode you’ll find out.
Stephen and Christopher break down the history, production methods, styles, and how to enjoy these truly unique single distilled spirits. It is important to understand that shochu is much more about how it is made than what it is made from, which makes it more like whiskey or beer and less like sake, wine, or rum.
If you have any comments or questions about this episode, please reach out to Stephen or Christopher via Twitter. We would love to hear from you and are always happy to geek out over these fascinating drinks.
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 brewer at Otter Creek (Middlebury, VT). He now spends most of his waking hours convincing strangers that these indigenous Japanese spirits 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 Japanese distillery in Kagoshima every autumn. His first book, The Complete Guide to Japanese Drinks, was nominated for a 2020 James Beard Award.
They are routinely mistaken for one another (they look nothing alike) in Kagoshima’s famous Tenmonkan drinking district despite neither of them living in the prefecture. They are also both big baseball fans.
Historically, shochu was made from just about anything that rural fishermen and farmers could get their hands on. However, today honkaku, or authentic, Japanese Shochu is represented by 6 predominant styles, which represent 99% of the Japanese market. The remaining 1% is comprised of over 40 other minor ingredients, which are most commonly aromatics added to a rice or barley fermentation before distillation. Examples of this include green tea, seaweed, mushrooms, ginger, or even milk (both skim and whole milk – not kidding).
- Imo – sweet potato shochu, primarily produced in southern Kyushu (Kagoshima and Miyazaki Prefectures). These tend to be rich, funky and the stuff that shochu lovers crave. Some of the most popular brands in Japan are made from sweet potatoes.
- Mugi – barley shochu, primarily produced in Northern Kyushu (Iki Island of Nagasaki, Fukuoka Prefecture, Oita Prefecture). In Iki rice is used for the first fermentation, in Oita its always 100% barley. Either way it’s delicious.
- Kome – rice shochu, primarily produced in Kumamoto Prefecture in Central Kyushu. Rice shochu is made all throughout Japan, but if you want the good stuff, you head to Kumamoto.
- Kokuto – kokuto sugar shochu, produced exclusively in the Amami Islands off the southern cost of Kagoshima Prefecture. While it has notes reminiscent of rum, it’s definitely its own style.
- Soba – buckwheat, produced predominantly in Miyazaki and Nagano Prefectures. This can run the spectrum from light and clean to deep and earthy.
- Kasutori – made from leftover sake lees (residual solids), produced throughout Japan. Extracting the alcohol from sake lees allows the waste from distillation to be used as fertilizer.
Within these styles there are myriad variations based on the other aspects of production from the yeast species to the fermentation time and temperature to the distillation type to how its matured after distillation. Needless to say an introduction like this only scratches the very surface of this drinks tradition.
There are many other styles available and some of them are quite special, but they represent less than 1% of the domestic market. We will be exploring these main styles and many others in future episodes.