In episode 42, our hosts begin a 3 part exploration into the World Trade Organization Geographic Indications for shochu made in Kyushu and surrounding islands. For this episode, we dive into Kuma Shochu in particular.
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 get excited about Kuma Shochu, especially the handmade kind.
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.
WTO Geographic Indications
WTO Geographical indications, or GIs, are “place names (in some countries also words associated with a place) used to identify the origin and quality, reputation or other characteristics of products” (for example, “Champagne”, “Tequila” or “Roquefort”). These are really products that are so linked to a place that they become inseparable. You can make sparkling wine almost anywhere, but you can’t call it champagne unless its made in Champagne, France. Same for Brandy made in Cognac. That’s Cognac. Everything else is Brandy.
Japanese sake has received GI status, but since were are interested in distilled spirits here on this podcast, we are focused on the shochu producing regions that have been granted GI status. These are Kuma Shochu (rice shochu produced in Kumamoto’s Kuma River Basin), Iki Shochu (barley shochu made on Iki Island in Nagasaki), and Satsuma Shochu (sweet potato shochu made in Kagoshima). Over the next 3 episodes we will explore each of these in turn.
Kuma Shochu is rice shochu made in the Kuma River Basin region of Kumamoto Prefecture. The Kuma River is a fast flowing, pristine water source and Kuma Shochu must be made from water from the river’s underground springs as well as rice. While the rice does not need to be grown in the Kuma River Basin, many premium brands only use locally grown rice.
These are 27 active distilleries in the Kuma River Basin, which incorporates the city of Hitoyoshi and the surrounding agricultural lands within the basin. A 28th distillery was destroyed in a recent flood with a hope to rebuild and restart production.
Kuma Shochu Styles
Note that the “kuma” in Kuma Shochu (球磨 in 球磨焼酎 which would literally translate to something like “ball polishing” due to the fast flowing water) is different than the “kuma” in Kumamoto (the 熊 in 熊本, which means “bear” as in the mammal).
Kuma Shochu can probably be broken down into three primary styles. The most common is vacuum distilled using premium Japanese rice and white or yellow koji for fermentation. Another popular style would be that same distillate, but aged in oak. Finally, traditional atmospheric rice shochu distillates are still made by some resolute distilleries.
Select Kuma Shochu Distilleries
Takahashi Distillery – largest producer in the area, making 50% of all rice shochu sold in Japan. Most popular brand is Hakutake Shiro. Reputation for light, easy drinking shochu with lovely aromas of fruit and flowers.
Sengetsu Distillery – located in Hitoyoshi City, Sengetsu is a popular tourist destination since it’s a short walk from the main train station. They were the first rice shochu maker to export to the United States and today have several brands available in many countries across the world including their main brand Sengetsu, Kawabe (using sake yeast), and Mugon (barrel aged).
Fukano Distillery – Situated not far from Takahashi, Fukano has a wide variety of expressions of Kuma Shochu and a strong barrel management program. So much so that Fukano koji whisky is sold in the United States.
Toyonaga Distillery – claiming to be the furtherst up the river (implying the purest water), Toyonaga makes a variety of rice shochu including their main Toyonaga brands (both vacuum and atmospheric available) and Jigaden (atmospheric expression made from organic rice grown behind the distillery).
Jufuku Distillery – the smallest distillery making Kuma Shochu. They only make atmospheric expressions by hand. Mushagaeshi is their main brand and the Mushagaeshi black label is aged for 10 years before bottling.
Torikai Disitllery – situated on a mountaintop, Torikai makes only one brand, which is a ginjo quality vacuum distilled rice shochu made with yellow koji, sake yeast, and a 45 day low temperature fermentation. As elegant a drink as you’ll ever find.
How to Help
Restoration of Hitoysohi and other areas affected by the 2020 floods continues. If you would like to learn more or are interested in helping, please visit this link.