In episode 47, our hosts move beyond WTO Geographic Indications and begin exploring regional styles that do not have GI protection. Easily, the one most associated with a specific region is Oita 100% barley shochu.
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 are big fans of Oita 100% barley shochu.
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.
Oita 100% Barley Shochu
Oita Prefecture is situated in the northeast corner of Kyushu Island – East of Fukuoka, North of Kumamoto, and sharing a coastal border with Miyazaki on Kyushu’s east coast. The mountainous prefecture is well known for hot springs and has begun producing a fair amount of geothermal energy as Japan continues to seek energy independence.
Oita 100% barley shochu is a relatively recent style, having only been innovated by the Nikaido Distillery around 50 years ago when representatives from Nikaido Distillery in Oita Prefecture visited distilleries in two different prefectures. They learned barley koji making from the Yanagita Distillery in Miyakonojo, Miyazaki. Nearly simultaneously, they were introduced to the vacuum pot still at Kitaya Distillery in Yame City, Fukuoka Prefecture. By the early 1970s, Nikaido had released their vacuum distilled 100% barley shochu, which turned consumer expectations for honkaku shochu on its head.
Nikaido’s ascendance was short-lived with Sanwa Shurui, also in Oita Prefecture, releasing the iichiko brand in 1979. Within a few short years, iichiko was the best selling shochu in Japan. In fact, these light vacuum distilled 100% barley shochu brands were the first shochu brands to go national. Sanwa Shurui’s experience with blending provided them with a leg up over the competition. When they were founded in the 1950s, 4 families combined efforts and began blending their distillates.
Over the years, they perfected this to such a point that today all of their products are very carefully designed blends of more than 20 different base distillates, all 100% barley. The base distillates vary on yeast, koji, fermentation temperature, fermentation time, still design, and maturation methods.
Oita 100% Barley Shochu Styles
Oita 100% Barley Shochu can probably be broken down into three primary styles. The most common is vacuum distilled using white barley koji for fermentation. Another popular style would be that same distillate, but aged in oak. Mush less common, the 3rd style would be traditional atmospheric distillates, which are full of grain, nut, and other rich flavors. In contrast with Iki Shochu, atmospheric distillation is much less common and the 100% barley shochu tends to be much more linear in its expression.
Select Oita Shochu Brands
Nikaido – the first Oita shochu to make a national splash in Japan is the iconic Nikaido brand in their brown bottles with orange labels. Vacuum distilled. Very easy drinking.
iichiko – While Sanwa Shurui sells dozens of brands of shochu, iichiko is their main line and most of their sub-brands include “iichiko” in their branding. This blended 100% barley shochu remains Japan’s best selling barley shochu more than 40 years after release.
Taimei – a 100% handmade 100% barley shochu. Atmospheric distilled. Lush, rich, wonderful with hot water.
Kanehachi – probably the most famous barley shochu from Oita if we are judging fame by shelf price and rarity rather than sales volume. If you can find Kanehachi, you’ll be paying prices similar to the legendary 3 M’s of Satsuma Shochu. Rich, roasty aromas. Gorgeous.
Moriya – this brand takes premium shochu in a different direction than Kanehachi or Taimei. Made with nadeshiko flower yeast, 50% polished barley, and vacuum distillation, Moriya is a bright, beautiful expression. It’s available on ANA Business Class by the glass.
More to Explore
This really scratches the surface for 100% barley shochu. While Oita makes more than anyone and very little else, other northern Kyushu Prefectures also make the style, particularly neighboring Fukuoka.