In the 24th episode of the Japan Distilled podcast, your hosts Christopher Pellegrini and Stephen Lyman take a deep dive into shimazake (island spirits), which refers to those shochu and awamori not made on one of the 4 main islands of Japan. At least that’s our working definition.
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 particularly enjoy spirits made in places that are hard to get to.
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.
What is Shimazake?
Shimazake (島酒) is literally “island alcohol” with shima (島) meaning “island” and zake (酒) meaning alcohol. In Japan this almost always refers to distilled spirits made on remote islands across the archipelago. Please tune into episode 1 for a pronunciation guide explaining the rules for connected speech that turn sake into zake in Japanese.
Japan is comprised of 6,842 islands of which 421 are inhabited. The 4 main islands, Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu make up the Japanese “mainland” along with quite a few smaller islands connected by bridges or tunnels. The other inhabited islands would be the ones where shimazake might be made.
Okinawan awamori is rightfully all shimazake since Okinawa is the only prefecture in Japan located entirely outside one of the 4 main islands. With 47 distilleries making 100% rice koji distillate, their Shimazake Festa is a great time every spring.
Hanazake (flower sake 花酒) refers to the very high proof awamori made exclusively on Yonaguni Island, the furthest southwestern island in Okinawa. This island is closer to Taiwan than the next closest Okinawan island. Their 60% hanzake is some of the highest proof spirit available in Japan.
Often referred to simply as shimazake in the Amami islands, kokuto sugar shochu is a unique style owing to the traditions of sugar based agriculture on the islands. Situated between the southern tip of Kyushu and Okinawa, the Amami Islands are part of Kagoshima Prefecture. There are 28 active distilleries in the area with 18 different product lines (the 10 smallest distilleries cooperate to blend).
The remote islands that are technically part of Tokyo make some of the most unique shimazake in Japan. They often use barley koji even with sweet potato shochu fermentations. In Aogashima they even grow koji naturally by covering steamed barley with taniwatari leaves.
Iki island is the birthplace of barley shochu. With just 7 distilleries on the island, its a small but important place in shochu history. Iki shochu is alays made with a rice koji primary fermentation and steamed barley is added in the main fermentation.
Outlying Islands Around Kyushu
Several outlying islands around southern Kyushu make fantastic shochu, particularly in Kagoshima Prefecture. Yakushima, which is a world heritage site that inspired the scenery for the anime Princess Mononoke only has 2 distilleries, but they both make lovely spirits. Tanegashima is the launching pad for the Japanese space program and they also make nice shimazake. Finally, the Koshiki Islands are also home to 2 distilleries that make some of Stephen’s favorite shochu.
Nearly all Japanese rum qualifies as shimazake and some of the most remote distilleries in Japan make rum such as Grace Distillery in Okinawa and Ogasawara Distillery in the Bonin Islands.
Much More to Explore
This episode just scratches the surface of shimazake in Japan. We plan to do an episode on each of these islands in the future. Until then see what you can find near you.