In the 61st episode of the Japan Distilled podcast, at long last your hosts dive into soba shochu.
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 enjoy drinking their soba almost as much as they enjoy eating it.
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.
Over the past 60 episodes we have covered, often with more than one episode, each of the other major shochu styles: sweet potato, barley, rice, and kokuto sugar. We intentionally avoided the 5th of the big 5: soba shochu. Why? Frankly, we didn’t know a whole lot about it. We’d been to many distilleries that make the style, but we had never been in the room during a fermentation. Beyond this, soba shochu is not that easy to find outside the main brands.
Soba, of course is buckwheat in English. Best known as a style of Japanese noodle, soba shochu was first developed in the 1970s in Miyazaki Prefecture by what is now known as the Unkai Distillery. Established in 1967, the Gokase Distillery released Unkai soba shochu in 1973. By 1978 they had changed their name to Unkai and they’ve never looked back. Unkai is now the 3rd largest products of shochu in Japan.
Soba shochu was a late starters, but is now the 5th most common ingredient, representing about 2% of all shochu consumed in Japan. Today Unkai is the most popular brand by a country mile, available in convenience stores, supermarkets, and liquor shops nationwide.
Unkai, like many “most popular” brands in a style, is a vacuum distilled soba shochu with bright aromas and a soft sweetness. It goes great on the rocks or with sparkling water, but due to the vacuum distillation it really doesn’t stand so far apart from a vacuum distilled rice or barley shochu.
What is Buckwheat Anyway?
Buckwheat is technically the seed of a fruit related to the rhubarb plant. This means that buckwheat is not a grain, which is the seed of a grass. Wheat, corn, barley, and rice are all grains. Buckwheat is sometimes referred to as a pesudograin, because its fruit lacks the sweet flesh we associate with fruits. Instead, the buckwheat seed is very grain-like with high starch content.
The Japanese government (and other governments around the world) do not seem to understand this nuance since buckwheat/soba is not a separate category for shochu – it falls into the grain bucket. Likewise, there are buckwheat whiskies sold elsewhere in the world and one of the defining characteristics of any recognized style of whisky globally is that its made from grains.
Buckwheat is a hearty grain, growing in nutrient poor soil and at higher elevations meaning that for much of our agrarian past, buckwheat was a very important staple crop in many parts of the world. The advent of commercial fertilizer has led to more fragile grains, which produce high yields per acre, to take over much of buckwheat’s former arable. The most well known buckwheat today comes from the steppes of Mongolia and within Japan, landlocked mountainous Nagano Prefecture it he leading producer.
Other Soba Shochu Brands to Try
While Unkai is the best selling, soba shochu gets very interesting when you start using an atmospheric still, which is the case with the Towari brand. Unfortunately, since Towari is owned by Takara, Inc., we may never know who actually makes it. Takara, a massive conglomerate, has contract distilling done for their honkaku shochu brands all over Japan with very strict non-disclosure agreements with their distilling partners.
Towari goes beyond being atmospheric distilled to being made with 100% soba. That’s right, the koji is grown on soba. Given the hard hulls, we imagine the soba is crushed or granulated before koji propagation. The resulting spirit is deep, rich, and roasty. A really lovely shochu to enjoy oyuwari.
Nagano, as the leading soba producing region in Japan, does have their own native soba shochu production, though there are fewer distilleries at work there than there are in Miyazaki where the style was created. One notable brand that caught Christopher’s attention (it’s easier to find Nagano soba shochu in Tokyo than in Kyushu) is the Toge brand.
Finally, a brand both Stephen and Christopher are a fan of is Soba Kuro from Himeizumi Distillery, hanging off a cliff in northern Miyazaki. This atmospheric distilled soba shochu is rich and decadent and plays well with just about any service style.
More to Explore
As always, there is much more to explore in the world of soba shochu. If you have any brands you particularly like that we didn’t talk about, please hit us up on social media.