In episode 54 of the Japan Distilled podcast, we discuss something that is almost never talked about in spirits. Dilution. Nearly all distilled beverage alcohol has water added before bottling. Why is that? And why is it so incredibly important in Japan?
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 almost as geeky about Japanese water as they are about Japanese spirits.
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.
It’s not too much to say that water is the key to life. Without it, we would not exist. We could not survive. Of course, this is true of many other minerals, vitamins, and molecules, but water is fundamental.
Historically, water near population centers was dangerous – not fit for drinking but for risk of disease or even death. In Medieval Europe beer and wine were safer than water for drinking. Alcohol kills all kinds of bacteria and viruses that might otherwise do us harm.
But pure water is truly the elixir of life. Water out in nature, up in the mountains, out in the forests, away from people and animals and their stink became a prized commodity. A luxury good.
Today most municipal water in developed countries is clean and fit for bathing or even drinking. But something that still differentiates modern water sources is the water hardness. Water hardness is defined primarily by the mineral content and that is determined largely by how long it takes the water to run through the soil and rock to the underground springs as well as what kind of rock it runs through.
American water tends to be moderately hard while European water is quite hard. Evian, a famed water source, is not soft water at all despite its excellent drinkability.
Meanwhile, in Japan
On the other hand, Japanese water tends to be very soft by Western standards. Japan emerged from the Ring of Fire in the recent past (geologically speaking) so the water run off from rainfall is relatively fast and the rocks it passes through does not provide a lot of minerality. This is a very long way of saying that Japanese water is very soft and, in our opinion, perfect for spirits dilution.
Until the recent obsession with “barrel proof” or “cask strength” whiskies, spirits dilution was the standard in virtually every spirits tradition. Vodka, which if made in a column still, is 95% alcohol or higher before being diluted back down to 40 to 50% so at least half that bottle is water that has been added back in.
As a consumer, that may feel like cheating, but that could not be further from the truth. When alcohol is distilled, the water that carries over into the distilled spirit is also distilled. As a result, it’s lost all of the minerality and texture and mouth feel and even flavor that existed before distillation. With spirits dilution, all of that is reintroduced to the drink. Dilution is a good thing!
What do you think?
We realized spirits dilution and water quality generally may not be a great topic for a podcast, but we hope we’ve entertained you.