In episode 44, our hosts finish a 3 part series into the WTO Geographic Indications with a deep dive into Satsuma Shochu, the Bordeaux of the Japanese spirits world.
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 probably drink more Satsuma shochu than anything else, well, other than water.
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 products that are so linked to a place that they become almost inseparable. You can make sparkling wine nearly anywhere, but you cannot 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 (episode 42, rice shochu produced in Kumamoto’s Kuma River Basin), Iki Shochu (episode 43, barley shochu made on Iki Island in Nagasaki), and Satsuma Shochu (this episode, sweet potato shochu made in Kagoshima).
Satsuma Shochu is sweet potato shochu made with sweet potatoes grown in Kagoshima Prefecture, koji produced in Kagoshima Prefecture, which is completely fermented, distilled, and bottled in Kagoshima Prefecture. Today’s Kagoshima Prefecture was known as the Satsuma Domain during the Tokugawa era and while the borders don’t align perfectly, Satsuma Domain was where the sweet potato was introduced to Japan in the early 1700s.
With over 100 active distilleries in the prefecture (some making kokuto sugar shochu in the Amami Islands), there are literally thousands of Satsuma Shochu brands available to the Japanese drinking public. Some of these brands have become incredibly popular and demand a premium price whenever you can find them.
Satsuma Shochu Styles
Just a few years ago, Dancyu magazine sponsored a blind tasting competition of three predominant styles of sweet potato shochu: light body, medium body, and full body. Today that spectrum would be completely inadequate to describe the variety of styles now available. While there are still light, medium, and full bodied Satsuma Shochu in the traditional spectrum of styles, the new fruity, highly aromatic sweet potato shochu that are highly yeast-driven do not fit neatly in those categories as they defy those richness definitions.
Add to that the koji varieties, more than 50 different sweet potatoes used in shochu production, aging vessels, and filtration, and you have an extremely diverse style of traditional honkaku shochu. Each of those production considerations will yield a different expression and many of them will defy what has traditionally been thought of as “smelly sweet potato shochu” in Japan.
The Three M’s
While there are thousands of Satsuma Shochu brands, we will stick to the 3 M’s in this review. Those are the three most famous shochu available in all of Japan.
Maou (far left in photo above) is a vacuum distilled yellow koji Satsuma Shochu that expresses beautiful aromatics and plays very well with soda. This would best be described as “light” based on the Dancyu definition.
Muraou (center in photo above) is an atmospheric black koji Satsuma Shochu that goes incredibly well with hot water. This would best fit the “rich” Dancyu definition.
Mori Izo (far right in photo above) is inarguably the most famous shochu in Japan at present. This atmospheric white koji Satsuma Shochu plays very well on the rocks or with hot water. This would best fit the “medium” Dancyu definition.
The Satsuma Shochu Mark
The Satsuma Shochu mark is probably the most recognizable GI mark used in the shochu industry, perhaps simply because it appears so often on shochu brands throughout the country. Look for it on export bottles to know that you’ve found yourself a Satsuma Shochu. Enjoy!