In the 45th episode of the Japan Distilled podcast, your host Stephen Lyman has a fun chat with the founders of Africa’s first shochu, Tanuki. Brought to South Africa by founders Brock Kuhlman and Ulrich Terblanche. To learn more, visit the Tanuki Shochu website for follow them on Instagram @tanukishochu.
Mixing and Editing: Rich Pav (https://www.uncannyjapan.com/)
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 has been communicating online with Elliot Faber for a long time. This was their first time actually speaking.
If you have any comments or questions about this episode or any other, please reach out to Stephen or Christopher via Twitter. We would love to hear from you.
What is Tanuki Shochu?
Brock Kuhlman and Ulrich Terblanche launched Africa’s first brand of shōchū, “Tanuki”, in 2021. Similar to the ‘tanuki’ of Japanese folklore, they enjoy saké (and shōchū) and are cunning in their ways to get more, even if it means making it themselves.
They first started experimenting with saké in 2018. With limited knowledge, but a surplus of optimism, they scraped together equipment and ingredients to make Japanese style saké in Cape Town, South Africa. The first couple of attempts failed, but over time, they perfected their recipe and sourced the right ingredients, until eventually the saké came out delicious every time.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before they hit their first obstacle. The governmental regulations were not yet ready for this uniquely Japanese drink and could not sell it locally. So instead, they partnered with a micro distillery in Cape Town to distill the saké into a deliciously smooth rice Shōchū. This set the stage for the first locally-produced shōchū in Africa.
Since then, they have been producing small batch shōchū, improving their recipe as they become more familiar with the needs of the local market and the Shōchū making process. They currently have a uniquely South African take on a Wooded Shōchū and a premium Rice Shōchū, while working on new and exciting products, including Imo Shōchū and Umeshu.
They continue to grow their brand through close collaboration with partner distilleries, with the aim to one day open Africa’s first dedicated shōchū distillery and a saké brewery.
Stephen: Hello, and welcome to the Japan Distilled Podcast. I’m your host, Stephen Lyman. I’m here today with two very special guests. We have Ulrich Terblanche and Brock Kuhlman from South Africa. They are the founders and creators of Tanuki Shochu. As you probably remember from our episode about shochu being made outside of Japan, we were frankly quite surprised to discover that there is shochu being made in South Africa. So we’re very happy to have Ulrich and Brock on the show today. Without further ado, let’s get started. Welcome, gentlemen.
Brock: Thank you so much for having us. We’re really happy to be here.
Ulrich: Yeah, thanks a lot. It’s great to be on your show.
Stephen: I appreciate you making the time. Scheduling was a little bit of a challenge, giving the time zone differences. I wasn’t even sure how many hours different or what day you guys were in, but we made it work. Great. So maybe just to get started, having never been to South Africa, which is probably true of many of our listeners, what is the drinking culture like there?
Ulrich: In South Africa, we are quite lucky, especially in the area that we live in. It’s a big wine country. So you get a lot of different red wines and white wines that this area, especially Stellenbosch, is actually known for internationally. But otherwise, it’s also a very big beer culture. We used to be deprived of quality beer because we had a very big monopoly on beer through South African breweries, which was, I think, at a point, the largest brewery in the world by volume. But like in most other countries, the craft industry started to creep in and people started to explore a bit more different craft beers. So now we actually have a very big craft beer industry. There’s also the gin industry. So gin drinking is very popular. And that’s actually one of our benefits in terms of the shochu is a lot of people have a taste for stronger liquor. And gin being one of them, it’s always good to give them alternative to that, introduce it in that way.
Stephen: Sure, sure. And do people tend to drink at home? Is it at bars, restaurants? What is the consumer side of alcohol consumption in South Africa?
Ulrich: Well, all of the above.
Brock: I would say that South Africans really enjoy a drink. So it is definitely all of the above. There’s a big culture of tavern drinking. So informal taverns are called shebeens here and that’s primarily like a beer culture. And then there’s a lot of like in major urban areas, there’s a lot of like quite stylish cocktail bars, etc. And like Ulrich had said, gin became kind of a big explosion here in the same way that it has in Spain, where there’s a huge interest in different craft gins, which I think kind of is exploiting a hunger in the South African liquor market, which is really nice to be a part of, because there are so many new things and exciting different products. And there’s also a like a hunger for that. So there’s a market that’s already in place, which makes it, I think, a little bit easier to come out with a new and frankly, kind of strange product for the South African market.
Stephen: I guess you hit the nail right on the head that we were surprised, as I mentioned, that there’s actually shochu being made in South Africa, which is fantastic. But I guess taking a step back. So we have a South African and an American who are making Japanese alcohol together. So how did you guys meet?
Ulrich: We actually met in a carpool. Yeah, so we both live in Cape Town. And I used to work in a university town called Stellenbosch, which is about an hour’s drive just outside of Cape Town. And Brock, he’s doing his PhD there. So in order to save on fuel and also to kind of save or just avoid boredom, we had a carpool going. So every day we would drive together to Stellenbosch and from Stellenbosch back. So in the car, we basically discuss various topics and the topic came up because, well, the topic of Japan came up. And I had limited exposure to Japanese food or drinks in that sense. But then anyway, so we had a discussion about sake and why it’s so difficult to find here in South Africa. And then Brock mentioned that actually, you know, it’s possible or it’s not that hard to make your own. If you can’t find any, let’s try to make some.
Brock: Yeah, I think I actually said, oh, it’s not that hard to make, which foreshadowing, it turns out it’s pretty hard to make.
Ulrich: Yeah. So from there, we decided to experiment to basically see what we can do. And in the car, we theorized a lot about what’s potential, what do we need, what do we need to get, what kind of ingredients we need, those kind of things. And eventually we got together and tried to make our first batch.
Stephen: Okay. And over how long a time were you discussing all of this before you actually moved from concept to experimentation?
Brock: Oh, not long at all, actually. I think we started discussing it in, I would say November and we started a batch in early December, just with like some home brewing kit I had in my garage. And through some, we have some friends who actually run a Japanese import shop here called Waza Labo. And luckily, they also import Koji tane. So we were able to find that quite easily. And then we just kind of gave it a little bit of a college try and scouted around to try and figure out how we could grow the Koji and what brewing conditions we would need. We used a yeast that I had from my laboratory in Stellenbosch. It’s actually a white wine yeast. And yeah, we just kind of gave it a shot.
Stephen: All right. So maybe to set context, how does each of your backgrounds contribute to your ability to do this? Because I can imagine there aren’t that many people who could within a month go from, hey, let’s make sake to making sake. So I know, Brock, you’re actually getting your PhD right now as I believe a biochemist. Is that right?
Brock: Yeah, that’s right. So I have an undergraduate degree in food chemistry. I used to work for Kellogg’s and another ingredient company that no one’s ever heard of called Kerry Ingredients. But it’s one of the largest food companies in the world. So I have like five or six years of product development experience. I grew up on a wheat farm and have always been involved in agriculture somehow. And then after I worked as a product developer for the food industry for, I think, five or six years, I kind of got to a point in my personal life where I needed to figure some things out. And so I moved to Japan to be an English teacher. And so that kind of gave me a lot of exposure to Japanese drinking culture. And then after I left Japan the first time, I became a professional chef. I went to culinary school and I did that for about 15 years. And then came back to academia. So I kind of already had like maybe the process background or the chemistry background for how this project would go. I have a lot of familiarity with fermentations, fermentation processes and stuff like that. And Ulrich is a professional engineer. So he’s quite good at, well, he’s quite good at putting machines together that aren’t supposed to do one function and make them do a different function.
Stephen: It sounds useful for a startup like this, for sure.
Ulrich: Yeah. So from my side, it’s also, I always had an interest in the craft liquor industry. Even when I was a student, I also experimented with making aquavit, which is that Norwegian drink where it’s like a spicy spirit in essence. But when this idea came up between us, I immediately just got fired up with enthusiasm of, oh, I can try to make a new thing. I don’t know a lot about the chemistry side, but I can put tools together and MacGyver a solution if we need it. So it’s basically just kind of scavenging any kind of equipment that could serve the purpose that we want it to. Because you can imagine because there’s no sake industry in South Africa that you can’t really buy the equipment like you would be able to in Japan or anywhere else. You have to work with what is available. And luckily, with the wine industry here, you can use some of the wine industry equipment to make sake, but there’s always limitations to how far you can take it. So that’s kind of what I enjoy and focus on a lot is basically trying to put together the setup and also do some of the manual labor, which can be quite relaxing in a sense, like almost meditative.
Stephen: It really can. That’s a great word for it. I feel the same way whenever I’m down in Kagoshima making shochu on my annual visit to Yamatozakura. The repetitive nature of the work can be quite meditative and I can do a lot of thinking. It lets me clear my head in some ways. Now, Brock, you lived in Japan. Where did you live and what was your experience like with sake and shochu while you were there with the local drinking industry?
Brock: I lived in Osaka for three years. I lived in Nishinaka-jima, Minamikata, which is right north of the Yodogawa River. I was an English teacher for ECC for three plus years. That was my first introduction to Japan. I’m a little bit embarrassed about this now but for me, moving to Japan was really and truly more of an opportunity for me to just go abroad and do something that wasn’t my original career track and honestly, it had very little to do with Japan. But I’m so happy that Japan worked out for me instead of some of the other places I had applied because I fell in love with the eating and drinking culture in Japan. It’s like a kind of eating culture in which everyone’s very proud of the food without a lot of snobbery. Of course, you find people who are very judgmental about something on the basis of its price or something else but there’s a real appreciation for quality and a real appreciation for the craft of preparation that sometimes is lost, I think, in other eating cultures. I find that the French and the Spanish have something very similar going on where they’re very cognizant that something might not be expensive but the skill that has gone into making it really makes it worthwhile or worthy and I find that really appealing. I really enjoyed that about the drinking culture as well. I think drinking is fun and drinking with friends, that’s the whole point of it is to have fun. But I really liked the communal aspect of it of the, we’re going to enjoy this together. We’re going to participate in something together which I think is kind of cool and I appreciated the fact that often in Japan, you know, it’s less about, I guess, just going to a bar. There’s always like a bit of a ritual to it and I enjoy that, you know, the Japanese often enjoy snacks with their booze which I’m a big fan of. And then I left after having been there for about three years and I moved back to the States and I worked a couple of temp jobs in Washington DC and then I went to culinary school and through a series of other unrelated things, I moved around quite a bit and ended up in Bangkok and my partner at the time worked for or had applied to work for the US Foreign Service and while we lived in Bangkok, he got the job and his first posting was Tokyo which was unexpected because I hadn’t honestly expected to move back to Japan. And so, I moved back with him and I worked as the American ambassador’s chef for the US embassy delegation in Tokyo for about four years.
Stephen: Oh, that’s incredible.
Brock: Yeah, it was really amazing experience. It was a very follow-on to having had lived in Japan as, you know, let’s be honest, a low-paid English teacher, just having a good time in Osaka. All of a sudden, I lived in Tokyo. I was cooking for, you know, very important people working for the American ambassador. I even got a cook for the princess of Japan as she came to the ambassador’s residence once and yeah, it was a great job and it kind of showed me another side to Japanese eating and drinking culture which I hadn’t had access to before. That was eight years after I’d lived in Japan the first time. And the craft sake culture had really exploded between when I lived in Osaka and I think it was 2001-2004 and then when I lived in Tokyo which was 2012-2016. That time span, a lot had happened. It kind of the craft sake market in Japan and all of a sudden in Tokyo, there were sake bars that really only focused on like very local products, really like curated and selected. I hate the word curated but these barmen and women were really doing just that. They were searching for interesting products from different parts of Japan that had maybe been ignored or didn’t have a popularity out of their local area and I thought that was amazing.
Stephen: Yeah, I mean, with thousands of breweries in Japan, it’s very easy for local brands from prefectures distant to Tokyo or Osaka to get lost and never really be discovered. And so, that shift in the bar culture here where you have sake focused bars that really are focused on the rural craft sake, the really small breweries and that’s great that you got to experience that. Now Ulrich, you have been to Japan. I guess you came here for a short trip. What was that like? Where did you go? And if and when you have the chance to come back, what do you want to do?
Ulrich: Well, yes, I went there for holiday with my wife. Our timing was actually a bit difficult. Well, not difficult. It was just challenging when we arrived there because we didn’t realize that we actually booked our trip in Golden Week. So, my idea was to… because at that time, Brock and I already started making sake. So, one of the things I wanted to do is maybe visit a few breweries or even a distillery, possibly a Japanese whiskey distillery because that’s becoming quite popular. But when we arrived there, we realized that that’s not going to be the case. Everything was fully booked. You had to get an appointment. And so, we ended up just traveling a bit and enjoying what we can because being the first time, everything was new to us. Every aspect, every shop, everything was different to what we used to. And I think next time when we can go and when we plan a new holiday, definitely to go with someone that either has been there or someone that is maybe from there. And I think ideally, one of the things we’re planning for… well, not planning yet, but one of the things that we discussed between Brock and myself is maybe to have a tanuki trip, two of us and our partners to go with and go on holiday, but also then use that time to explore some of the sake breweries and shochu distilleries just to get… kind of to justify the trip actually. And then Brock will be able to basically show things and places that we’ve never seen, but also then to maybe meet up with other people there and explore a bit more.
Stephen: Yeah, that sounds like an excellent plan.
Brock: Ulrich, you might not be directly planning it, but I’m definitely directly planning this trip. So, it’s going to happen. It’s going to happen.
Stephen: Your golden week story reminds me of my first trip to Kyushu. I wanted to come see shochu distilleries and I came in July and everything was idle. It’s too hot to make shochu in July in Kyushu. So, I saw a bunch of empty distilleries. But no, lesson learned and actually for me as well, being here during golden week is really tough because you need to book months in advance for lodging for any sort of experiences. And then the other warning time is New Year’s. You don’t want to come the week after New Year’s because everything’s closed for the holidays. So, good lessons for people who are thinking about visiting. I absolutely recommend you come back and visit some breweries and distilleries, of course, for research for your business because then you can write it off your taxes, I’m assuming, which is always nice.
Stephen: Now, let’s take a step back now to your journey together. So, you were carpool acquaintances and then you became home brewers and now you’re business partners. Is that right? Can you walk us through that journey?
Brock: Yeah. So, we started making sake and we knew that we wanted to turn this into something. And so, Ulrich and I were very much like, this is very much everything that’s planned over drinks, right? So, we talked about, okay, well, what are the next steps? We’d love to be able to sell sake. And the further we got into this process of selling sake, the more and more we learned about the Byzantine world of South African liquor import regulations. There’s a… I think one of the defining points of this business growing together was when we realized that the reason that we started making sake is because there isn’t any good sake on the market here. And the reason there’s no good sake on the market here is because A, you’re not allowed to make sake and B, technically, you’re not allowed to import sake either.
Brock: So, we had solved a problem by doing something that we wouldn’t be allowed to continue doing, which was frustrating. Unfortunately, because of the import regulations, it means that the local market just doesn’t have good quality sake on it. But there is a loophole, or I guess it’s not a loophole. There’s another part of the law that does allow for spirits. So, you can take that sake and while technically you’re not supposed to sell the sake itself, you can distill it into something else.
Brock: So, we had kind of started Tanuki and I guess we were… Well, you’ll have to remind me of the timing Ulrich, but I think we were kind of like semi in the process of forming the company when we had a batch that… It was the first one that Ulrich tried to make all by himself at home. So, we use a modified sake brewing technique. So, we followed the traditional addition steps, but we use lactic acid in the primary step, which I think most sake brewers do now instead of naturally fermenting the lactic acid bacteria. But this was a trial run we were just doing at home. This wasn’t for sale. And so, we were trying to use another acid besides lactic because at the… Well, there’s still a worldwide shortage of it and it was quite difficult to get at the time. So, we were just trying to use citric acid to see if we could replicate the acidity and still have a nice product. And somehow there was a measurement error. And the sake tasted like, I don’t know, lemonade basically. So, we were trying to decide like, okay, this isn’t very good. But we have already explored this idea that maybe the only way we were going to be able to do this was to distill our sake into something else to sell. And we needed a minimum viable product basically. And so, we approached a craft distiller that’s in Cape Town and they agreed to do a very limited trial run on this batch of sake that wasn’t going to be very pleasant to drink. But you know, it had been made with really good koji. We had used good rice. And I thought if the only thing that’s wrong with it is the acidity balance, well, the acidity balance doesn’t matter once it’s been distilled. And yeah, they ran it through their pot still and out came a beautiful complex aromatic shochu. And I think we went to taste it with them together and we both had a sip and looked at each other and we’re just like, this is better than we ever thought this could be. And that’s kind of how we came to the point that we are now.
Stephen: I’m wondering about the fermentation environment with that extra acid and the fact that the koji and the yeast were still able to do their jobs.
Ulrich: The challenge I had, you know, I’m not a chef or I’m not very good at making stuff like that. So the challenge that I had is, I think then Brock sent me instructions to add one milligram of citric acid. I didn’t have any way to measure one milligram. So I just kind of took a bit on a teaspoon basically and threw that in. That’s why it was so strong and sour. But I did have a kind of, I followed, well, the instructions, not instructions, but basically a guide from John Gordon’s book, the sake handbook, just on kind of the temperatures you need for sake fermentation. And what I did is I used a chest freezer and I just combined it with a fish tank thermometer and the controller. So I basically had a perfectly controlled cold environment that I can make sake in. So I did everything right, except the fact that the ingredients got slightly wrong. It was frustrating because it takes time to make the sake. So by the time, you know, fermentation was done and I tasted it again, it’s just, you know, it was too terrible to drink. But you can still taste there was sake in there, but it was just very sour. Yeah, so I was kind of sad and depressed because this was my main batch of sake that I made myself that I failed at. So that’s when the idea came up to get it distilled.
Stephen: That’s really interesting. I think, Brock, maybe if you had thoughts on what that extra acidity might have done to the fermentation environment, that might be interesting for our listeners who are homebrewers and that sort of thing.
Brock: Yeah, so because at that time, we weren’t using an actual sake yeast, we were using a white wine yeast. I’m sure your viewers are going to know this, but yeast ferments a little bit quote unquote cleaner when it’s in an acidic environment. There’s less volatile compounds that are formed during the fermentation and it also suppresses what I would call like outside organisms that can co-ferment with the yeast. When Ulrich over added the citric acid that we were experimenting with, I think it probably didn’t change the pH balance of the fermentation environment so much that it really affected the species balance in the fermentation itself. I just think that lactic acid has a much softer flavor and that’s why it’s favored in sake production and it’s also favored in wine production. Wine often goes through a secondary fermentation called malolactic fermentation, which is where malic acid, which is that sharp acid that we find in granny smith apples or tart apples, it’s converted to much softer buttery or lactic acid.
Brock: I think that the pH of the environment is probably a little bit more acidic than it is normally. I don’t think it was enough that it really affected the yeast production. It might’ve suppressed some of the other organisms that co-ferment in sake, but I think the biggest flavor difference was just that citric acid has a much sharper, more acidic profile.
Stephen: I see. Yeah. I think that’s a helpful explanation for the listeners. Now, for that first batch, how many liters of distillate did you end up with from that first test run?
Brock: Oh, our first test run of distillate, gosh. I think we only gave them, I think we only gave them 16 liters and they did two separate runs, one in which they separated the tails into four fractions. The first one, they had just separated the tails into two fractions. The second, they separated the tails into four fractions and then we combined all of the first fraction with I think half of the second fraction to get what we liked for our shochu mix. It wasn’t very much, I want to say it was probably three liters total that we got out of that 17 or 18 liters of sake that we took to them.
Stephen: I see. Yeah. That’s great that they were able to cut up the tails a little bit for you so that you had options for how to blend it to get the flavor profile that you wanted. Now, when you went back to make another batch, I’m assuming you didn’t add as much citric acid the second time through, what was that experience like?
Brock: Yeah, no, we didn’t add quite as much citric acid. The second batch that we did was another test batch. I think it was 40 liters total. We switched back to using the lactic acid. I wanted to test that before we made a larger batch and I wanted to see, is the acid making a big difference in the flavor profile of the sake? And it wasn’t. So, once we finished that fermentation, we did another distillation. This time, we also broke the tails up into fractions and we separated the hearts out as well and the heads just so we could sequentially taste and see, I guess, where the majority of the different sensory profile was coming from. Where’s your soft rice flavor coming from? Where are your floral notes? Where are your more astringent acetone or nail polish remover scents coming from?
Brock: And then we compared that to the previous batch that had been made with the citric acid and we found that the acid really and truly didn’t make a very big difference in the profile of the finished shochu. We could detect at one point in the tails, you could kind of tell that there was a lactic acid note that was missing from the first distillate that we made. But it was pretty small and by the time you blend your shochu mix, that had kind of disappeared. So, we didn’t think it was too important.
Brock: And then the first production batch that we made was 450 liters, I believe. And we used a malic acid instead of the lactic acid because again, it was… At the time, it was fairly hard to sort here. We used a low level of that just to maintain the correct pH during the fermentation.
Brock: The first batch that we made, we… Well, I think we had the fermentation process where we wanted it to. Our scale up was the tricky part. So, when you go from making a 40 liter batch to a 450 liter batch, there’s a lot of, you know, you just have a lot more rice and as you steam that rice, you have a lot more heat. And as you try and cool that, it just takes a long time. And so, our process was a little messy when we made that first batch. I’m sure that your listeners are, you know, they understand how the sake and shochu production works. So, we, on our first batch, because of the equipment that we had at the craft distillers partner, we actually decided, okay, we’re going to… The fermentation rice, we’re going to boil with all of the water that we could add. And to be totally honest, we did not love the experience. We made the koji traditionally and that gave us like just such lovely floral flavors. Cooking all of the rice together like that kind of turns it into like almost a congee porridge, which is not the easiest to work with.
Brock: And it took a long time for it to cool. There were just some processing issues. And honestly, when we distilled it, we could tell. We had some cooked rice flavors we didn’t love. We had some corn flake notes. We had some, I don’t know, almost buttered toast notes in there that we were not looking for. That was not where we were trying to go with that.
Stephen: Sure, sure, sure.
Brock: And so, we had to put that to the side.
Stephen: Yeah. Well, with that one, when you say you boiled the rice, rather than steaming, you actually had it in the water boiling. Is that right? Okay.
Brock: Yes. And so, our thought was, okay, well, we don’t have the right equipment to steam this properly. We thought, okay, let’s give it a shot this way. I won’t lie. I think we both wished we had done another 40-liter batch of testing with the boiled rice. But you know, we didn’t. We didn’t make that decision.
Brock: So, at the end, when we had fermented that, we actually took that and we tasted it and we were so excited because we’d put, you know, like quite a lot of time into this. And we just, we tasted it and we tasted it and it just wasn’t right. We just, we couldn’t release that as our first product. Like, it wasn’t, it’s not bad. It just had more of a whiskey tone and more of a, yeah, it just had the wrong profile for shochu.
Brock: And yeah, so, we had to go back to the drawing board and we ended up steaming the rice for our second batch. Went back to a more traditional approach, even though it was a lot more hand labor. And yeah, our second batch, we really got the profile that we wanted.
Stephen: That’s great. Now, with the first batch, did you end up doing something with that? Did you redistill it?
Brock: Yes. So, we sat on it and we thought about it for a while. And so, we redistilled it. And after we redistilled it, it stripped away a lot of the harsher, I want to say cooked notes, like cooked grain notes. But it retained something that really gave, it was giving whiskey vibe. That’s what it was giving. And so, we thought, why don’t we put this on oak for a while? So, we went ahead and we put it on some medium toast oak chips for 6 weeks. We took it off the oak and all of a sudden, it had that creamy rice note that you get from shochu but combined with some toasted, both toast, I guess, toasted bread, caramelized notes and the toastiness from the oak. And it was a completely different beast all of a sudden.
Ulrich: And we were very lucky in that we had the distilling partner there because he is a rum or yeah, he was a rum distiller. And he had some medium roasted oak chips. I think it was American oak that he used and available for us that we could use. And he also recommended no, maybe we should try it because he recognized the profile as something that can go well with wood. So, it became its own product. It is still shochu in the sense of how we made it. But it’s not quite Japanese shochu in that you have this kind of tweaked process combined with using American oak for aging. So, it was completely unique but delicious at the same time. And we also found because shochu isn’t a product that most South Africans know at all. Some South Africans know about sake and some has tried sake but very few have actually tasted shochu. But this version of the shochu that we created was much more familiar. It had that smoky, that almost whiskey or brandy-like effects in your mouth, that kind of subtle taste of wood coming through. So, we found that quite a lot of people reacted very positively towards this. And to them, it had the newness of shochu in South Africa but it had the familiarity of something that they already know. So, it was this unique almost South African version of shochu that we made by accident to put it that way.
Stephen: To be honest, that sounds lovely. Sounds like something really interesting to try and that’s great that you were able to figure out a use for that batch. So, will this become a regular product for you? Will you start doing that boil of the fermentation rice again?
Ulrich: We’ll definitely make a wooded shochu again. I think to be honest, for the next batch, I wouldn’t boil the rice in the same way that we did the first time. I would go ahead with the traditional fermentation and I would just boil a part of the fermentation rice if that makes sense. We had so much of that boiled rice note in the final product that I would love to cut that in half for the next batch.
Stephen: Okay. Yeah. Sounds like you’re continuing to innovate and experiment and that’s how you discover some amazing things.
Stephen: You had touched on it earlier but basically, sake is illegal in South Africa. It doesn’t exist and Ulrich, you had explained this to me in a previous conversation but can you explain to our listeners why sake doesn’t exist in South Africa?
Ulrich: Well, it does exist but just to put it bluntly, it exists on the black market. So, it’s something that you can find easily but you can’t find good quality and you won’t be able to buy it at your local liquor store or shop. The main reason is it’s not that sake is illegal as such. You can have sake and you are allowed to make your own sake. It’s just that the licensing doesn’t allow for you to sell or import the product for the simple reason that they don’t know how to classify it. So, under South African liquor regulations, each product that you make needs to be classified. So, if it’s a wine, there’s a specific description of you can only classify it as a wine. If it is grapes in it or if it’s made from grapes, you can only classify something as beer. If it has barley or hops, cider, if it’s made from fruit. So, there’s all these descriptions or classifications that you need depending on what you want to sell or what you want to import. Because it’s made from rice, sake is made from rice. It doesn’t really fit into any of those classifications. So, the simple response is from the government entities is basically, you know, we can’t classify this so we can’t allow you to sell or import this. We can’t give a license for this. So, that’s why we are able to make homebrew batches, small scale that we are allowed to make, but we can’t sell it to a restaurant or we can’t, you know, go and sell it at a market that we can’t do, but we can make it. And that was the kind of weird situation that we were in. So, you can make delicious sake without being able to sell it.
Brock: It also becomes a strange self-fulfilling prophecy where you can’t get good quality sake because importing good quality sake would require a legal framework to do that. So, the only sake that you get is sake that people are willing to import and classify as quote unquote cooking sauce, which isn’t going to be the good stuff. They’re only importing bad stuff. So, then the local market thinks well, sake is a low quality product and it’s not.
Stephen: You know, you would think that there’s a simple solution to that, but it was just a little bit of a regulatory change.
Ulrich: Well, it is a simple regulatory change, but the bureaucracy is very, very slow. I know in each country people complain about bureaucracy, but here it’s exceptional. So, since we initially looked into this, they informed us that there is a process to get the classification into the new regulations because a lot of restaurants want to bring sake in and a lot of people ask for it, but you know, so there’s pressure for this change. Selling shochu is slightly different because there is a, I wouldn’t say loophole, but there’s an allowance for anything that you distill. So, although for fermenting products locally, you have to classify it according to how it’s fermented and from what it’s fermented. When it comes to distilling, they just have a blanket unspecified spirits category.
Ulrich: And that’s us, we’re an unspecified spirit.
Ulrich: Yeah, so that’s basically shochu is unspecified, so this is an unspecified spirit.
Stephen: Yeah, it’s actually the same in US regulatory standards. There’s a specialty spirits other basically I think is the official name of the classification. And so, you have to have a statement of composition, you have to say what ingredients are in the distillate, but there is no classification of shochu even though shochu is about twice as old as America.
Ulrich: But it’s, and that this regulatory kind of restrictions that did cause a change in how we did our first two shochu batches. So, we discussed how we made the wooded shochu, but that following that we did make a rice shochu, but the final product is slightly different to the Japanese version. And that’s due to this regulatory change. So, in South Africa, to classify as a spirit, it has to be 43% alcohol volume or more, which is an interesting regulation because that means that you can make very strong spirits, but you can’t make weak spirits. So, that just kind of brings out the drinking culture of South Africans because we’re forced to drink strong liquor.
Ulrich: What we ended up doing for the first two batches is we had to classify it as a spirit. We had to make it into a 43% alcohol volume. And as shochu enjoyers will know, that’s a bit higher than what you would find in Japan. Luckily, we have found a slight loophole, which does allow us to manufacture shochu more at the Japanese level, at 30 or 35%. With our newest or latest batch that we’re busy with now, a new rice shochu batch that we’re working on, we’re actually going to exploit that loophole and then we’ll be able to have a very Japanese-like shochu that we’re going to release.
Stephen: That’s great that you’re able to do that. So, I guess there is some flexibility in the regulations.
Ulrich: Yes, exactly.
Brock: Yeah, we’ve also developed an emul shochu using South African sweet potatoes. And we’ve only done a test batch, but oh my gosh, it’s so good. You get that sweet note, that almost like a spicy molasses-y note even in the distillate after you’ve distilled it and we’re really excited about it. We haven’t scaled that up yet. We’re doing a rice shochu first to replenish our supplies. But our next step after that is going to be another production-sized sweet potato shochu.
Stephen: That sounds fantastic using local sweet potatoes. And that was actually going to be my next question whether or not you had other local agricultural products you were considering turning into shochu because that’s really one of the great things about shochu in Japan is it really is local agriculture distilled with the essence of that agriculture in the bottle.
Brock: Yeah, there’s several really interesting, I guess, liquor traditions here. So there’s sorghum beer, which is something that I think originally was drinking ritually, but is also just like a product that people make for celebrations. Well, the same we all drink for celebrations. And I would love to do something with sorghum, which I think would be really interesting. We’re exploring the sweet potato. And there’s a ton of other interesting South African products that I think that we could make into shochu. I just think that the koji adds such an interesting layer of complexity to spirits. There’s a lot of things I’d like to try and play with here.
Ulrich: Yes. And also just to add to that. So that’s another reason we are excited about making an imo shochu because rice doesn’t get grown locally in South Africa. Although it’s a staple food that most people eat here, we don’t grow any rice in South Africa. So each time rice gets imported, and although it’s not an expensive import, it does take away a bit of the local flavor. And that’s one thing that South Africans do enjoy is they want to experience kind of a local version of something. As an example of the craft industry, although gin is originally comes from South Africa being a British colony, the most popular gins you get in South Africa as an example is gins that’s been flavored with local, well, not herbs, but local, what they call fynbos. And you get that unique South African flavor. So that’s quite a thing that’s in demand in South Africa is having that slightly South African edge to something. And being able to source sweet potatoes locally and another batch that we’re busy with that’s not related to fermentation in the same sense is that we are working with another distiller on making a local version of umeshu. So we sort some green plums from a farm just outside Cape Town and went to a distiller and he had some white spirits available for us. So we just source some sugar. And then we basically started a batch of umeshu. It’s a very small batch, but it’s an experimental batch that we can release. And so far, what we’ve tested, it really tastes amazing. But it won’t be the same as a Japanese umeshu in the sense that it’s not really ume plums. It’s going to be a more South African grown plum. But that uniqueness adds to the value to what people want to enjoy.
Stephen: Absolutely. I think that that local terroir really will help differentiate you from other international shochu brands or Asian spirits makers basically. Going back to the sorghum, I’m wondering if that’s a viable substrate for koji propagation as well. And then if you could go in that direction. I know that millet used to be used in Japan for shochu production. So as another grain, maybe sorghum could play in the same way.
Brock: It has a very similar starch profile to rice actually. So there’s no reason that it shouldn’t be a good host for koji.
Ulrich: Koji does grow on it. We actually did a small experiment at home. A friend and I basically, we were curious about that the same question with our koji grows quite well on our rice. But can we try it with something else? We did a little experiment where we took some sorghum and we actually inoculated with koji and it worked. It worked very well. It did actually grow quite well onto the sorghum. We tried to make some kind of a sorghum socket with it that way, but we didn’t have the right setup. So we couldn’t get the fermentation going. But it was just a very small experiment that we did during the COVID lockdown that didn’t quite succeed. But I think it’s definitely worthwhile and we probably will do a larger, more controlled experiment now that we have the right setup for it.
Stephen: Maybe the world’s first sorghum koji sweet potato shochu could come out of Tanuki.
Ulrich: That’s quite a combination.
Brock: That’s right. I think it would be really exciting.
Stephen: I’d love to try that. Just thinking about your local botanicals, as well as you said, some of your gins are made with these local agricultural products to give that expression. With at least with honkaku shochu, you can add, as long as you’re adding it to the fermentation and not after distillation, you can make a shochu with those things as well. So you could take one of your rice or maybe sorghum fermentations a few days before you put that aromatic ingredient in and distill and you’d have another expression, possibly. Sounds like you’ve got lots of potential exciting experiments to work through over time. Doesn’t sound like you’re going to get bored with what you’re doing.
Ulrich: No, there’s definitely lots of options for us to explore, which is exciting.
Stephen: So are there any plans for your own distillery? It’s a million dollar question.
Brock: That’s a tough one. Literally.
Ulrich: No. So it’s the same regulatory restrictions. It also applies to starting your own brewery or your own distillery. Brewery is slightly easier than a distillery and that’s just because the legislation is quite complex and confusing and even contradictory in some sense. So to start your own distillery does take a lot of time and it takes a lot of capital and it takes a lot of admin. So we first want to see how successful our products are. If there’s a very small demand, then it doesn’t really make sense to spend all this capital and wait two to three years to get a license. It makes more sense than just to partner with local small or craft distillers and work through them because then you are licensed under their license number.
Brock: But we’re also quite lucky in a way because we have some great distillers that we can partner with, but it’s absolutely legal for us to make our base mash wherever we’d like to. So we have a flexibility where we can experiment with stuff in our own space doing our own fermentations and then we just partner with the distiller to use their column basically or their still. I think we would love to have a distillery, but at the moment we’re lucky that we can do our own fermentations the way that we want to in the conditions that we want to try and still have a partner who has a professional experience with their own still to fall back on.
Ulrich: To us it is fun doing this at a larger scale, but ideally I think in the short term what we would probably aim towards is to get our own facility in the sense of doing the fermentation and also possibly a tasting room because that’s actually key to get people exposed to shochu. That has been quite a challenge to get the average consumer to try shochu, most of them that do try it once more, but to get someone to try this completely new thing I think you need a really functional lovely tasting room where they can go and do that. There’s also a tradition of tastings, especially wine tasting in South Africa. Because there’s so many wine farms in the area, one would make a weekend out of it, go to different wine farms just for tastings. If we can get a same setup, for instance, have a shochu tasting room, that would also be ideal for us to get more people to explore it, to get exposure to shochu. I think in the short term that’s most likely the direction we’re going to go. Whether we do that in our own capacity or whether we work with one of the other tasting rooms, we’ll still see how we do that. But I think as a start, that’s a very good approach.
Stephen: It’s really interesting that you can really ferment anywhere, and so you don’t necessarily need to have a distillery of your own, at least in the short term. I am curious with your distillery partners, Brock, you mentioned column still. Have you been using a column or have you also used pot? And if you’re using column or pot, are they copper?
Brock: So we’ve experimented with a small column still, a large column still, a non-copper pot still, and a copper pot still. So all of the products that we sell right now have been distilled using a copper pot still. We didn’t see a huge difference between copper and non-copper, and I know that’s very controversial for some distillers. For our product, that wasn’t a huge deal. We’ve also used a column still, especially when we had that first batch that had the very strong toasted notes that we didn’t really want. We experimented by running a portion of it through a column still and then taking different fractions out of the column still to see, I guess, where that sweet spot between flavor and having just a very clean spirit was. Moving forward, we’re going to keep using a pot still. I just find maybe I haven’t found the right column still or we haven’t found the right column still. But we just lost a lot of what I would consider like the earthiness, the funkiness that I like in a shochu. And so, I think we’re going to try and stick with that. But you know, I think Ulrich and I are both like, we love to experiment with stuff. So I’m always keen to try it out and see what comes out.
Stephen: Sure, sure. When you say you prefer the pot still, you’re speaking our language. If you look at our Japan Distilled logo, there’s a reason there’s a pot still on it.
Brock: Well, you know, I come from a fairly scientific background and I think it’s important to people who work with data a lot have a joke where if someone says something that’s like a little bit stupid, you can be like, have you updated your priors? Which just means like, have you examined the information that you walked into this conversation with to make sure that there isn’t like a previous artifact of something that’s been proven wrong in there?
Brock: So for me, I wanted to come into this experience being like, you know what, like pot stills have this history, but maybe they’re not necessarily the right thing for our product. So I’ve always felt open to experimenting with that. But I will say like, I’ve learned in the short amount of time we’ve been doing this, that for me, for what I’m looking for, the pot still has given us the best product every time.
Stephen: Sure. And just following up on your comment earlier about copper versus not copper pot, in shochu here in Japan, it’s virtually always made in a stainless steel pot still. There’s very little copper used in the shochu industry domestically. The reason that copper is used in whiskey spirits traditions, as I understand it, and probably other grain spirits overseas is a pretty strong sulfur expression.
Stephen: And you get very, very little sulfur in shochu production. And I’m wondering if it’s because we’re working with polished grains, and then even perhaps Koji itself is doing something to break down compounds that might be creating those sulfur aromas in the distillate. If you have thoughts on that as a biochemist, I’d love to hear them.
Brock: Yeah, I think it is probably because of the removal of the protein and well, not all of, but most of the proteins and lipids that normally cover, especially in whiskey distilling, you know, either the corn or the rye mash that you’re using. A lot of the sulfur compounds are… There’s a complicated process to create them, especially if it’s a yeast-derived sulfur compound that’s a little bit different. And we would talk about that differently, but sake yeasts are specifically produced that they don’t produce any of those sulfur-off compounds. But a lot of the base material that you would need for a sulfur compound production during your fermentation does come from those proteins and lipids that are normally held in the… What we polish off of rice. So, I think that’s a big part of it.
Stephen: Yeah, there we have it, the answer that we’ve been looking for. I appreciate that.
Brock: Well, I will say that as everything in science, let me qualify that and say, well, we don’t really know, but that would be what I would take from that.
Stephen: Yeah, that sounded more authoritative than anything I’ve heard so far. So, hopefully, there’s an opportunity to do some chemical analysis of these different things and see what’s going on. Shifting gears once again, how has the reception been to your spirits and where do you see your market in South Africa going forward?
Brock: I will say, with a lot of people, we are greeted with… You know how when a puppy looks at you with question mark face, where they’re not sure what’s going on, but they’re happy to be there? I feel like we’ve gotten that quite a lot from some consumers. People really like the product, but they don’t quite know what to do with it. So, a lot of what we do is help educate and bring people into this kind of drinking culture. But the reception has been great, really great to be honest.
Ulrich: Yes. When we started… Well, when we finished the first batch, one of our focus areas was to try to get people to taste shochu. Our reception has been very good. As mentioned, there’s a special liking towards the wooded shochu I found, especially among whiskey drinkers and brandy drinkers. And with the normal rice shochu, I found that a lot of white wine drinkers tend to move in that direction. So, it’s been quite interesting to see that different perspectives. But definitely, most people that try it enjoy it. It’s just a question of getting them to try it. So, if it’s something out of the blue, generally, they’re a bit hesitant to try because there is also, in South Africa, a tradition of what we call witblits or mampour, which is basically… What’s the equivalent is…
Ulrich: Moonshine. Moonshine is a similar thing to what we call witblits or mampoer. So, there’s a lot of home distilling that does happen. And people are generally a bit hesitant to try something completely new. So, what we do usually is when we do a tasting, we arrange like a formal tasting, maybe at a venue, and then first give them the background of what exactly it is that they’re going to taste. Because if you just give them a spirit, they’re a bit hesitant to try. And once you give a background of exactly making that association, for instance, some people know what sake is. So, if you explain, well, if you take sake and you distill it, you get rice shochu. Although it’s not completely accurate, it is enough for them to start to understand what they’re going to taste. And similarly, if they want to try the wooded shochu, if you explain to them, okay, but shochu is similar, like you would take grapes and turn it into brandy. Similarly, if you take sake and distill it and you get shochu, that kind of association actually helps people to try it. And once they try it and once they understand what these odd new flavors that they’re tasting, then they are very likely to try more of it or even buy a bottle or just to enjoy it when as soon as they get that understanding. So, 90% of what we do is educational. As Brock said, it’s getting people to understand what this is and why does it taste different because none of the other liquors in the market at the moment in South Africa use koji. And it’s not something familiar to people, koji in general. So, it’s a very educational process when it comes to getting people to try shochu.
Stephen: It sounds like you’ve got your work cut out for you and I do wish you well. I think you’re at the leading edge of craft distilling in South Africa and it sounds like you’re going about it the right way. You’re thinking about local agriculture that you can use, you’re doing your cuts in different ways, you’re really working through all of it and as it sounds like an engineer and as a biochemist would, you’re focused in your attention to detail and getting things right. So, I really wish you well on your journey. And I do hope when the Tanuki trip happens in Japan, we have a chance to meet up. Would love to share a drink with you guys and try your products if that opportunity arises.
Brock: Yes, please. That would be fantastic. We would love that.
Stephen: Well, thank you so much for joining us and thank you for your time. I’m sure you’re quite busy with your startup and we really appreciate you taking your time to be on the Japan Distilled Podcast.
Brock: Thank you so much for having it.
Ulrich: Yeah, it was a great chat.
Brock: Yeah, it’s been such a pleasure to share this fun process with you and also we’re both fans of your podcast and both the writing that you and Christopher do. So, it’s been very cool.
Ulrich: Going into this, I had very little knowledge about shochu actually. I only tasted it once and that was during my trip in Japan. I’m not even sure what shochu it was, but it was a bit rough and I didn’t really enjoy it. So, when we made our own, it was quite good. The only way that I could learn about shochu was when I started Googling around what exactly is shochu, how is it made, and then I came across your podcast. So, most of what I know about shochu actually comes from, well, from you and Christopher and the interviews you have on your show. So, I’m quite honored to actually be one of the interviewees on your show.
Stephen: Well, you heard it here, folks. This podcast is the premier source for English language information about shochu from the Stillers’ mouth. I love that.
Stephen: I really appreciate that. Sorry, Christopher couldn’t join us today. He had another commitment, but I’m sure we will have a meeting of the minds in Japan when you come visit. Again, thank you so much for joining and taking the time.
Brock: Sounds great. Thank you so much.
Stephen: Thank you all very much for listening to the Japan Distilled Podcast. This has been Stephen Lyman with Ulrich Terblanche and Brock Kuhlman of Tanuki Shochu in South Africa. We hope you enjoyed this episode. If you did, please take a moment to rate and review the podcast wherever you listen. It really helps others find the show. And we will have lots of information about Tanuki on the show notes page on japdis.test. Gentlemen, where can we find you on social media or do you have a website that we can reach out to you or that people can reach out if they’re curious?
Stephen: Great. Thank you very much. So folks, look them up and follow them on Instagram. And we look forward to seeing what these gentlemen will be doing in the future. And again, as we mentioned recently, we’ve launched our Patreon. It’s patreon.com/japandistilled. If you’d like to support the show, we really appreciate anything you can do. And with that, thank you very much for listening and Kanpai.