In the 15th episode of the Japan Distilled podcast, your hosts Christopher Pellegrini and Stephen Lyman take a deep dive into kokuto shochu. This continues a multi-part series breaking down the various styles of honkaku shochu, which are classified by ingredient type in the main fermentation.
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 both prefer their sugar distilled.
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.
Life Behind Bars podcast Episode 29 on the origins of rum.
Glocal Bar Vibes in Kumamoto (mentioned in this episode. The owner, Nori Yamashita, told Stephen the Lento with Hoppy story)
Kokuto Sugar Origins
Sugar was believed to have first been cultivated in Melanesia (modern-day New Guinea in Indonesia) as early as 6,000 years ago while the manufacture of sugar that we might recognize as such today began more than 2,000 years ago on the southern coast of modern India. Not long after that, the first sugar distillates (rums) are believed to have been made in India with written mention around 700AD.
Early on sugar cane and the resulting sugar was a closely protected commodity, but over the centuries the cane and the processing technology expanded around the world. By the early 1600s, it had arrived in the Ryukyu Kingdom (modern-day Okinawa) via trade with China. When the Satsuma Domain subjugated Okinawa in 1609, they also, perhaps unknowingly, had acquired sugar-making technology for Japan as well.
As you may recall from our Okinawan Awamori episode, the Satsuma Daimyo allowed the Okinawan king to retain power. Still, he kept the Amami islands for Satsuma, where the domain subsequently set up its own sugar plantations. From the early 1600s to the late 1800s, the Amami Islands were essentially slave plantations for Satsuma, which became one of Japan’s most wealthy and powerful domains despite the relative remoteness from the shogun in Edo (modern Tokyo).
Production of sugar in Okinawa and subsequently in Amami developed into the kokuto style sugar we know and love today. Mineral-rich, grassy, and with only very light processing (very little molasses is removed). To read more about how kokuto sugar is made, please read Christopher’s excellent overview on Kanpai.US including production videos.
Kokuto sugar, which is often mistakenly translated as black or brown sugar in English, is much darker and richer and, yes, healthier, than the brown sugar you find in western kitchens. The health benefits may best be represented by the enormous number of centenarians who live in Okinawa where kokuto is a dietary staple. In fact, Shigechiyo Izumi, who was claimed to have lived to over 120 years of age (now disputed), drank a glass of kokuto shochu every day for the last 50 years of his life.
Kokuto shochu can only be made in the Amami Islands, otherwise it must be labeled and taxed as distilled spirits, which has a higher tax rate than shochu.
In order to qualify as Amami Kokuto Shochu it must also be made with a rice koji starter fermentation. No other grain substrate is allowed for koji production.
After the koji rice starter fermentation, kokuto sugar blocks are melted down and added to the primary fermentation. The fermentation times are generally shorter than for other shochu traditions since the yeast can work directly on the kokuto rather than waiting for the koji to saccharify the starches.
Mentioned Kokuto Shochu Brands
Lento is the best selling kokuto shochu in Japan. The distinctive light blue bottle makes it stand out anywhere it’s available. Vacuum distilled, it’s super light and easy drinking.
The toji of the distillery recommends drinking it with Hoppy, a very low alcohol beer substitute. Beware, if you try ordering Hoppy with kokuto shochu in Japan it may be met with confusion by wait staff. Multiply distilled korui shochu is typically used for Hoppy. Stephen loves drinking a more full-bodied kokuto shochu with Hoppy Black (black labeled bottle not shown), which is made with roasted malts.
The distinctive toucan on the label makes Jougo stand out. Bright and fruity, Jougo expresses lychee very strongly on the nose. Great with soda.
Sharing the same name as the beer, Asahi shochu is a medium-bodied kokuto shochu from Kikai Island. At one point, it was available in the US, but appears to have left the market.
SATO NO AKEBONO GOLD
Made by Machida Distillery, which also produces the export-only Nankai (24% vacuum distilled kokuto shochu) and Nankai Gold (43% barrel-aged) brands for the US, the barrel-aged Sato no Akebono Gold won best in class for honkaku shochu at the 2020 Tokyo Whisky and Spirits Competition.
Proving kokuto shochu is a legitimately lovely drink, Beni Sango won the best in class prize in the honkaku shochu category at the 2021 Tokyo Whisky and Spirits Competition. Beni Sango is an extremely well-regarded barrel-aged kokuto shochu.
Given the vast array of shochu brands available in any given style, Stephen and Christopher rarely agree on a specific brand as their favorite of the style, but they both agree that Ichiban Bashi (#1 Bridge) from Yamada Distillery is their favorite kokuto shochu. It’s an all star. Plays well with hot water, straight, rocks, soda, or cold water. An all around beautiful drink. Deep, rich, sweet, balanced. Perfection.
Fau (44% ABV hanatare) is an oddball. This is a vintaged hanatare shochu produced by the makers of Lento.
Hanatare is essentially the first drops off the still so they are full of acetone and all kinds of volatiles. Best enjoyed as cold as possible. Stephen was sipping on this after freezing the bottle, using a single large block of ice, and in a frozen glass. The liquid becomes viscous and more palatable at this extremely cold temperature.
If we missed anything, please let us know, but this should keep you busy for a while.