The ABCs of Spirits by Alexandre Vingtier: K for kokuto shochu

After having mentioned the big success of Japanese whiskey last week, let’s get into one of the rarest spirits from this archipelago. You may already know about shōchū, traditional Japanese spirit mainly produced at Kyūshū, in the south of Japan. There are around 400 shōchū distilleries and the total production, thanks to its huge success since 1980’s, is at least five times higher than whisky’s. Shōchū is made of raw materials: molasses, rice, sweet potato, barley, buckwheat, sake lees and brown sugar, in which rice kōji is added, sometimes barley kōji, containing the necessary yeasts and enzymes to enable fermentation. One half is produced by using a distillation column and the other half using an alembic.

A few hundred kilometers southwest of Kagoshima, on which it administratively depends, there is the Amami archipelago and its kokutō shōchū or brown sugar shōchū, a local specialty representing less than 1% of the shōchū production. As the crow flies, it is closer to Taipei than to Tokyo. The principal island Amami-Oshima is home to 9 distilleries, and by adding those from the other big islands, Kikaishima, Tokunoshima, Okinoerabujima and Yoronjima, one can count 18 active kokutō shōchū distilleries. The production is solely handmade, with an alembic. Even if the raw material comes from sugar cane, due to the inclusion of rice kōji, we cannot speak about rum which itself has to be exclusively made from sugar cane.

It is therefore a cousin of the Indonesian Batavia Arrack. This brown sugar or raw sugarloaf is primarily made of local sugar canes; a crop introduced in the 17th century. The kokutō shōchū aromas depend on the quality of the sugarloaves, the water hardness that hugely changes from an island to another, the rice kōji proportion that may represent more than a third of the raw materials and also the distillation type, classic or at low pressure and low temperature, around 40-55°C to extract only the most delicate aromas. It is sometimes slightly aged in barrels but the Holy Grail for lovers are those jars buried before the GI arrival that we randomly find during domestic works: spirits produced more than 70 years ago!

 

Don’t drink and drive. Enjoy responsibly.