Saké is an alcoholic beverage brewed from rice. So what is shōchū? It all started in the Middle East with an ancient spirit called arak. This traditional beverage is distilled from grapes and infused with aniseed. Arak served as a base beverage concept that evolved as it spread around the world. It was brought over to Asia where it transformed into lao lao in Thailand. When it arrived in Okinawa, Japan, the crafts of distillation and rice kōji-making combined to form awamori. The art of making spirits arrived to mainland Japan in Kagoshima about 500 years ago. Local ingredients were combined with the ancient craft, and shōchū was born!
The use of kōji mold is what separates shōchū from other spirits. Yellow kōji produces the flavors, fermentable sugars and lactic acid in saké. Shōchū production uses black kōji which is a strain indigenous to Okinawa. Black kōji also produces fermentable sugars, but with a different set of flavors and citrus acid. When spirit production arrived in Japan, with it came black kōji. Long grain rice used for Okinawan awamori was replaced with Japanese short grain rice. Kagoshima’s famous sweet potatoes and other starchy grains like barley are also used as the main ingredient.
Just like saké, shōchū quality suffered during World War II. The idea was to produce the maximum amount of alcohol with the minimum amount of ingredients. Column stills were used to produce high proof alcohol that would be diluted down to produce cheap flavorless shōchū. This vodka-like shōchū is still made today in automated factories and used as a cocktail base.
During the time of year when the rest of Japan still gathers around the stove for warmth, I was being driven to Kuroki Honten Distillery in Miyazaki with the air conditioning on full blast. This part of Japan is hot! It’s so hot that saké cannot be brewed here. So the local drink of choice is Mr. Kuroki’s shōchū. Toshiyuki Kuroki is the fourth generation owner and head of Kuroki Honten Distillery. Established in 1885, they are now considered the best shōchū distillery in the world. Many have told me nobody makes shōchū with as much love and passion as Mr. Kuroki. I soon found out why.
Kuroki Honten exclusively produces a classification of shōchū called honkaku or authentic shōchū. By law, authentic shōchū must be single distilled and never allowed to touch charcoal. This creates a spirit that has distinct flavors and aromas of the raw ingredient. The most common ingredients are rice, barley or sweet potato. Rather than sprouting the grain like in whiskey production, kōji mold is used as the saccharification agent. At Kuroki Honten, kōji production is done in small 10 kilogram batches. It is similar to the process for ultra premium saké that may cost hundreds of dollars per bottle. Mr. Kuroki makes sure every single grain is lovingly touched by human hands because he believes this is the most important step in shōchū making.
The first step in fermentation is done in open ceramic pots called kamé. Kōji, water, yeast and the freshly steamed based ingredient are allowed to ferment for four to five days. During this time, the concentration of yeast increases while citrus acid released by the kōji protect the mash from contamination. This highly concentrated mash is transferred to a larger tank where more kōji, water and freshly steamed ingredients are added. At Kuroki Honten, their large tanks are made from cedar. Head distiller, Shinichi Kakugami, believes that their wood imparts a unique characteristic to his shōchū. Fermentation temperature of the mash is 86°F for four to five days. In comparison, ginjo style saké is fermented below 60°F for two to three weeks. This is why cold weather was traditionally required for saké brewing.
Distillation at Kuroki Honten is done in a steel pot still. Certain varieties of shōchū are vacuum distilled to impart a lighter, more vibrant quality. After distillation, the spirit is aged at least three years in enamel lined tanks. Maturing adds depth to the flavor and softens the mouthfeel. One exception is Mr. Kuroki’s flagship One Hundred Years of Solitude. It is an authentic barley shōchū that is aged in top secret barrels for a top secret period of time. I asked, but my attempts were gracefully brushed away. It’s for good reason, because this shōchū is one of the most sought-after bottles in Japan. Connoisseurs will agree that this is the best shōchū ever produced. An undisclosed number of bottles are released annually and immediately sell out.
What is done with the spent lees after distillation? Kuroki Honten produce their own estate grown ingredients, so the waste will be processed into fertilizer. The distillers are also the farmers of their own ingredients. The attention to detail at Kuroki Honten is unbelievable! Better yet, the waste is also converted to feed to raise animals that will be cooked and paired with the shōchū. There’s no other distillery that takes this much pride in their work. It’s no surprise that they have earned the reputation of being the absolute best.