If one were tasked with engineering a category of spirit that would find itself dead-center on the drink nerd Venn diagram, the emerging rums of Japan—small-batch, homegrown and largely unknown—might make for one hell of a bull’s-eye.
Interest in craft rum has never been greater, driven in no small part by the product category’s vast diversity, both geographically and stylistically, as well as rum’s marvelous malleability behind the bar and an increasingly open-minded drinking public. With a half a millennium of sugar cane production occurring alongside centuries-old distilling traditions, it would appear that verily, quietly, Japanese rum is setting itself up to go on a hero’s run, undoubtedly buoyed by the wider all-Japan-everything spirits boom. If Japanese whisky is a runaway global phenomenon with no signs of slowing, and Japanese gin achieved Next Big Thing status in the late 2010s, the country is poised now to draw growing interest to its sugar cane distillates.
“Japanese rum isn’t new,” says Christopher Pellegrini, founder of Honkaku Spirits, “but I didn’t start noticing it until about 10 years ago. And real promotion of the drink has only just begun.”
While there is no clear “patient zero” for Japanese rum, by the late 19th century a confluence of factors—local distilling practices (particularly awamori), sugar cane production and global food and drink influences—conspired to create a fertile ground for rum-making experimentation in Japan. “There has been an increase in the number of brands hitting the market,” Pellegrini tells me, with many new brands available and “more in the works—it almost feels like this could eventually be the next chapter following the Japanese gin era.”
Today, much of the sugar cane grown in Japan comes from Okinawa, where it first arrived in the 17th century from China, and other surrounding small islands, including the Amami Islands and Bonin Islands. Both of these places have their own distilling traditions. For instance, on the Amami Islands, there is sugar cane distillate known as kokuto shochu, which some have pointed to as the true precursor to rum in Japan. However, it is distinct: Kokuto shochu uses a combination of black sugar and rice koji in the fermenting process and clocks in at just 25 percent ABV.
“With a half a millennium of sugar cane production occurring alongside centuries-old distilling traditions, it would appear that verily, quietly, Japanese rum is setting itself up to go on a hero’s run.”
Currently, Americans interested in Japanese rum have their pick of just three brands: Cor Cor, Teeda and Kiyomi. Each of these distilleries offers a broad range of bottlings, with just a few expressions being currently exported. Cor Cor hails from Minamidaito, a small island east of Okinawa, and is available in Green and Red expressions (Green is an agricole style, while Red is made from molasses). Teeda, meanwhile, is made on the island of Okinawa itself by the Helios Distillery, which has been in operation since the early 1960s. It’s reminiscent of a Caribbean gold rum, aged for three years in American oak and agreeably mellow.
But we are just scratching the surface here. Over on Dekanta, that online wonderland of Japanese spirits, there are another dozen or so rums available for purchase by U.S.-based drinkers willing to pay a $30 per bottle shipping fee. “We have seen an increase in the number of bottles of rum purchased since around the beginning [of] 2020,” says Liam Hiller, head of content at Dekanta. “Before that, we had sold very little Japanese rum.”
Whisky, vintage wine, mezcal, amaro, Champagne—all of these have online communities that offer a window into their respective geek subcultures. It makes sense that there would also be an active internet scene for rum drinkers. In these circles, Japanese rum is a subject of hot debate and inquiry. Lance Surujbally is the editor of and sole contributor to The Lone Caner, an impressively exhaustive and regularly updated website dedicated entirely to the world of rum. His website features close to 1,000 reviews of individual rums from around the world; of these, he’s authored 18 Japanese rum reviews and counting, making him among the most experienced international tasters of Japanese rum.
“Japanese rums taste quite different from an agricole, say, aged or otherwise,” Surujbally tells me. “In fact I often see them as inhabiting a space between a British Caribbean rum and a Spanish-style ron... but more towards a pot-still funk of Jamaica.” As with others I spoke to, Surujbally is particularly complimentary of a Japanese distillery called Nine Leaves, whose product is not yet available in the United States, and whose distiller, Yoshiharu Takeuchi, is known as something of a rum genius. Surujbally first encountered Nine Leaves at an international rum festival in 2014; from there, “it’s been a slowly advancing wave over the last 10 years or so,” with more Japanese rums coming to market every year.
With growth comes improvement, setting the stage for what could someday be a full-fledged trend. “[Japanese rum] remains, so far, a niche rum to the greater rum public the way those from Réunion, Mauritius or Marie-Galante once were,” says Surujbally. “If it ever gets some serious promotion worldwide, that could change very quickly.”
Recently I stumbled across a rum hailing from Ogasawara, also known as the Bonin Islands, located some 600 miles due south of Tokyo, that wasn’t yet reviewed on The Lone Caner. Climatically more like Micronesia than Japan, Ogasawara has been home to sugarcane cultivation since the early 19th century, and locals have made rum here for more than 100 years. As this place is technically a part of Japan (and, in fact, legally it is a neighborhood of Tokyo!) Ogasawara may truly lay claim to being Japan’s oldest rum.
It’s not just that drinking it scratches the far-flung island, map-nerd geography itch inside my brain; Ogasawara rum is also a delightful spirit. There is a weight to it, like Irish moss pudding or kefir water, offset by fruit syrup and black sugar, utterly distinct and thought-provoking, like the history of the world in a glass, all the better for it being the first time I’d tried anything quite like it.
Four Japanese Rums to Try
Cor Cor Green
Both the Green and Red bottlings of Cor Cor are now available in the United States, both hailing from Grace Distillery on the island of Minamidaito, near Okinawa. Cor Cor Green is an agricole-style rum, unaged and made from sugar cane harvested on the same island as the distillery. Expect barbecued vegetables on the nose alongside tamari and banana, with a pleasing green lime note in the glass offset by a peppery finish. Try it in your favorite Ti’ Punch variation.
Teeda Japanese Rum
Teeda is made by the Helios Distillery on Okinawa, and in Japan you can find it in a range of expressions, including a well-regarded 21-year. On the U.S. market, currently there is this entry-level offering, aged for three years in American oak. Reminiscent of a gold rum, Teeda is particularly good in a Daiquiri—which pulls out the chewiness of the spirit and plays up Teeda’s warm plantain notes—or mixed tall on the rocks with Fanta Shikuwasa for an Okinawan inversion of the Rebujito.
Rurikakesu 40 Degrees
This rum from the Amami Islands, where the kokuto shochu sugar cane distilling style originated, is also aged in oak barrels in a gold rum style. Japanese spirits expert Christopher Pellegrini particularly likes it for its “minerality and subdued presence alongside fruity notes, like strawberry jam, wafting over the drink’s funky foundation.” Currently not imported to the United States, but available via Dekanta.
Ogasawara Bonin Island Rum
This rum hails from Ogasawara, a small subtropical island that is technically part of Tokyo, located 600 miles south of the metropolis. With a creamy mouthfeel and an herbal, rich nose reminiscent of unrefined dark sugar, it’s as rare and piquant as rum gets. Currently not imported to the United States, but available via Dekanta.