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Japan’s First Foray Into Vermouth

October 05, 2020

Story: Jessica Hernandez

photo: Lizzie Munro

With its botanical-infused, sake-based formula, Oka Kura Bermutto plants a flag for Japanese vermouth.

Japan has a unique ability to reinterpret foreign curiosities—croissants, Scotch whisky, Martinis—into perfected gastronomic traditions all its own. Tsutsumi Distillery, which has been producing shochu in Japan for 141 years, has done just that with the category of vermouth. With the launch of its Oka Kura Bermutto, a junmai sake fortified with rice shochu and infused with botanicals indigenous to Japan, Tsutsumi puts the country’s first contemporary vermouth on the map.

As with Japan’s interpretations of whisky and gin, its vermouth provides an exciting new template with which to rethink the largely Western category. Located in Kumamoto Prefecture, Tsutsumi Distillery has a history of pushing the boundaries of shochu, a spirit distilled from ingredients like barley, sweet potato or buckwheat, with experiments like its sherry barrel–aged rice shochu, which forays into whiskey-like territory. Kumamoto Prefecture was also the first area to bring back junmai production post–World War II, and the Kuma region in particular is home to kome, or rice shochu, providing Tsutsumi with the ideal and logical building blocks for a Japanese vermouth. For Oka Kura, the distillery uses 100 percent rice shochu to fortify junmai sake, considered a “pure rice” sake made only with rice, koji, yeast and water.

Though a newcomer to the vermouth market, Japan has a long history of infusing herbs, fruits and citrus into sake, much like Europe’s tradition of aromatizing wine. Oka Kura itself is aromatized with yuzu, Japan’s iconic, aromatic citrus; kabosu, a punchy, high-acid citrus grown in Oita Prefecture; sanshō, a pepper akin to the tongue-tingling Sichuan peppercorn; and yomogi, also called Japanese wormwood or mugwort.

Altogether, Oka Kura is reminiscent of a grapefruit shochu highball, layered with herbal complexity and a slightly bitter finish. It pours a faint yellow, with some sediment left over from sake filtration, and leans toward the weight and profile of a dry vermouth—albeit with notes of yuzu, grapefruit, green apple, pear and peach. With its heavy citrus backbone, Oka Kura plays well in a White Negroni or a Bronx and complements the flavor profiles of Japanese gins in a 50/50 Martini.

Born out of old Japanese apothecary images, Oka Kura Bermutto’s label nods to herbal sake’s past as a curative remedy, while its wholly innovative liquid makes it unlike any vermouth currently on the market. Like the country’s adoption of whisky and gin, Oka Kura—a product anchored in tradition yet meticulously rethought to reflect the country’s terroir—provides a glimpse into a potential sea change in the future of vermouth.

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Jessica Hernandez is a food nerd with a voracious appetite for food anthropology and gastronomy. You can find her probing the intersections of food origins, identity and culture while binging on beverages and konbini snacks in her home base in Long Beach, California. Find her work on IG @hernandezjess