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Spirits

Want to Understand Shochu? It Starts with Kagoshima.

March 14, 2021

Story: Punch Staff

photos: Lizzie Munro

Spirits

Want to Understand Shochu? It Starts with Kagoshima.

March 14, 2021

Story: Punch Staff

photos: Lizzie Munro

The birthplace of shochu is famed for its ancestral expressions of the spirit—imo and kokuto—made exclusively from sweet potato and brown sugar. Here’s how to use them in cocktails.

The priest should have known better than to let early pilgrims go thirsty. According to lore about Kagoshima Prefecture—considered the place where shochu was born in the mid-1500s—the word for Japan’s native distillate first appeared on a wooden tag left behind at the Koriyama Hachiman Shrine in Isa City in 1559.

FAST FACTS

  • Kagoshima Prefecture, located in the south of Japan, is considered the birthplace of shochu.
  • Kagoshima is home to myriad sweet potato and sugar cane farms, whose raw ingredients yield two types of shochu: imo (made from sweet potatoes) and kokuto (made from brown sugar).
  • As a result of these unique base ingredients, the region produces shochu with distinctive flavor and character.

This plank is scrawled with graffiti, which, loosely translated, says: “The head priest was awfully stingy and never even gave us any shochu. What a pain!”

It’s little surprise those 16th-century seekers were disappointed to not have been offered some. Kagoshima is home to a rich agricultural heritage of sweet potato and sugar cane farming; when used to make shochu—imo and kokuto, respectively—the results are imbued with local terroir and nuanced flavor.

Today, bartenders around the world are experimenting with Japanese shochu at large, and discovering how the bottlings from this region, in particular, can elevate cocktails. “The area creates a bed of such brilliant production,” says London’s Ryan Chetiyawardana, known for his groundbreaking bars, including Silver Lyan and Lyaness. “The balance of tradition and innovation is really wonderful.”

Understanding Kagoshima Shochu

How it’s grown

Thanks to its proximity to Sakurajima, one of Japan’s most active volcanoes, Kagoshima has volcanic ash soil that is unsuitable for growing rice, but ideal for farming sweet potatoes, which have thrived there for more than three centuries. Several dozen varieties flourish in the warm southern climate.

Kagoshima “has a much warmer climate that makes it an agricultural powerhouse,” notes New York City bartender Don Lee. “I grew up with Japanese sweet potatoes and actually didn’t know that the American sweet potato…was completely different until college. The aroma of imo shochu reminds me of roasted sweet potatoes in the winter.”

Today, imo shochu is Japan’s most widely consumed style of shochu, with bottlings made from sweet potatoes grown in the Satsuma region of Kagoshima given geographical indication protection—not a widespread practice in shochu production.

Meanwhile, in Kagoshima’s Amami Islands—known for their beautiful beaches—sugar cane proliferates in the tropical clime. In turn, that yields brown sugar, which is distilled into kokuto shochu; the result is soft-textured and relatively light and dry, with subtle flavors that can play in cocktails in a surprising variety of ways. For example, when building his Brown Sugar and Beyond cocktail, Employees Only’s Dev Johnson discovered a brown sugar shochu that was scented with “deliciously delicate fruit notes like pear and plum,” a profile he found paired well with an English breakfast tea.

How it’s distilled

The process begins with rice, which is soaked and steamed to facilitate the breakdown of starch into fermentable sugars. Next, koji (a mold used for fermentation) is added, key for contributing taste, aroma and texture. Yellow koji, also used in the production of sake, yields a shochu that is fruity and bold. White koji is easy to cultivate and results in a mild flavor. Meanwhile, black koji creates a particularly robust, aromatic shochu.

Last comes the base ingredient—sweet potato, brown sugar, or any other of the 53 government-approved ingredients that can be used to make honkaku, or “authentic,” shochu—each of which contributes its own distinctive flavors.

Once fermentation is complete, the spirit is distilled just once, to retain as much of the character of the raw ingredients as possible.

Brown Sugar and Beyond [RECIPE] | Aunty Old-Fashioned [RECIPE]
How it’s mixed

The robustness that results from single distillation is appealing to bartenders because it can stand out in cocktails, Chetiyawardana says. In his Aunty Old-Fashioned, for example, sweet potato shochu holds its own alongside pungent fish sauce and fig leaf–infused rich syrup.

The full-bodied nature of Kagoshima’s shochus means they can work as “a middle ground between white and dark spirits,” he explains. “I particularly like the sweet-savory profile they have, and the fact they often have a great ‘funk’ to them.”

These bottlings play well with more nuanced flavors, too. Dev Johnson, of New York’s Liquor Lab and Employees Only, uses English breakfast tea to play up the subtle sweetness of a kokuto shochu in his Brown Sugar and Beyond cocktail.

“The brown sugar shochu brings some softer, subtle aromas reminiscent of modern clear rum, without the pungent secondary nose some rums have,” Johnson says, adding that the lower ABV allows the bottling’s light fruit flavors “to shine through on the nose.”

Meanwhile, New York’s Don Lee uses sweet potato shochu in his Ta-Ke Martini, for a complex drink that straddles the line between a traditional 50-50 Martini and its sherry-spiked cousin, the Bamboo. (Ta-ke translates to “bamboo.”) He was inspired by Kagoshima’s Tenshi no Yuwaku, which is aged in sherry barrels. “It immediately made me want to try making a riff on the classic Bamboo,” he recalls. “By mixing it with fino sherry, you get the balance and texture of a classic Martini, but all the aroma of the sweet potato and sherry-aging.”

Satsuma Coffee [RECIPE] | Ta-Ke Martini [RECIPE]

Leaning into the bolder flavors of the Kagoshima shochu spectrum is Kenta Goto, proprietor of New York City’s Bar Goto and Bar Goto Niban, whose Satsuma Coffee cocktail is named for Kagoshima’s beloved sweet potato.

“The flavor is full and round, and has a hint of toasty chocolate,” he says of the Satsuma Shiranami Kuradashi Genshu he selected for the drink. “I mixed the shochu with the similar flavors, such as almond grappa and coffee, and served it hot to allow the flavor and aroma of the shochu to come out more.” While some may be quick to draw parallels to Irish Coffee, there’s also a through line to oyuwari, a serve based on shochu and hot water that’s meant to help draw the spirit’s aroma to the forefront.

One of the things that makes shochu so interesting is how much the category can vary based on where and how each bottling is made, Goto notes. That includes Kagoshima’s unique varieties, informed by the soil and the sea.

“As a Japanese person who lives in New York and does what I do, I’m always interested in utilizing shochu in cocktails,” he says. “Like sake, shochu is something that can’t be skipped when we talk about Japanese alcoholic beverages, because we all drink it in Japan.”

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