Culture

Why Shochu Should Be Your New Favorite Drink

We head to Miyazaki, mecca of shochu (the other national liquor of Japan) for a distillery tour or three and mayyybe a bit of casual drunken archery.

Yanagita Distillery shochu distillery

Courtesy of Yanagita Distillery

By Jessica Kozuka

Jan 6, 2022

WHILE SAKE MAY BE THE BEVERAGE most closely associated with Japan, by volume, Japanese actually drink more shochu, a distilled spirit that originated in the southern islands some 500 years ago. Today, that heartland is still the center of production, led by Miyazaki Prefecture, home to behemoth Kirishima and many small craft outfits as well. Like an unexpected wine drive in Japan, a shochu distillery hopping tour of this region makes for a fun and fascinating off-the-beaten-track, locavore booze-quest for anyone who likes to travel through their tastebuds. 

Shochu is usually made from sweet potatoes, cane sugar, barley, rice, or buckwheat, although you’ll find quirky outliers distilled from everything from garlic to tomatoes—which, incidentally, makes for an outstanding bloody Mary. It’s late October when I visit, the peak of the sweet potato harvest, so everyone is focused on imojochu (sweet potato shochu) production.

Take a shochu distillery tour—or three—it’s pure family love

At family-run Watanabe Distillery in Tano, they’ve been growing their own sweet potatoes since they were established in 1914, believing the crafting of terroir begins in the field. Koichiro Watanabe, the fourth-generation owner, takes us to one of their plots, freshly harvested to reveal the rich, black soil they’ve cultivated over generations. The distillery rotates their crops, sometimes even swapping fields with other local farmers, to ensure the soil stays naturally fertile. Watanabe says the result is more flavorful, robust sweet potatoes that yield 10 to 20 percent more alcohol. 

“Of course, farming and agriculture are really challenging,” Watanabe says. “You are doing more work than in standard production because you have to take on cultivating and harvesting, but in order to deliver high-quality, delicious shochu, I think all the trouble and the hard work is worthwhile.,”

Equally important to raw materials is the propagation of koji, a mold that breaks starch into sugars that can be converted into alcohol. There are three varieties—called white, black and yellow after the color of mold they produce—each of which results in different characteristics in the finished shochu. The koji spores are spread on a steamed grain, usually rice, which is parceled out into small trays to proliferate. 

At Furusawa Distillery in Nichinan, fifth-generation owner Masako Furusawa, one of the few female shochu master distillers in Japan, gives us a tour of her koji room, insulated by a layer of rice husks in the walls. It was built 130 years ago and only recently had electric lights added. Temperature is naturally controlled by adjusting three small windows, and also by changing the depth of rice in the trays and how they are stacked, all of which requires the distiller’s experienced eye and near constant supervision. 

When the koji rice is ready, it’s mixed with water and yeast to form a slurry called shubo (mother culture) where the fermentation gets underway. Furusawa Distillery is the last remaining shochu distillery in Miyazaki doing this in a traditional earthen-walled building, using ceramic pots set into the ground.

Oh, and the science is seriously cool

With temperature control especially key at this stage, the warming climate is making the continued use of these analog techniques difficult, but Furusawa says she would like to keep at it as long as she can.

“Using what’s available locally, something made by local people in the local climate, that’s the ideal for shochu,” she says. 

Once the shubo is ready, the sweet potatoes or other raw ingredients are added for another round of fermentation that lasts about two weeks and then the mixture can be distilled. Honkaku or “genuine” shochu is distilled only once, preserving the flavors and aromas of the raw ingredients and those imparted by the fermentation process. 

This step too requires a deep understanding of the craft, with flavor drastically affected by variations in distilling equipment and decisions about how much of the heads and tails—the beginning and end of the distillation process—to throw out.

It’s the prime focus of Tadashi Yanagita, fifth-generation owner of Yanagita Distillery in Miyakonojo. As the second son, Yanagita wasn’t expecting to take over the distillery, so he studied engineering and worked for Fuji Xerox for some years. But when his father retired, the family decided he should be the successor. 

“Since I came to shochu-making via engineering, I wanted to lean on that experience to make shochu no one else was making,” Yanagita explains. He learned to weld and got certified as an electrician to do customized retrofits on their pot still, aiming to draw out stronger, unexpected flavors. With his prize-winning Aokage label, for example, his technical alchemy turns barley mash into a spirit with powerfully aromatic notes of cacao, peanut and sesame. On our tour of his distillery, we also see how he’s experimenting with ways to make shochu more appealing to overseas markets, such as cask-aging it whiskey-style.

What to eat—and shoot?!—with shochu

Like wine, shochu is meant to be paired with food. Here in Miyazaki, the earthy bouquets of the local shochu varieties hold their own against rich specialties like the prefecture’s famous wagyu beef, the popular fried fish cakes called satsuma-age, or katsuo tsukudani, skipjack tuna simmered in sweetened soy sauce. Add the variety of ways shochu can be drunk—straight, on the rocks, mixed with soda, mizuwari (mixed with water), oyuwari (mixed with hot water)—and you’ve got a dizzying array of possible combinations to explore.  

But for the ultimate only-in-Miyazaki drinking experience, the castle town of Obi offers the eyebrow-raising combination of shochu and short bow archery. Shihan mato originated in the 16th century and is performed from a seated position. Since that limited its offensive applications, peasants were allowed to practice it. Over time, however, it became more party game than martial art.

At raucous competitions and hobbyist gatherings, an archer’s bottle of shochu became nearly as essential as her bow, with a quaffed glass being the standard way to celebrate a bullseye, commiserate a miss, and just pass the time while waiting one’s turn. Sadly—or perhaps thankfully, depending on your proximity to the target—alcohol has been banned from the annual Miyazaki city competition, but in private practice, shochu still flows freely. 

That’s Miyazaki shochu from production to consumption, and if you needed more inspiration to further explore this traditional tipple, fyi honkaku shochu has no residual carbs or sugar, so it’s one of the lowest calorie alcohols out there. Extra-bonus points: low levels of a compound called acetaldehyde are thought to make it less prone to causing hangovers. So, raise a guilt-free glass and fall in love with Japan’s other national liquor. We have.

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