Booze Basics: Mugi (barley) shochu
It may be out of fashion, but Christopher Pellegrini argues mugi shochu’s worth your attention
Satsuma imo (sweet potato) shochu is getting all the love at the moment, but interestingly mugi (barley) shochu actually sells just as well.
This will come as a bit of a surprise to anyone who has looked at a menu in an izakaya or restaurant that stocks several honkaku (premium) shochu labels. In many cases, satsuma imo offerings outnumber mugi two-to-one. The same observation can be made at many supermarkets where the satsuma imo section dwarfs every other type of shochu.
So if the majority of the selection is satsuma imo, then how is it possible that in April of 2010 tax authorities reported that 19,311 kiloliters of satsuma imo shochu were shipped while mugi actually clocked in at 19,950?
Perhaps the single biggest reason is that mugi shochu is relatively smooth and easy to drink. The aromas and flavors imparted by the ingredients used in its production are less earthy and milder than shochu with a satsuma imo base. It’s arguable that this makes it appealing to a larger number of social drinkers and helps to drive up sales.
It’s also good for mixing. Mugi shochu is smooth enough that it’s a logical choice for making any of a number of cocktails. Personally, I enjoy mixing it with oolong tea when I go to baseball games here in Tokyo. It’s definitely a crowd pleaser at the stadium—I march in with about a liter of it in a thermos and dish it out to friends who come by with a mixer! I tend to go with a bottle of Iichiko 25% (green cap) which I pick up at Bic Camera in Shinjuku on my way to the game.
Some readers out there in Japan Eats land may now be saying to themselves, “OK, sounds good. I’ll try some of that. But what exactly is it?” Good question. And not one that’s easy to answer in a single tweet. The production of mugi shochu, just like every other variety of Japan’s unheralded spirit, is an incredibly painstaking and exacting process.
The production of mugi shochu is similar in many respects to other spirits. A mash (moromi) of some grain or other plant and hot water is combined with yeast to create a liquid compound containing alcohol through the process of fermentation. This moromi is then distilled, aged and bottled to create a pleasing final product.
The one major difference, and one of the main reasons why mugi shochu is generally so different from whiskey, is that the barley is not malted. Malting involves causing grains to germinate before halting the process with high temperatures and is essential to the creation of popular drinks such as beer and whiskey.
Shochu, on the other hand, employs koji (Aspergillus oryzae) instead of malting to turn the starches present in barley into sugars such as fructose and glucose. This then makes fermentation possible as yeast can deal with sugars but not starches.
But mugi shochu does occasionally taste a bit like whiskey even though the production processes contain some serious differences. This is often due to the fact that mugi shochu producers have taken to importing used whiskey casks. These casks, naturally, will leak some of the flavors of their former inhabitants into the shochu. This is a delightful surprise for anyone who is a Scotch or Bourbon fan as cask recycling is starting to increase in Japan.
The production of shochu in general, and mugi shochu in particular, is much more complicated than what’s written here, but hopefully you now have a better grasp of what this major player in the shochu world is all about.
And if you’re looking for ideas, here are my mugi shochu recommendations:
Light and smooth
Iichiko (Oita Prefecture)
25% alcohol by volume (ABV)
Serving style: on the rocks or mizuwari (mixed with cool water)
Notes: the standard mizuwari mixture is 6:4 (six parts shochu, four parts water), but personal preference should govern here. In Oita Prefecture, many people enjoy mugi shochu on the rocks at a 3:7 ratio.
Yamazaru (Miyazaki Prefecture)
Serving style: on the rocks, mizuwari or oyuwari (mixed with warm/hot water)
Notes: when preparing shochu oyuwari-style, pour the hot water into your cup first. Add the shochu second. The heat from the hot water will draw out the bouquet of the shochu.
Hyakunen no Godoku (Miyazaki Prefecture)
Serving style: straight up or on the rocks
Notes: it’s not common for a honkaku shochu to be bottled at 40% ABV, but this mugi shochu is definitely worth trying at least once.