Japan Eats

Boozehound: Kuroki Honten Distillery

Christopher Pellegrini tours Kuroki Honten in majestic Miyazaki Prefecture.

Click here to read the first Boozehound report from our recent trip to Kyushu.

After a day and a night in Kagoshima City, we hopped on a northbound train headed for Miyazaki Prefecture. Our ultimate goal for the day was to visit Kuroki Honten, the makers of well-respected shochu labels such as Kiroku, Nakanaka, and Hyakunen no Kodoku.

Planting sweet potatoes.

To our pleasant surprise, we were in for an incredibly educational and inspiring tour conducted by the president of the shuzo, Mr. Toshiyuki Kuroki himself.

Mr. Kuroki is the fourth generation to have piloted the family distillery, and it was under his watch that business flourished during the past 15 years. A trim and jovial family man, Mr. Kuroki is an executive with a serious hop in his step. He’s difficult to keep up with.

One thing that stood out about Mr. Kuroki is that he has a clear affection for his employees. That evening, and the next day, we observed countless instances of him talking to and joking with the distillers, bottlers and field workers. Solid sales will put smiles on many people’s faces, but it was obvious that the working culture at Kuroki Honten is buoyed by workers who share Mr. Kuroki’s passion and believe in his vision.

And another thing that grabbed our attention, and something that Mr. Kuroki is very proud of, is the shuzo’s determination to recycle everything they possibly can. This includes using the lees from the distilling process to make both fertilizer and livestock feed. Their efforts to make the shochu production process as circular and socially responsible as possible are detailed on the Kuroki Honten website (Japanese).

We later tasted several of the shuzo’s less widely available brands, such as their unfiltered Kiroku and Bakudan Hanatare. The latter, an 88 proof imo shochu that is best kept in the freezer, is supposed to be consumed like a shooter even though there tends to be served in vessels much larger than shot glasses. That might have been the highlight of the visit, but I don’t recall.

Casks of mugi shochu.

While Kuroki Honten doesn’t normally do tours, shochu fans can take solace in the fact that the shuzo’s exemplary products are easily locatable around Japan. In Tokyo, for example, one can purchase Nakanaka, the company’s smooth sipping mugi shochu, at vendors as diverse as Shinanoya (chain liquor store) and Bic Camera (chain electronics store).

Anything made by Kuroki Honten or their sister shuzo, Osuzuyama (the shuzo detailed in my next Boozehound article), is well worth your time and hard-earned cash.

Boozehound: Satsuma Musou Distillery

Christopher Pellegrini visits Satsuma Musou Distillery in Kagoshima City

Doing the research part of writing a book is arduous, especially when there aren’t any resources available in one’s own language. I’ve read nearly everything that exists on the subject written in Japanese, but there just really isn’t that much content out there in general.

So I decided to go straight to the source. Kyushu, that is. Because I’m writing a book about shochu.

Mai Miyauchi of Satsuma Musou Shuzo.

Mai Miyauchi of Satsuma Musou Shuzo.

About a 20 minute walk from Goino train station in Kagoshima City is Satsuma Musou Distillery. Partly supported by the prefectural government, this distillery is an ideal place for tourists as it has a well-planned tour and large gift shop/tasting area. Much to my surprise, I was treated to a tour of the facilities entirely in English by the knowledgeable Mai Miyauchi who has gone so far as to attend industry-related classes at Kagoshima University.

The distillery that we toured is a smaller operation set up for the benefit of tourists. They were still working on batches of imo shochu even though the season ended in February or March for most other distilleries in Kyushu. This meant that we were still able to see the workers unload check frozen potatoes before they were dropped into the steamer. We also had a chance to see the mash bubbling away at different stages of fermentation in open earthenware pots half submerged in the facility’s concrete floor.

And of course, we sampled several of the distillery’s liquid treats. Even if you can’t travel to Satsuma Musou in Kogoshima Prefecture, you can probably find their Satsuma Musou ‘Red Label’ (Aka Raberu) or Kuro Mugi at finer liquor shops around Japan.

Satsuma Musou is recommended as an introduction to the complex process of making Japan’s wonderful distilled drink, shochu.

Website (Japanese): http://www.satsumamusou.co.jp/

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.

Iichiko

Iichiko is perhaps the best known brand of mugi shochu

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.

Medium richness

Yamazaru (Miyazaki Prefecture)
25% ABV
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.

Full character

Hyakunen no Godoku (Miyazaki Prefecture)
40% ABV
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.

Booze Basics: Major shochu types

Christopher Pellegrini explains the difference between honkaku and kourui shochu.

You’ve seen them on the menu at nearly every alcohol-equipped establishment in Japan—mysterious cocktails that end in the word ‘hai’. And those chuhai drinks that seem to be the best bet at the convenience store in terms of easy-to-drink alcoholic content per hundred yen spent–is this shochu or vodka or what?

But what of all these new bars that cater to shochu lovers—what are they drinking? Is it the same fuel that’s powering these diverse parties, or are we talking about entirely different alcoholic permutations?

Quite simply, what we’re dealing with here is two varieties of the same drink that have different distillation processes and drinking purposes. At the risk of oversimplifying things just a bit, shochu, the alcohol distilled from a wide range of flora, can generally be divided into two main camps—kourui and honkaku.

Kourui shochu, for the most part, is what’s providing the kick in most of those restaurant cocktails and canned drinks that shine in supermarket and convenience store coolers. It’s distilled repeatedly so that it loses the majority of its flavor profile. There’s not a whole lot happening on the nose either—this stuff (sometimes compared with vodka) is ideal for cocktails and is generally the ‘chu’ half of a canned ‘chuhai’ (a drink containing shochu, soda, and a sweet or sour mixer of some sort). Chuhai, by the way, is a reduction of ‘shochu highball,’ and the most common mixers are tea (oolong), and grapefruit or lemon juice.

Kourui shochu

Comes in a giant plastic jug? Its a safe guess its kourui shochu

Kourui shochu is also added to some types of nihonshu (sake), such as honjozo, in order to tame some of the robust natural flavors that are produced during the brewing process. The maximum permissible ABV for this type of shochu is 36%. Another popular drink, umeshu, also uses kourui shochu as its base.

Honkaku shochu (aka otsurui), on the other hand, is single-distilled and full of flavor and aroma. Honkaku can be translated as ‘authentic’ or ‘genuine’, and the three most common raw ingredients are sweet potatoes (satsumaimo), barley (mugi) and rice (kome). Honkaku makes up the bulk of what those shochu bars are serving.

Honkaku shochu is typically enjoyed neat, on the rocks, or with either hot or cold water added. It is most frequently bottled at 25% ABV, but legally it can climb above forty percent.

Honkaku shochu, the pride of the prefectures of Kyushu Island, is generally associated with southern parts of the archipelago. That is not to imply that good shochu is not produced up north, but the lion’s share of well-respected brands are from the prefectures of Kagoshima, Miyazaki and Kumamoto, to name a few. Kourui, on the other hand, is distilled all over the country.

Even though it may not be the clearcut winner in terms of production (kiloliters per year), imo-jochu (potato shochu) enjoys the widest exposure in terms of the number of brands on restaurant and bar menus. Mugi, kome and kokuto (brown sugar) are a very distant second in that respect.

However, this does not necessarily mean that imo is better. Imo-jochu (the ‘sh’ in shochu is generally pronounced ‘j’ when it follows the name of the main ingredient) is notable for its pronounced steamed potato aroma and strong flavor while mugi is known for being smoother. The price of a bottle of shochu is similar to that of many whiskies available in supermarkets, so it might be good to grab a bottle of both imo and mugi to figure out which one is more your style.

If you plan to make cocktails with shochu, such as an “oolong hai” (one part shochu and two parts oolong tea on the rocks), then it is recommended that you opt for mugi-jochu. Imo-jochu can easily overpower the other ingredients in a shochu cocktail if not mixed carefully.

Perhaps the easiest way to tell the difference is that honkaku is most often found in 720 ml or larger glass bottles (although it also can be purchased in large cardboard cartons). Kourui is also packaged in large cartons but tends to be much cheaper than boxes of honkaku. And if it’s in a gigantic clear plastic jug, then that’s definitely kourui.

However you choose to drink it, shochu sales are steadily taking charge in the Japanese alcohol industry. As beer and nihonshu sales continue to taper off or even decline, shochu demand has increased enough that distillers have not been able to raise supplies to the point where they would consider serious flirtations with international markets. These days, whether you’re drinking kourui or honkaku shochu, you’re guaranteed to be in good company.

Boozehound: Suntory’s Yamazaki 1984 Wins Int’l Whiskey Prize

It was recently reported that Japanese beverage giant, Suntory, brought home top prize at the recent International Spirits Challenge held in London, England.

Entered in the ‘Whiskies – Other’ category, Suntory’s Single Malt Yamazaki 1984 won one of several gold medals awarded to whiskey distillers from around the world. Later on, in a second round of blind tasting by several international judges, Yamazaki 1984 was awarded top prize in the category.

While this category does not include Scotch, which has a category of its own, Yamazaki 1984 beat out major competition from several Irish labels (Jameson, Bushmills, etc.) in taking the trophy.

Suntory was then awarded “Distiller of the Year” honors for its contributions to the global spirits industry. And on top of that, Yamazaki 1984 came away with the “Supreme Champion Spirit” award. Both honors are a first for a Japanese distiller and product, respectively.

Yamazaki 1984 sells for nearly 100,000 yen per bottle (700ml) in Japan, and Suntory actually had several other entries in the same category that were also assigned gold medals by the auditors.

Asahi also managed to score two gold medals for Japan in the same category with its “Taketsuru 21 y.o.” and “Yoichi 15 y.o.” labels.

Boozehound: The Joy of Sake

Christopher Pellegrini takes in The Joy of Sake

Tokyo’s installment of Honolulu’s Joy of Sake party was packed by legions of professionals from the nihonshu industry and the well-heeled business folks from the southwestern section of the Yamanote train line. Also in attendance were some of sake’s biggest supporters outside of Japan, namely author John Gauntner and sommelier Ake Nordgren, and the air in the two tasting halls was one of a giant reunion made possible by the continuing success of one of this country’s most recognizable exports.

Bottles of Daiginjo 'A' waiting in the TOC Main Hall.

And then there was me.

To be fair, I wasn’t the only nihonshu nerd in attendance, but very few others felt brave enough to whip out their notebooks and scribble tasting notes as they worked their way up and down endless banquet tables of daiginjo. And I must admit, it was truly a joyful experience.

Curiously, many guests chose to ignore the TOC Main Hall where all of the daiginjo ‘A’ bottles (rice polishing ratio of 40% or less) sat vulnerable to unlimited perusal. The other, more brightly lit hall had more food, but no daiginjo ‘A’.  With everyone busy munching away, I was allowed ample elbow room to compare some of the best sake currently known to the world. In fact, there were no less than 329 labels from 166 breweries on display, and the main hall also featured a good selection of yamahai and kimoto sake.

No, I didn’t try them all. I’m only human. And there were no spit buckets.

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Australian Ginjo.

All 329 varieties of sake were in fact entrants in the 2010 US National Sake Appraisal which took place in Honolulu back in August. That includes all of the daiginjo ‘B’, ginjo and junmai labels on the tables in the Tokubetsu Hall. The two day event sees ten judges run through all of the bottles as they attempt to find imbalances in each of them.

Of the 83 daiginjo ‘A’ bottles, 27 were gold award winners with top honors going to Kizakura’s “Daiginjo”, Kodama Jozo’s Taiheizan “Tenko”, and Nagurayama Shuzo’s “Kanpyokai Shuppinshu.” My favorites were Asahi Shuzo’s famous “Dassai 23”, a sake with the unimaginable polishing ratio of 23%, and Ume Ichirin Shuzo’s “Kanpyokai Shuppinshu.”

The former didn’t make it to the final round during the panel’s blind tasting, but the latter did and earned a gold award in the process. Interestingly, Ume Ichirin Shuzo is located in Chiba Prefecture, a region not typically associated with sake brewing excellence.

Other bottles that caught my attention were “Hana no Youna” junmai ginjo from California and “Go-Shu Blue” ginjo from Australia. Neither won plaudits from the contest’s auditors, but Australia’s entry was noticeably more enjoyable than America’s.

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Several top notch restaurants offered small portions of their finest sake-paired appetizers.

More than anything, Joy of Sake is an excellent opportunity for the nihonshu-curious to figure out what they like. By using the mini-siphons to import two thimbles of sake into one’s tasting cup, it’s possible to keep inebriation on the back burner and slowly sample everything from the refined to the complex, the clean to the more cloying.

And of course there was food there, too. Twelve top-notch restaurants from both Japan and America provided appetizers to the buoyant guests. Takao (Los Angeles) served their Maguro Spring Roll with Avocado and Sweet Spicy Miso Sauce while Al Porto (Tokyo) offered Bruschetta di Prociutto Crudo e Caponata.

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Volunteers begin uncapping bottles before the start of the festival. Notice the small plastic syphon used to transfer sake into guests' tasting cups.

Through conversations with other guests, it became clear that many were enthusiastic about Nobu (New York) and their Fresh Sashimi from Niigata with Yuzu and Dried Miso. Hoku’s (Honolulu) also had a long line waiting for bowls of its Sake Braised Black Angus Beef Short Angus Beef Short Ribs with Hawaiian Chili Pepper, Spiced Crispy Onions and Lomi Pineapple Tomato.

Judging by the 8,000 yen ticket price, Joy of Sake is not an event targeted at the 20-something crowd, and that observation was easily supported by a quick look around the audience. The average age of the guests was likely late 40s, which is not meant to imply that this sake celebration was a sedate affair. Anything but. Several couples old enough to be my grandparents kept up and carried on just like the small groups of young women four decades their junior.

If this party returns to Japan in the future, indeed if sake is to survive at home, this generational imbalance is something that they will hopefully choose to address. In the meantime, let’s hope that this event continues to turn heads and change minds overseas as sake brings its special brand of Japanese joy to a wider audience.

Boozehound: Joy of Sake Does Tokyo

This is one that you shouldn’t miss. Purchase your ticket online now.

THE JOY OF SAKE is finally coming to Tokyo!

Tuesday November 2nd, 2010, from 6-9PM on the 13th floor of the TOC Building in Gotanda (Tokyo).

Click here for a map.

Tickets are 8,000 yen and will allow you access to more than 320 sakes and appetizers courtesy of Nobu (New York), Yoshi’s (San Francisco), KomahachiRestaurant J, and other gourmet chefs.

The Joy of Sake has held tasting events in San Francisco, New York and Hawaii in the past, and this is the first time that the party, which typically hosts 2,000+ sake-loving guests, has come to Japan.

These events have been pivotal in opening North Americans’ eyes to the wonders of the sake world. Please join Japan Eats in supporting this non-profit organization’s quest to bring sake to the masses!

Reserve your ticket here.

Boozehound: “Taste of Akita” with John Gauntner

Several industry insiders came together to bring the nihonshu-loving public “Taste of Akita” on Saturday

John Gauntner, author of The Sake Handbook, answering questions at each table.

October 23rd at Akita Bisaikan. And 40+ fortunate souls were treated to an evening of Akita’s finest, all while being guided every step of the way by nihonshu author and expert, John Gauntner, bilingual guide and brewery tour organizer, Etsuko Nakamura, and brewery representatives such as Saiya Shuzo’s Akihisa Sato.

Starting with a quick introduction to the history of sake production in Akita Prefecture, Gauntner simultaneously espoused on the mystery sake, a unique unlabeled contest sake given to each table. From there the food began to arrive. First, a hinaidori chicken liver pate followed by broth-simmered Azuki Babylon Shellfish.

And by this time sake number two had already been delivered, again one bottle per table, but this time every table got the same thing–Mansaku-no-Hana Daiginjo. Aged for two years and much more refined than the contest sake, this sake was an excellent counter point to the far richer flavors found in the shellfish and pate.

Next up was the Kariho Hiyaoroshi (fall seasonal sake), a junmai ginjo that nicely complemented the fresh sashimi selection with its pronounced and bright aroma.

Mr. Sato from Saiya Shuzo sat with the guests for much of the evening.

Right on Kariho’s heels was crowd favorite Saiya Shuzo’s Yuki-no-Bosha which is actually a genshu at 16%. Genshu is the result of a brewing style that doesn’t involve using water to dilute the sake, and the fact that this sake peaked at 16% means that the toji (master brewer) is one of the best in the business. Most genshu end up being several percentage points higher in alcohol content.

Last but not least, and as the small dishes of food continued to appear in front of the six people at our table, a tokubetsu junmai sake by the name of Ama-no-To Umashine appeared. Teamed with Akita’s specialty, Kiritanpo Nabe, this sake from Asamai Shuzo added liquid notes of raisin and butter to the end of the meal.

From start to finish, “Taste of Akita” was a wonderful experience for both the uninitiated and experienced sake tippler. The Akita cuisine matches easily with what Gauntner calls the “fine-grained” nature of the sake produced in that region, and there were ear to ear smiles on everyone’s face as they left the restaurant to take pictures with the two namahage waiting outside.

This was the first time that Gauntner and Nakamura have teamed up with a prefectural government to help sake reach a wider audience. To make sure that you don’t miss future events like “Taste of Akita”, subscribe to Gauntner’s monthly newsletter.

What We’re Drinking: Daimaou Imo (sweet potato) Shochu

This was another bottle that I received in the mail. It’s one that I’ve been meaning to pick up for a while as I’ve seen it a few times before at Seiyu, so I was very happy to see the shiny gold label and foil when I popped the box open.

This is another decent imo-jochu from Kagoshima prefecture, but it surprised me a little because it doesn’t smell like an imo-jochu. It’s more refined than the imo-jochus I’m accustomed to drinking while carrying some light fruit on the nose. Before ever putting it in my mouth this shochu was living up to its deceitful name, “Great Devil King.”

Enjoying Daimaou neat, it has a round, medium-bodied mouthfeel. There’s a sweetness to it that is understated to the point of being dry. The yellow mold (essential to the process of breaking the potato starches down into fermentable sugars) used prior to distilling obviously has something to do with this sweetness. The effect is very pleasant. Yellow mold is what is used in the nihonshu brewing process and is somewhat less common in the shochu industry where white mold prevails.

There’s something about this shochu that reminds me of drinking brandy. Try it neat and see for yourself.

I also highly recommend this shochu on the rocks. It’s light, refreshing and easy to drink–definitely one of the better imo-jochus I’ve had that retails in the 1,600-1,800 yen range. And as I alluded above, Daimaou is distributed widely enough by Hamada Shuzo that you can find it in major supermarket chains such as Seiyu.

What We’re Drinking: Waseda Beer

Waseda, the lauded private university in downtown Tokyo that fields roughly 130,000 applications for admission each year, has a lot going for it–tradition, influence, and most importantly a very good baseball team.

One thing that it still needs to work on, however, is its beer.

Unfortunately, Waseda Beer (5% ABV)  is strongly yeasty from the moment you pry the cap off it. Then the yeastiness on the nose is backed up by an immediate and somewhat sour yeast dominance on the palate.

The result is a low-wattage sour middle that is not really all that welcome. This means that the hops are nearly undetectable. It would probably go down better, and feel more balanced, if the yeasty nose translated into a medium-bodied, bready mouthfeel.

I cracked two separate bottles to make sure that this was not an errant representative of the Waseda beer brand, but alas I cannot guarantee that they weren’t from the same batch since the same ‘drink by’ date (October 29, 2010) was stamped on the back of both of them.

Given the possibility that I drank two bottles of the real deal, I’m willing to acknowledge that it’s possible to get used to this beer, but it’s really not for me. The one thing that it has going for it is the somewhat dry finish that makes you nearly think the word “refreshing”. The only other plus I could come up with is the cool beer-pouring sound it makes on its way into a glass due to the stovepipe neck on the bottle.

In short, this beer does not do the proud history of Waseda University justice, and I will not be purchasing another one of them until someone assures me that a different experience is in store.

Waseda’s star pitcher, Yuki Saito, would surely be pissed off if he knew that this stuff was being served on campus.

More info about this beer can be found (in Japanese) here: http://waseda-beer.com/