Rice is the heart of Japan’s cultural pride and agriculture. It accompanies most meals in Japan, and has signified opulence in the country’s long history. It was most certainly the very first food I ever consumed, as it was my daughter’s first food as well.
Without rice, there would be no sake. But how about shochu? If awamori, made with long rain Indica rice in Okinawa, is the grandmother of shochu (awamori is said to predate shochu, over 500 years ago), then it would be no surprise that shochu made with Japonica short rain rice was among the first shochus developed in Kyushu.
Plus, most shochus made with other starches such as barley and sweet potato, are made with koji inoculated on rice directly, so there is a percentage of rice used in making the drink. For example, the Hozan Beniazuma bottle from last quarter was made with 83% imo (sweet potato) and 17% rice. Many distillers prefer to use rice to make their shochus to support and harmonize with the main starch.
The shochus I chose this quarter are vastly different expressions of rice. The Hyaku Kuma shochu is elegant and sake-like, while the Hakuryu Zuisen awamori is nutty and slightly herbal. Both are delightful, especially with a meal. With a bowl of rice, if you fancy!
Kuma River, Kyushu
Hyaku Kuma Shochu
Takahashi Shuzo (Hitoyoshi, Kumamoto)
Distilled from 100% Kome (rice), ABV 23%, Koji: White
A shochu must be made in the following ways for it to be a designated Kuma shochu:
1.) Made with only rice;
2.) Moromi mash must be made with well-water from the Kuma region in Kumamoto prefecture;
3.) Must be distilled in the Kuma region
Yoko and I visited this distillery in Kumamoto in 2017. It’s an area in northern Kyushu that is well-known for rice production and was quite a charming village, full of lush forests with the Kuma river running through it. Hyaku shochu was made in partnership with a well-known chef in Tokyo – made to pair perfectly with sushi. To create such a shochu, Takahashi used a local rice and combined three ginjo yeasts, creating a shochu that emulates the aroma and body of sake. You’ll et a floral, bubblegum nose (hello ginjo yeast!), with lactic notes that end with a hint of cedar and savoriness. I put together a little temaki (hand roll) festa at my place and it certainly paired well with toro, hamachi, and my favorite – California Roll. Even natto! Definitely drink this on the rocks and let it open up.
Zuisen Hakuryu Awamori
Zuisen Shuzo (Naha, Okinawa)
Distilled from 100% Indica rice, ABV 25.9%, Koji: Black
Awamoris must be made in Okinawa, with long rain Indica rice and black koji, and tend to be very grassy, herbal, and funky. Quite honestly, it’s been challenging to find good awamoris in the States. Often, I’ll try an awamori here and they are overpoweringly alcoholic, unbalanced, and sorry to say, unpleasant. This may be the nature of Indica rice, along with the pungent black koji, and why there is such a rich history of agin awamoris in Okinawa – to mellow out flavors over time. So it was no surprise that Hakuryu, made with a blend of aged awamoris (the oldest being 8 years old!) is as smooth and easy as it comes.
Nutty, carmely, with a sweet potato-like earthiness, I love this awamori with its long, dry finish, best served on the rocks or mizuwari (with ice water). Pair with rich protein dishes like my favorites from Albany’s Lao Thai Kitchen: raw beef larb, Nam Kao salad, Lao sausage, and red duck curry. The spicier, the better!