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Barley is a grain used to make beer, whisky, and other spirits, so it is no surprise that it is one of Japan’s most popular shochu categories. And who could resist this light, crisp, and refreshing drink? People in Kyushu began distilling unmalted mugi (barley) during the Edo period (1603-1868), namely on Iki Island, which today is still famous for its mugi shochu made with rice koji.

Within the mugi shochu category, there are aged and unaged versions. Both are vastly different in look and flavor – unaged shochus are clear in color and have bright flavors. Aged shochus are golden and are more caramel-like. There are strict regulations (mostly for taxation purposes), put into place by the Japanese government in the 80s (thanks to Margaret Thatcher), that requires shochu to differ from Scotch and other whiskies. For example, the color of shochu must be significantly lighter than whisky. And of course the main difference between shochu and whisky is that shochu is made with the koji mold.

In 1979, the brand iichiko sparked a shochu boom with their 100% mugi shochu. Their marketing dollars stretched far and wide, and today it is the leader in shochu sales worldwide. You can find iichiko at any Asian grocer, so I won’t feature it here in our club – however, it is a hallmark brand for mugi shochu and should be noted.

This quarter, I’m featuring two shochus from Yatsushika Brewery, who make Yufuin – limited to the locals in Yufuin (a small onsen town in Oita Prefecture) and the U.S. only! Oita is known as the “Barley Shochu Kingdom” – mugi shochus from this area are known to be fruity and light. I wanted to do side-by-side comparisons of mugi shochus that are aged and unaged, from the same distillery. You’ll find that they are extremely unique, and I love bringing out these shochus for different occasions.

Someday, when we can travel again, I dream of visiting Oita, sipping their mugi shochus, in a bubbling onsen.

Kanpai!

Kayoko
Shochu Director
Umami Mart

Yufuin White Label
Yatsushika Distillery (Oita, Kyushu)
Distilled from 100% Mugi (barley)
ABV 20%, Koji: White

This is the quintessential Oita mugi shochu: crisp and easy-drinking. Yufuin shochus are made with the La Trobe barley variety from Australia. I love this straight, on the rocks, or mizuwari (with water). Get notes of lychee, saltwater taffy, and grain, with a creamy mouthfeel. Yoko gets hints of vanilla and licorice. We had an okonomiyaki party with this bottle and it paired really well! The distiller suggested tempura and karaage (fried chicken – incidentally, originally created in Oita), so get some take out from Aburaya and go wild with this shochu!

Yufuin Black Label
Yatsushika Distillery (Oita, Kyushu)
Distilled from 100% Mugi (barley)
ABV 25%, Koji: White

You are going to love this one. Vacuum-distilled, then aged for three years in bourbon barrel casks from the U.S., this shochu is well-rounded, with a slightly sweet, mellow palette. I have to say that I don’t usually like aged mugi shochus – the taste of the barrel is overpowering and unoriginal. But this feels sophisticated when drinking, like you’re wearing nice leather shoes. Get notes of caramel, toffee, and chocolate. I enjoyed this immensely with one rock alongside lamb chops, sage pizza, and flourless chocolate cake. During times like these, you’ve gotta indulge.

Yufuin shochus are aged in a tunnel that was once used for the local train line.


Close-up of barrels in the tunnel.