Since this pandemic began, there has been nothing more depressing than to cross out all the vacations in your calendar, one by one, month by month. Yoko and I planned to take a month off in September, leave the shop to our trusty manager, and go on a tropical vacation to southern Japan to island hop, visit awamori and shochu distilleries, and snorkel in the pristine clear waters.
We had so looked forward to going to Okinawa and the Amami Islands to learn more about awamori and kokuto shochu – I know it would all make sense once we would be there, drinking it with the locals, along with the regional cuisine.
The history of awamori predates shochu, as the method of distillation was discovered in Okinawa via Thailand in the 15th century. To this day, awamori must be made with Thai long grain Indica rice and black koji. It is a spirit all its own – grassy, wild, and often funky – exactly what you would want to drink in the tropical climate of Okinawa, surrounded by white sand beaches and peculiar reptiles. Kokuto shochu’s history is much more recent, as it was only after WWII that Amami Island residents were able to use their signature black cane sugar for distillation. One sip of this will transport you to the islands, with the distant sounds of gentle waves.
For now, we can drink what we can here, and have it transport us to the tropical islands of our minds. I’ll be down at the beach if you need me, meet me there with these bottles!
Amami Kokuto Shochu
Amami Shurui (Kagoshima, Kyushu)
Distilled from 65% Kokuto (black sugar), 35% rice
Kokuto (黒糖) is black sugar cane, which is indigenous to Amami Oshima, south of Kyushu. Shochu made with kokuto can legally only be made in Amami. The sugar cane itself goes through minimal processing, which explains the rich depth of these shochus. Also interesting to note that because sugarcane is a fermentation kickstarter itself, it technically doesn’t need koji to help the saccharification process along. However, it is law that for a shochu to be considered honkaku, it must contain koji. So all honkaku kokuto shochus use kome (rice) koji during the primary fermentation to solve this issue.
I kid you not, this is the best kokuto shochu I’ve ever tasted! It is succulent and lush – the epitome of the tropics. I am overwhelmed by the scent of a juicy, overripe pineapple, with notes of custard and port. Yoko says it smells like fresh baked cookies. It is viney, fermenty, and rum-like, which may be because it is aged for at least a year, or because of the use of kome koji.
Enjoy on the rocks with Taco Rice, stewed pork belly, or an heirloom tomato salad.
Hana Shimauta Awamori
Masahiro Shuzo (Naha, Okinawa)
Distilled from 100% Indica rice
This awamori is very different from the Hakuryu Zuisen Awamori that was featured in the club in March. Hana Shimauta is very pretty, floral, and clean in comparison. Masahiro distillery prides itself on creating an awamori that is so palate-friendly – this is vacuum distilled, using a ginjo yeast, which explains the crispness, and subtle fruity notes. The distillery recommends drinking this nurukan (warm)! But since we’re embarking upon our famous Indian summer, we’ll have it on the rocks, or try it with fresh wasabi and shiso (watch the recipe video). Sip on this alongside a dish of Goya Champuru, while listening to Okinawa’s beloved Nene’s, or Ryuichi Sakamoto’s rendition of “Asadoya Yunta”. Ha-iya-sasa!