As I write this under a full autumn moon, I contemplate all of the wacky natural wonders in our world. Yeast is one of them. No matter how many times I read about yeast, or listen to people trying to explain what it does in scientific terms, it is an incredible discovery that is, undoubtedly, magic. You can’t convince me otherwise! Yeast and fermentation go hand in hand, and without it, there would be no morning cups of coffee, pastries, or a Shochu Soda. Could you imagine life without these delicious treats? I don’t think so.
Yeast’s major function in shochu-making is to turn sugars into alcohol. That’s gotta be magic, right? Although not discovered until around the 18th century, yeast has made beer, wine, and sake possible for tens of thousands of years. To our knowledge today, there are an untold number of yeast strains, and the one used most commonly for alcohol production is Saccharomyces cerevisiae.
Cultivating yeast at Ikinokura Distillery. Photo by Toshi Kojima
Our friends over at the Japan Distilled podcast best explain the process of yeast’s role in creating alcohol: “[Yeast] has two respiratory pathways. One for an oxygen rich (aerobic) environment and one for an oxygen poor (anaerobic) environment. When the aerobic respiratory pathway is activated, the yeast will convert oxygen and sugar into water and carbon dioxide (CO2). When the anaerobic pathway is activated, it will convert the sugar into CO2 and alcohol. Therefore, alcohol fermentations are almost always submerged in liquid to deprive the yeast of oxygen.” A-ha! So bread making is aerobic fermentation, right? I’m starting to understand!
Somewhere along the way, brewers realized that there is another important factor that yeast provides – the aroma. Yeast helps create all those luscious notes on the nose of cherries, cinnamon, cream, stonefruit, and honeysuckle you may get from your glass of shochu.
For Shochu Gumi this quarter, I’m happy to have procured two dynamite bottles using unusual yeasts for shochu-making: beer and flowers. Going through the Sake Gumi archives recently, I stumbled upon the theme “Unique Yeasts” from 2020, so I’m reviving this topic for our little club. And while we’re on the topic of
Sake Gumi, Yoko has procured a super special sake this month made with Sanuki Olive yeast, so head over there for more info if you are a yeast fanatic!
Co-Founder + Shochu Director, Umami Mart
Ikinokura Distillery (Iki, Nagasaki)
Distilled from 67% mugi (barley) + 33% kome (rice)
ABV 25% / Koji: white / Yeast: Nadeshiko (dianthus) flower
Distillation: Vacuum / Aged in stainless steel
Nadeshiko Iki shochu is made with yeast from nadeshiko (flowers of the
carnation family), sourced from the Tokyo University of Agriculture. Iki
shochu, as you may remember as our theme this past June, must be made from 2/3 barley and 1/3 rice and this shochu undergoes low temperature fermentation and distillation to accentuate the delicate floral aromas. Get strong whiffs of strawberries, cream and daiginjo sake, and enjoy on-the-rocks for the rich texture and long tail with notes of licorice, thanks to the generous 33% of rice koji used. Bring out this shochu for your New Year’s osechi spread, as it’ll pair well with all of the cold bites like kamaboko (pink and white fish cake - my favorite; celebratory!), kuromame (black beans; for health!), and kazunoko (baby herring; for fertility!).
Komaki Jozo (Satsuma, Kagoshima)
Distilled from 83% Koganesengan imo (sweet potato) + 17% kome (rice)
ABV 25% / Koji: White / Yeast: Bavarian weizen beer
>In 2006, Komaki Jozo was completely submerged underwater in a torrential flood, and they lost all of their moromi. Since then, they have been coming back strong, with many innovative new drinks, like this one, and coming soon, gin!
Created for Komaki’s 100th anniversary, Issho Bronze is made with
beer yeast from Akita Konno Shoten. Like Nadeshiko shochu, Issho is fermented at low temperature in Komaki’s warehouse of kame (clay pots) for their signature kame jikomi.
This all aids in the exciting rollercoaster of aromas – powdered sugar, pears, and Red Hots! Make this a sodawari (shochu with soda) to get all the peppery, spicy notes, which pair so well with french fries and hambagu steak. And check out the dry glass for a nose full of beer and hops. Kanpai towards a joyful new year!
Moromi, photo by Komaki Jozo
Fermenting, photo by Komaki Jozo
Washed kame (clay pots), photo courtesy of Komaki Jozo
Aging facility, photo by Komaki Jozo