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We’re starting 2024 with a big bang here at Shochu Gumi HQ! Yoko and I are fresh off the heels of a trip to Okinawa, where we toured several awamori distilleries and makers of Tsubota Yaki pottery, Shuri Ori textiles, and Bingata dyed fabric. It was a hugely inspirational trip, and I’m thrilled to feature an awamori from Ikehara Shuzo, a distillery we visited on Ishigaki Island.

This month we celebrate women with our annual Female Frontrunners feature. No matter where we are in the world, companies led by women are still few and far between – so as women owners of Umami Mart, it’s important for us to take a moment to highlight female makers and pioneers. Both bottles this month come from distilleries on tiny islands that were run by women at its founding. Today, Nishihira Shuzo, maker of Kana Kokuto Shochu on Amami Island, is helmed by fourth generation President Serena Nishihira (pictured above making shochu). The distillery’s first toji was Nishihira’s great-grandmother, said to be a very tough master brewer who wasn’t afraid of challenges, and employed many men to make shochu with her. As Nishihira’s role model, she wishes she could have worked with her great-grandmother. Nishihira uses traditions past and present to make shochu today, “The history is old, but the contents are fresh. Since many of our staff members are musicians, we create products and events that combine music and shochu.”

Over on Ishigaki, Yu Ikehara oversees operations at Ikehara Shuzo as third generation CEO – his great-grandparents started the company making miso, soy sauce and awamori in 1951, and was left to his great-grandmother Nobuko to manage (along with raising her family) when her husband passed away at 40. Ikehara today is making huge waves in the world of awamori, with the use of a black koji mold called Inui (aspergillus luchuensis). This mold was used to make awamori before the war, and is today rarely used in the awamori or shochu-making community – it produces an awamori that incorporates umami, acidity, and depth, and has won several international awards.

Both drams this quarter are handmade and bottled at tank strength, so you’ll get the lush mouthfeel and full impact of the ingredients without any dilution. Please enjoy the spirit of the islands and the rich history that each bottle brings.

Co-Founder / Shochu + Awamori Director of Umami Mart

Kana Kokuto Shochu
Nishihira Shuzo (Amami Oshima, Kagoshima)
Distilled from kokuto (black sugar) grown in Okinawa / ABV 30%
Genshu (non-diluted) / Non chill-filtered / Koji: White / Yeast: Kagoshima #2
Distillation: Atmospheric / Aged one year in oak barrels

Kana means "beloved person" in the Amami dialect and President Serena Nishihira’s great-grandmother, the first toji of the company, used this shochu as a lotion! Amami Kokuto Shochu, a shochu style protected by a geographic indication for the region and its traditional shochu making practices, utilizes a higher ratio of koji to main ingredient (kokuto) than what is commonly practiced for other shochu styles – for this bottle, Nishihira uses 510kg of kokuto for 330kg of koji. As a musician, Nishihira says, “Rather than aiming for the same taste every time, I accept the climate and environment of the time, respect the team's different strengths, and enjoy making shochu as if I was making an album for that year. My experience in music is the reason why I am able to enjoy making shochu. It's from the body.” When asked what she enjoys most about shochu-making she added, “because we work with microorganisms, things don't always go the same way, so you always take on challenges with a sense of urgency.”

Tasting notes: Salted caramel, vanilla, rum raisin.
Food Pairing: Blue Fin maguro sashimi, miso ramen, country pate.
How to Drink: On-the-rocks.
Nishihira Tip: Mixed with chai, black tea, or milk.


Shirayuri Inui Awamori
Ikehara Shuzo (Ishigaki Island, Okinawa)
Distilled from rice (Thai long grain) / ABV 44% / Genshu (non-diluted) 
Koji: Black Distillation: Atmospheric, Jikabi (direct flame)
Aged in stainless steel for 1 week

Bubbling Inui moromi 

When we pulled up to Ikehara Shuzo, I would have never guessed that the building
housed an awamori distillery. Situated in a residential neighborhood with no interior
space to waste, the pint-sized distillery and tasting room is extremely organized,
well-planned, and spotless – with all the fermentation tanks in one room, the still in
the main room, with the bottling room screened off by a glass door. CEO Yu Ikehara
was 24 years old when he took over the distillery, and in 2021, released this bottle to acclaim. Made by just two employees, Inui is a bombshell of a drink, and dammit, how on earth does it taste like it’s been aging for years?!?? That, my friends, must be the magical, historic Inui mold. We have yet to see what else Ikehara comes up with – the future of awamori is bright and ever-evolving.

Magazine spread of Yu Ikehara with his grandparents at Ikehara Shuzo

Tasting notes: Earth, saline, lavender, licorice.
Food Pairing: Cheddar, cioppino, burger.
How to Drink: Sodawari (with club soda and ice).
Ikehara Tip: Moscow Mules, Espresso Martinis, and various coffee cocktails.