Produced on all the islands, the traditional Japanese liqueurs and spirits such as shochu, awamori and umeshu are products with a strong, distinctive regional identity. The way to serve a traditional Japanese liqueur very much depends on its ingredients and how it was produced.
Shochu and awamori – a full range of flavours
Shochu can have a variety of flavours, depending on the type and the base ingredient:
- Korui Shochu 甲類焼酎
A neutral spirit, produced by multiple or column distillation, and designed to be drunk like modern vodkas: in cocktails, mixed with fruit juices or soft drinks.
- Honkaku Shochu 本格焼酎
This type of shochu, the most ‘authentic’, allows the flavour and characteristics of the base ingredients to be savoured: kome-jochu is quite sweet and slightly milky (made from rice); mugi-jochu is fuller-bodied and characterized by the grain (barley); imo-jochu is more aromatic and rustic (made from sweet potato).
Ryukyu Awamori 琉球泡盛
‘Ryukyu Awamori’ is produced exclusively on the Okinawa islands. A natural, often rustic style, full of character and with a pronounced flavour, it has a milky aspect to it, which comes from the rice used. This category is divided into three types:
- Ippanshu 一般酒
Aged for a maximum of three years, or even unaged, this is the ‘entry level’ product. It is a good introduction to awamori.
- Kusu 古酒
Aged in jars (a minimum of 50% for at least three years), kusu is rounder, softer and more mellow.
- Hanasaki 花酒
Very rare, hanasaki is produced exclusively on Yonaguni Island, south of the Okinawa Islands. With an alcohol content of 60%, these awamori have a very strong character and are extremely aromatic; they can also develop beautifully as they age. This charismatic alcoholic drink is considered to be the oldest.
Umeshu and yuzushu, authentic Japanese liqueurs
This Japanese plum liqueur is the oldest and best-known of the Japanese liqueurs. These highly sought-after fruits come from the Kishu province, in the Wakayama region, not far from Osaka. Used since the Nara period (710-794), they contain a high level of citric acid and have for a long time been recommended to maintain good health. Umeshu was invented to preserve this fruit and make them more enjoyable to consume.
The mikan (satsuma) originates from Asia and has since been imported to the West and throughout the world; it has been part of Japan’s food culture since the 16th century. Cultivated in large quantities since the 19th century, it was for a long time the most popular fruit in Japan. Harvested in autumn, the mikan has a soft skin and very few pips. The ideal ingredient for liqueurs, it is almost exclusively used in ‘nigori’ type drinks. Today, it has the same production regions as ume plums.
Imported from China during the Yayoi period (300 BC - 300 AD), the ‘momo’ peach is an essential part of classical Japanese culture. Yet its use in liqueurs is fairly recent. Its somewhat fragile white flesh is particularly popular in nihonshu sake based liqueurs, which are enhanced by its sweet, refined characteristics.
The yuzu fruit has existed in Japan since at least the Asuka period (538-710); today, it is popular with top chefs all over the world. Its juice is used in vinaigrettes and sauces, its flesh is eaten fresh and its peel can be candied. Due to its unique aroma, it is also used in the composition of certain cosmetic products and perfumes. Harvested in autumn, it is mainly cultivated on Shikoku Island. Beautifully acidic and very refreshing, Westerners like it for its highly ‘Japanese’ character.