Definition and production

Summary :

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.

  • La préparation des ingrédients ©Kuroki Honten
  • Les cuves de fermentation ©Kuroki Honten
  • La distillerie Kuroki Honten © Kuroki Honten

Shochu and awamori: recipe in six stages

In technical terms, shochu and awamori are spirits produced by distilling a mash. Did you know? The word ‘shochu’ has the same etymology as the English word ‘brandy’ and means ‘burnt alcohol’ (distilled alcohol).
Despite the various appellations (for example, Kuma-jochu for the honkaku-shochus, from the Kumamoto region) and some differences in terms of production (the use of japonica-type rice for shochu, and indica-type rice for awamori for example), the production methods of these two alcohols are very similar. In both cases, the starch needs to be converted into fermentable sugars before the fermentation and distillation stages. For this reason the production of these two spirits is explained in parallel, with only the differences being mentioned.

1. Preparation of the basic ingredients

  • Awamori is always produced from 100% indica rice, i.e. long-grained rice, from Thailand or the Okinawa islands.
  • Shochu can be produced from rice (the japonica variety, i.e small, short-grained rice from the north of Japan or China), but also from other ingredients such as sweet potato or barley. If rice is used, it is milled to a much lesser degree than it would be for nihonshu sake (85-90% left). If sweet potato is used, it is washed and then peeled. Finally, if barley is used for the shochu, it is washed and hulled (about 60-65% of its original weight is kept).

2. Preparation of koji

Whichever basic ingredient is used to make the liqueur, the starch needs to be converted into fermentable sugars. In the West, malting is responsible for this process (in the case of grains). In Asia, this stage is accomplished thanks to a mould called ‘koji’. The ingredients, sweet potato, rice or barley, need to be steamed before the koji can propagate and complete the saccharification or ‘mashing’ process. They are then spread out on tables or processed in special machines, sprinkled with mould and left to rest for a predetermined period.

The type of koji used is not always the same. Black koji (an indigenous variety from the Okinawa islands) is used exclusively for awamori, whereas the yellow and white varieties are used for shochu.

The techniques can also differ:

  • For the production of awamori, all the rice used is converted by the koji in a single phase.
  • For the different types of shochu, the conversion is carried out in two phases (first a concentrated culture develops, which is then used to convert the rest of the batch in the second phase). For shochu made from sweet potato or barley, this first culture is often produced with rice as its base. This ensures a correct propagation of koji, which then propagates further in a larger quantity of barley or sweet potato. This technique is very similar to the one used to produce Scotch maize whisky: 10 to 15% malted barley is used to start off the fermentation of the mash, which is used to make the whisky.

3. Fermentation and brewing

Once the koji and the initial culture has propagated sufficiently throughout the mash (rice, rice and barley or rice and sweet potato), the converted sugars can be transformed into alcohol. This more traditional stage is very similar to what happens in the production of beer or wine, with one exception: in the production of shochu and awamori, the use of koji can produce the same effect as in the nihonshu sake – the conversion of starch into sugar continues even after the yeast has converted the already produced sugar into alcohol. In the production of nihonshu sake this process is called ‘multiple parallel fermentation’ since it happens during the conversion of starch into sugar, which results in the production of a much higher level of alcohol (around 20%) compared to whisky or wine for example.

4. Distillation: the concentration of flavours

A wide variety of stills of different styles and sizes is now used. Originally, and even today in the more artisanal houses, awamori and shochu were distilled in traditional double distillation pot stills. There is a type of modern, industrial shochu called ‘korui shochu’ (‘multiple shochu’) that is produced in modern column stills, on a continuous basis. However, ‘honkaku shochu’ (‘authentic shochu’) is the most popular with connoisseurs, and is only distilled once, like awamori.

It is important to realize that only distilling once is a deliberate decision, and not just a desire to speed up the process and optimize the volumes produced (the act of distilling concentrates the alcohol, thereby reducing the volume with each distillation). The main reasons are the following:
1. The distinctive feature of this type of fermentation results in a naturally high degree of alcohol, and so it is not necessary to carry out a multiple distillation. 
2. In traditional Japanese distillation, the preservation of the aromas and flavours of each of the basic ingredients is of utmost importance. For example, it is vital that rice shochu conserves all of the tastes and characteristics of the rice, hence the number of distillations should be limited. Korui-type shochu is the only exception to this rule: a modern-style, industrial alcohol, it is fairly neutral and easy-to-produce.
3. Since shochu and awamori are usually drunk with meals rather than afterwards, they don’t need to be very high in alcohol.

5. Storing and ageing: a unique approach

Distilled alcoholic drinks, like awamori and shochu, need to be rested even if the producer does not intend to age them. Since they have only been distilled once, the honaku and awamori-type shochus still contain a lot of oily substances that can only be removed after they have risen to the liquid’s surface.

Furthermore, the ageing stage is sometimes controlled by special laws and traditions.
So while an increasing number of producers of honkaku-type shochu are experimenting with sherry or bourbon oak barrels to age their spirits, they are limited to five years due to a law that specifies the colour of shochu. More precisely, above a certain degree of colour, the spirit will not be given the honkaku shochu appellation: its flavour is considered too pronounced and too similar to other spirits from the West, such as whisky or cognac. Even in the world of awamori, whose tradition for rigorous ageing goes back a long way (reference is often made to ancient stocks of ‘kusu’ – the name given to matured awamori – of over one hundred years of age that were destroyed during the Second World War), the spirit is placed in large neutral earthenware jars, rather than being aged in barrels that would impart colour and flavour. The mature awamori in these jars is gradually mixed with other, older spirits to sweeten and soften its taste. This process is not unlike the solera system used in the production of sherry.

6. Preparation for sale: filtering, dilution and bottling

Mostly drunk during mealtimes, shochu and awamori is generally bottled at around 25% ABV. Of course, there are some that are sold at 30 to 40% ABV, and undiluted versions, these are more rare. This stage of the production comprises the following phases: dilution with water, filtering and bottling, and then finally release onto the market.

Fruit liqueurs famous for their unique fragrances

Like all liqueurs, the characteristics of traditional Japanese fruit liqueurs are determined by the type of fruit, the type of alcohol and the production methods used.

1. Type of alcohol

Traditional Japanese liqueurs use two general categories of alcohol: traditional distilled alcohols (honkaku shochu and awamori) and traditional fermented alcohols (nihonshu sake). Traditional-style liqueurs, based on modern or Western spirits can also be added to these two categories, using a neutral spirit (exactly like most of the liqueurs sold in the West), such as the korui-type shochu or fruit brandy. Most importantly, the type of alcohol used will determine the alcohol content, but it will also have an influence on the liqueurs’ characteristics: shochu and awamori will not only produce liqueurs that contain more alcohol, but also ones that have a more pronounced flavour (particularly sweet potato awamori or shochu); conversely, although nihonshu sake will produce a finer liqueur with less alcohol, it will also be slightly milkier in character. Neutral alcohol allows the fruit to fully express itself, while brandy adds a touch of richness, body and structure.

2. Type of fruit

It is undoubtedly the type of fruit used that imparts these traditional Japanese liqueurs with their unique flavours. Amongst the most well-known, and no doubt the most unique, are the liqueurs made from:

  • ume (a Japanese plum that has a similar taste to apricot);
  • yuzu (a Japanese citrus fruit that has a similar taste to lime or mandarin orange);
  • momo (Japanese peach);
  • mikan (satsuma).

3. Type of production

The method used to produce traditional Japanese liqueurs is nearly exclusively based on infusion/maceration: the fruits are infused in the base alcohol then left to rest for a variable period of time.

The ‘nigori’ (‘cloudy’) type liqueurs have one distinctive feature: the macerated fruit is left in or reintroduced later on, to obtain a more pronounced flavour.

The quantity and type of sugar added can also influence the liqueur’s characteristics. Some brands don’t add any sugar, since there is already natural sugar in the fruit, some only use honey or royal jelly, and others (mostly in the southern parts of the country) use molasses or muscovado sugar to give their product a stronger flavour.