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.
The advent of Japanese alcoholic drinks in Europe
The world of traditional Japanese alcoholic drinks is rich and varied, the result of centuries of cultural exchanges, not only with other countries on the Asian continent, but also with Europe, dating back to the 16th century. However, although Europeans have become great connoisseurs of Japanese cuisine, shochu, awamori, umeshu and other spirits from the Land of the Rising Sun remain relatively unknown to them. For a long time, the Japanese, a discreet and reserved nation, were quite happy to keep their ‘liquid treasure’ to themselves.
However, in the last few years there have been some new developments: with the proliferation of high quality Japanese restaurants in Europe and a growing number of connoisseurs curious for new experiences, combined with the drop in the consumption of alcohol in Japan, more and more Japanese producers are focusing on high-quality products for export outside of their traditional markets.
To encourage this quest for excellence, the Japanese government has granted certain national alcoholic drinks, such as nihonshu sake and shochu, the official designation of ‘kokushu’ (‘national alcoholic drink’). It has also launched several promotional projects for these alcoholic drinks in Japan and overseas.
Alcoholic drinks with a strong regional identity
While traditional Japanese liqueurs are currently produced throughout the islands, each has its own strong, distinctive regional identity.
Shochu and awamori, however, are mostly produced in the southern parts of the country. Traditionally, the production of shochu is closely linked to Kyushu, the most southerly of the four large islands that make up the Japanese archipelago. Its origin dates back to the beginning of the 16th century (St François Xavier referred to it in 1546), distillation techniques having been introduced to the island from the Asian continent.
Awamori is almost exclusively produced on the Okinawa islands, situated further south and annexed by Japan in 1879. Its production seems to have begun in around 1470. During this period, the independent kingdom of Ryukyu (the previous name for the islands, before they were annexed by Japan), had very good trade relations with South-East Asia, and almost certainly imported distillation techniques.