Category Archives: Shochu Reviews

Kameshizuku Imo Shochu (Sweet Potato)

87 Points

Kameshizuku

Kanji: 甕雫
Distillery: KYOYA SHUZO
Type: Imo (Sweet Potato)
Koji: White
Region: Kyushu
Prefecture: Miyazaki
Proof: 40
Available in USA: No

Kameshizuku is the second Japanese shochu we’ve come across from the Kyoya distillery, the first being Kappa No Sasoimizu. One of the most amazing things about Kyoka distillery is the fact that they have been existence for more than 180 years, despite having a market capitalization of $50,000.  Yes, that’s right, they’ve been making alcohol for generations with a capitalization that is less than the price of a luxury car, truly amazing.

What sets Kameshizuku apart is the fact that they use Beni Kotobuki sweet potato.  Beni Kotobuki is native to Miyazaki prefecture and it is what gives Kameshizuku its mellow earthy flavor.  As you can tell from the photo, it is served in a ceramic pot.  Kyoya recommends that you drink the entire pot in a timely manner once open, and if it must sit, it should neither be in direct sunlight or refrigerated.

Though Kyoka several times uses the term “fruity” to describe this shochu, the closest thing to fruit I could pick up was a citrus nose.  Other flavors that were present were hints of smokey bacon, as well as subtle notes of oak and leather.   In our review of Kappa No Sasoimizu we picked up a bit of anise flavor.  For those of us who do not like licorice in our drink, this was noticeably absent in Kameshizuku shochu.

Kameshizuku is not available in the United States.  Though Kyoya Distillery does sell another shochu here, the flavor is different enough that it is not really a substitute.  Additionally, given the clay pot, I’m not sure how confident I would be bringing this back from Japan in my suitcase.  Potentially this is a shochu best left to be enjoyed while out at an izakaya in Japan.  If presented with such a situation, definitely make sure at least one round is Kameshizuku imo shochu.

If you can tolerate the 80’s anime techno music, the video below shows a lot of interesting images of Kyoya’s shochu creation process.  If it’s not tolerable, the video probably is just as good on mute, given the amount of English subtitles. Enjoy!

 

Route 382 Mugi Shochu – LIMITED EDITION

91 Points

Route382 Mugi Shochu

 

Kanji:国道382
Distillery: GENKAI SHUZO
Type: Mugi (Barley)
Koji: White
Region: Kyushu
Prefecture: Nagasaki
Proof: 76
Available in USA: No

We came across Genkai Shuzo’s  Japanese shochu while shopping at Hanshin Department Store in Osaka, Japan.  They were handing out tastings of their new Route 382 mugi shochu (barley) in celebration of winning the Monde Selection award for 12 years in a row.  Now I’ve mentioned that we do not put a ton of weight in the Monde Selection awards, but winning 12 years in a row caught my attention so I had to give it a try.

Route 382 is named after a scenic highway that bisects Iki Island from north to south.  Iki Island is the home of Genkai Shuzo, and the name of their most popular lines of mugi shochu.  Iki Island is the home of mugi shochu.  They have been making it since the 16th century.  In 1995 Iki mugi shochu, along with Kuma sweet potato shochu and awamori received the protection of a formal designation of origin by the World Trade Organization.  This means that only alcohol from that region can carry the name Iki mugi shochu.  This is similar to Champagne or Bordeaux wines only coming from those regions in France.  In honor of winning a Monde Selection award for 12 years in a row, they came out with this special edition.

For those who are familiar with Iki shochu, Route 382 is similar but the 28 proof difference definitely does not go unnoticed.  The distributor describes Iki shochu as having a pear flavor with hints of cinnamon.  This description is accurate and holds true for Route 382.  I also tasted nice lemongrass notes that spoke to both the complexity and lightness of this intriguing shochu.  Mugi, which is barley, is only really present in the shochu bouquet.  I also should note a flavor that was pleasantly absent.  For some reason shochu above 70 proof often has a strong anise flavor.  Anise is where the flavor of Jagermeister, Sambuca, Ouzo, or Absinthe comes from.  Pleasantly Route 382 packs the flavor punch you would expect from a 76 proof alcohol, but lacks the anise flavor that often is an undesired side effect.

All the characteristics described above makes this a great alcohol for a hot summer day, or when you are out on a Saturday night after a morning workout.  For scotch drinkers, it’s an interesting drink neat.  I definitely preferred it with a dash of water so as to bring out a bit more of the flavor.  Given its punch, it stands up nicely to being served on the rocks.  I have mixed feelings about having Route 382 in a mixed drink.  Given that it lacks the black licorice flavor and is of a similar alcohol level of vodka, it makes a great low calorie vodka replacement in mixed drinks.  That said, given the exquisite flavors and rarity of the product, it’s definitely not the the best way to appreciate the effort that went into this shochu.

Route 382 is not available in the United States.  In fact, on my next trip back to Japan, I have no hope of finding it again, as it is a limited edition shochu. Given its similarities to the standard Iki mugi shochu, those who are curious should definitely seek out this bottle.  This is available at Sakaya Sake Shop for $39.  Though this is a bit steep, for those who love mugi shochu, this is definitely worth a try at least once at this price.

R382

Kumejima’s Kumesen Awamori (Japanese Edition)

84 Points

Kumesen Awamori

Kanji: 久米島の久米仙
Distillery: Kumejima’s Kumesen Co.
Type: Awamori
Koji: Black
Region: Okinawa
Prefecture: Okinawa Prefecture, Kume Island
Proof: 60
Available in USA: Yes (*)

Our newest Awamori review since Ryukyu Ohcho and Kikunotsu V.I.P. Gold, happily it’s the highest rated awamori to date as well.  As the name of the distillery suggests, Kumejima’s awamori comes from Kume Island.  Kumejima is located 60 miles west of of Naha.  It’s picturesque location is ideal for making awamori due to it’s abundance of pure fresh water.

Kumesen Awamori is incredibly entertaining to drink.  It was strong enough to have flavor but not over powering.  It’s a bit earthy with a pepper kick that was interesting but not overwhelming in spice.  The shochu ends with a bit of vanilla that rounds out the experience nicely. The distiller recommended this shochu neat, on the rocks, or with warm water.  The starch like flavor is incredibly rewarding on the rocks during a hot humid day.

So you’ll notice that I put an asterisk next to the affirmative answer about this shochu being available in the United States.  In the USA you can get an Awamori of the same name, but its a different bottle and a different proof.  The Japanese Kumesen awamori comes in at 60 proof while the American bottle is 48 proof.  This is odd because American tend to not prefer their alcohol watered down, and neither shochu or awamori is expensive to begin with.  I have a suspicion that this has something to do with American import taxes as this isn’t the first awamori or shochu that I have seen with the alcohol content lowered, and 48 proof is unusually common among the Japanese imports.  So all this being said, you can’t buy 60 proof KumeJima’s Kumesen awamori in America, but you can buy something that at a minimum is similar, and hopefully simply requires you to be a bit lighter in your helping of water or rocks.  Astor Wines and Spirits carries the American version for $22.00 USD.  For this price, its a great option given the limited number of awamori brands that are available in here.

Kiku-Masamune Lees Shochu

 90 Points

KikuMasamune

Kanji:菊正宗
Distillery: KIKU MASAMUNE SHUZO
Type: Sake Kasu (lees of sake)
Koji: –
Region: Kansai
Prefecture: Hyogo
Proof: 70
Available in USA: No

We’ve done 20 reviews of Japanese shochu here at Shochu Distilled, but this may have the most storied history.  Kiku Masamune Winery has taken the byproduct of their sake production and distilled shochu with it.  To put the importance of Kiku Masamune in perspective, it should be realized that they have been around since 1659.  That’s 117 years before the United States was a country.  That’s 218 years before the last Samurai.  That’s 344 years before Lost In Translation!!!

To put this in perspective, it may help to think British.  When a prince or a duke has certified a product worthy of their usage they give it a royal warrant.  Much in the same way, the current Emperor has chose Kiku Masamune as his sake of choice.  The shochu reviewed today is made with the lees left over from the Kiku Masamune sake.  Lees is the solid rice based by product left over from fermenting process of wine.  In Japanese you’ll hear this by product called “kasu” or “sake Kasu”.  Sake very much traces its roots to the outskirts of Kobe where there is a small neighborhood where many of the oldest sake wineries still exist today.

I know I have referred to Kappa No Sasoimizu or Ryukyu Ohcho Awamori as being black licorice or Jagermeister like.  These need to prefaced with a “somewhat” after today.  Kiku Masamune Lees shochu tastes like Jagermeister.  It’s so close that I currently am hunting for a recent college graduate that I can Pepsi challenge Kiku Masmune shochu with Jagermeister and find out if they can tell the difference.  The one contradiction to all of this is the fact that I truly dislike Jager, but find I enjoy this shochu after it settles a bit on the rocks.

For those who are more used to shochu than western liquor, it should be acknowledged that Kiku Masamune is 70 proof.  It’s far and away the strongest shochu I’ve had.  Iced down a bit, as I prefer, it’s still stronger than most other types of shochu neat.  Given it’s unique flavor, it works better with strong meat such as lamb or barbecue.

Unfortunately, this shochu is not available in the United States.  In fact, you can only buy it at the Kiku Masamune sake winery in Kobe.  It costs less than $30 from the winery, and if you have the opportunity to bring it back, it should be at the top of you list.  A side note, this is not a shochu for beginners.  A year ago I gave a bottle of this away to a friend of mine.  It has sat on their shelf since because they know not what to do with it, nor are they ready for a drink of this nature.  I’ve thought for 6 months about how to convince them to re-gift it back to me.

Kuro Yokaichi Imo Shochu

81 Points

KuroYokaichiImo

 

Kanji:黒 よかいち
Distillery: TAKARA SHUZO
Type: Imo 63% 27% Kome Shochu (Sweet Potato & Rice)
Koji: Black
Region: Kansai
Prefecture: Kyoto
Proof: 48
Available in USA: Yes

For the second shochu from Takara Distillery we’re taking a look at Kuro Yokaichi Imo shochu, the first being Yokaichi kome shochu.  Takara Distillery is a relatively large maker of different types of alcohol from the city of Kyoto, Yokaichi is a city across Biwa Lake fro Kyoto, in Shiga prefecture.  Takara’s size allows them to setup their own companies around the globe and import their products without the help of Japanese trading companies.  Their background and model is unique in the Japanese shochu industry.

Kuro Yokaichi Imo shochu is a relatively new shochu, introduced in the United States towards the end of 2012.  Though Takara Distillery is located in the Kansai region of Japan, they’ve used sweet potatoes from Kyushu as the main ingredient for this product along with black koji.

Kuro Yokaichi is a shochu with an identity crisis.  Two thirds of the shochu is in the traditional Kyushu style of combining Imo (sweet potato) and black koji.  Potentially its the blending in of 1/3 Kome that mellows the flavor.  The initial sharp flavor is deffinitely reminiscent of other Imo shochu, but it mellows quickly as the rice flavor starts to come into play. It presents a combination that is almost medicinal in nature.  The combination is not unlike comparing single malt scotches to a blended American whiskey.  Though the American whiskey is a pleasant and consistent experience, it tends to lack the complexity and character of a single malt scotch.  Of the different ways to drink Kuro Yokaichi, I enjoyed it most on the rocks after the ice has had 10 minutes to melt some.  At this point the initial flavor mellows and the it picks up almost a buttery finish.  In this form its very enjoyable though best had when in the mood for a kome shochu as opposed to an imo shochu.

Like Yokaichi Kome, Kuro Yokaichi Imo shochu can be found at a great value, selling in Japan for less than $10.  The one thing I’ve found is that Kuro Yokaichi is far less common than Yokaichi Kome or Yokaichi Mugi shochu.  This has resulted in the price varying far more than normal.  I found it at a local wine shop for $21 for a 750 ml bottle.  A good example of this is that 36th Avenue in Long Island City sells it for $17, while Marukai eStore in California has it for $27.  As a New Yorker, I feel like there is a required joke about California somewhere in there.  Kuro Yokaichi a good value at $17, but less so at $27.  For $30, there are other bottles that I would prefer.

Kin Kirishima Imo Shochu

91 Points

KinKirishima

Kanji:黒 霧島
Distillery: KIRISHIMA SHUZO
Type: Imo Shochu (Sweet Potato)
Koji: Gold
Region: Kyushu
Prefecture: Miyazaki
Proof: 50
Available in USA: Yes

Kin Kirishima is the highest among the three standard Japanese shochu from Kirishima Distillery, Kuro Kirishima (black), Aka Kirishima (red), and Kin Kirishima (gold).  I say among the “standard” shochu because I realized tonight that Kirishima Distillery carries a line of even higher quality, the “Tama Kin Kirishima” series of shochu.  The middle school child in me chuckled at this name because “tama kin” means “ball of gold”.  “Gold ball” is a Japanese nickname for a particularly masculine part of the male anatomy.  I am heading to Japan next month, I’ll be both finding out if I can find the “Tama Kin” series and I’ll be asking my friends if Japanese people find this name as funny as I do.

The first thing that should be mentioned about Kin Kirishima is the fact that it is made with  cordyceps instead of the normal black or white koji.  This fungus in nature grows from dead insects and looks like orange grass.  Before you object to ever trying Kin Kirishima, Kirishima distillery has found a way to grow this artificially from brown rice.  According to webMD cordyceps can be used to treat coughs, chronic bronchitis, respiratory disorders, kidneydisorders, nighttime urination, male sexual problems, anemia, irregular heartbeat,high cholesterol, liver disorders, dizziness, weakness, ringing in the ears, unwantedweight loss, and opiumaddiction.  Wow! Cordyceps have been mentioned as an aphrodisiac and the head of one of the Chinese women’s Olympic distance running teams even prescribed the usage of cordyceps and turtle blood to their athletes in order to perform better.  Little is proven about this fungus in western medicine, your mileage may vary.

Given the interesting background of Kin Kirishima, the flavor is actually surprisingly similar to that of  other Imo Shochu.  It has an incredibly light and buttery initial flavor.  It’s finish is a bit sweet  with a tinge of evergreen, but has that unmistakeable imo shochu finish.  Part of me thinks that this shochu would be great in a summer cocktail, but feel that a shochu with such an interesting background shouldn’t be covered up with overpowering mixers.  If I ever inherit several bottles at once, I may explore this more due to it’s delicate shelf life.  Kirishima Distillery recommends drinking this with a large portion of hot water, acknowledges that it is also delicious on the rocks.

Kin Kirishima Imo Shochu is not available in the United States.  If you do get your hands on a bottle, and plan to save it for a special occasion, do not throw the box away.  The distiller mentions that it is sensitive to light, and should kept hidden from the sun until you are ready to drink it.  The distiller sells this for 3,000 yen, or about $30 US Dollars.  If you are bringing bottles back from Japan by hand, this bottle is highly recommended.

 

Kappa No Sasoimizu Imo Shochu

84 Points

Image Courtesy of Kappa Distillery

Image Courtesy of Kyoya Distillery

Kanji:河童の誘い水
Distillery: KYOYA SHUZO
Type: Imo Shochu (Sweet Potato)
Koji: White
Region: Kyushu
Prefecture: Miyazaki
Proof: 40
Available in USA: Yes

This is another Japanese shochu where the distiller took liberty with the English translation of the name of their shochu.  Though I much prefer the translation of ‘Kappa No Sasoi mizu’, the translation ‘Kappa No Sasoimizu’ is what appears on the bottle, so that is what we will use.  Kappa No Sasoimizu is made by Kyoka Distillery in Miyazaki prefecture.  Koyoka Distillery, despite having just $50,000 in market capital according to their website, has been around for 180 years.  It should also be mentioned that Kappa No Sasoimizu was awarded the Monde Selection award for 2013.  Though this french review body is the not considered the authority on Japanese shochu, their award does represent an excellence in consistency and quality.

Kyoka Distillery describes their shochu as light and smooth.  This is an accurate description, though not the most striking aspect of the flavor.  This shochu strongly resembles a light vodka-like Jagermeister.  The challenge of this review is that I tend to not love the licorice flavor that stands out most.  I recognize that plenty of people go for this given the existence of Pernod, Jager, Absinthe, Ouzo and Sambucca.  If this is a flavor that appeals to you, then definitely move this shochu to the top of your list as the remaining flavors tend to be subtle and easy on the pallet.

One thing of note, most shochu distilleries have a pretty poor website in Japanese and an even poorer website in English.  Kyoka Distillery has 2 websites in English and both are better than most Japanese websites for other shochu distilleries.  These are kyo-ya and kappa shochu. These websites have things ranging from clear and accurate descriptions of the products to live webcams showing their sweet potato fields growing.

Though I’ve seen the product on several menus I have since learned that this shochu is relatively rare.  Besides retailing at Mitsuwa Market in New Jersey, it’s available at Greenwich Grill, Japonica Restaurant, Nippon, the East chain (including bar Hatchan), Robataya, Serafina, and Uminoie in New York City.  At shochu bar Hatchan it is $9 for a relatively modest sized glass.

Aka Kirishima Imo Shochu

88 Points

Image courtesy of ZZZZ.

Image courtesy of Kazuya Yokoyama.

Kanji:赤 霧島
Distillery: KIRISHIMA SHUZO
Type: Imo Shochu (Sweet Potato)
Koji: Black
Region: Kyushu
Prefecture: Miyazaki
Proof: 48
Available in USA: Yes

Somewhat like Johnny Walker, Aka (Red) Kirishima is the middle bottle of the color coordinated black, red, and gold Imo shochu from the power house distillery Kirishima Shuzo.  I’ve been looking forward to reviewing this Japanese shochu because though it is not uncommon, very little is written about it online.  Beyond the fact that little has been written, I also have in my possession a bottle of Kin (Gold) Kirishima in my possession.  I’ve vowed to not crack this until I’ve had a chance to reflect upon the Aka Kirishima Experience so this is the next step in the journey.

Aka Kirishima’s claim to fame is the fact that it is made with murasaki masari sweet potato.  This indigenous to Japan sweet potato is unique in so much that it is purple in color.  In a shochu shop in Osaka I’ve been told that the thing that gives murasaki masari sweet potatoes their pigment also indicates the presence of resveratrol.  Resveratrol is what is present in red wine that prevents damage to blood vessels, reduces bad cholesterol and prevents blood clots.  Checking online all day I was not able to find any medical website willing to back this up.  Your mileage may vary.

Drinking Aka Kirishima seemed to reflect traits of western alcohol.  The flavor of Aka Kirishima is best decribed as being smoky like a mellow scotch.  The finish has grass like notes a bit like a carmenere red wine.  I was lucky enough to try this at an Izakaya with a lot of pairings.  My favorite was with Yakitori.  I think the smokiness would compliment many grilled meats, but chicken seemed to work best.

Aka Kirishima (red) is a bit rare to find in the United States. That said, it is available at many upscale shochu bars and online as well.  Given that it is a bit more obscure, it’s prices tend to vary.  This is a great shochu and well worth trying it if you have the chance.

Ryukyu Ohcho Awamori

83 Points

Image Courtesy of Sake Expert

Image Courtesy of Sake Expert

Kanji:琉球王朝
Distillery: TARAGAWA SHUZO
Type: Awamori
Koji: Black Koji
Region: Miyakojima
Prefecture: Okinawa
Proof: 48
Available in USA: Yes

Ryukyu Ohcho Awamori is another name that doesn’t translate fantastically into English.  In Japanese, both u’s and o’s should be emphasized.  This is classically spelled in english by adding a u after the vowel.  In this case the distiller chose to use an h, and do so for only 1 of the 4 held vowels.  We’ll follow the distiller’s spelling, but be prepared for subtle variation when coming across this awamori online or in menus.

Like most brands of awamori, Ryukyu Ohcho is made from Thai style long grain rice and black koji.  The result is a flavor that is predictable for those who are familiar with awamori.  The one unique trait of Ryukyu Ohcho is the fact that it is aged at least 5 years in clay pots.  Though aging in other liquors tends to mellow the experience, the end result of Ryukyu Ohcho is a full flavor from start to finish.  At times I picked up a dash of Jagermeister and I could really taste the rice in the finish.  Taragawa Distillers recommends having Ryukyu with just water, but I found it enjoyable on the rocks.

Ryukyu Ohcho Awamori isn’t incredibly easy to find because outside of Zuisen, generally Awamori is even less common than shochu. It is carried by the large LA based distributor JFC.  I’ve not found this awamori in any retail locations, either online or in person.  The one location that does carry it is Shochu Bar Hatchan in Midtown Manhattan as they seem to carry almost all of the JFC brands.  For those who bring their shochu back from Japan and like their shochu, this bottle is well worth being 1 of the 2 bottles you can bring through customs.

Shima Senryo Imo Shochu

85 Points

Image courtesy of Joto Sake

Image courtesy of Joto Sake

Kanji:しま甘露
Distillery: TAKASAKI SHUZO
Type: Imo Shochu (Sweet Potato)
Koji: Both Black and White Koji is used
Region: Kyushu
Prefecture: Kagoshima
Proof: 50
Available in USA: Yes

Shima Senryo Imo (Sweet Potato) Shochu is produced by the Takasaki Distillery in Kagoshima prefecture. Though they have been around for 100 years, Takasaki Distillery seems to be a boutique Japanese shochu distllery that has a small following and a small footprint on the web.  That said, this just makes the enjoyable experience that much more rewarding.

Shima Senryo Imo (sweet potato) shochu is made in a unique manner.  First, it uses both white koji and black koji in the distilling process.  Second, the end product is a blend that mixes shochu that has aged for 1 year with shochu that has aged for 5 years.  The idea behind this approach is that the shochu that is aged 1 year brings interesting flavor to the product while the shochu that is aged 5 years brings a smoothness that makes it easy to drink.  The result is an experience is unlike most other imo shochu.  It’s initial flavor is reminiscent of an un-aged awamori, but then it has a smooth finish that is similar to a kome (rice) shochu.  This makes Shima Senryo Imo shochu interesting yet quite easy to drink.