Japanese shōchū distilleries diversify with plants

On Kyushu Island, the production center of shōchū Distilled liquor, long-established breweries began to branch out into western wormwood and gin spirits, using the rich variety of local fruits, herbs, and other potential ingredients to produce carefully crafted beverages.

While respecting traditional production techniques, the challenge has been to adapt the distillation equipment to achieve the required level of purity for alcohol and to select the right raw materials.

Munehiro Sata, 51, president of Sata Souji Shoten, a brewery founded in 1908 in Minamikyushu, Kagoshima Prefecture, developed a fascination with absinthe, once banned in many European countries and the United States due to rumors that turned out to be unfounded. , on its hallucinogenic properties.

“The complex herbal aroma (of wormwood) has attracted many cultural figures, such as (Vincent) Van Gogh and others,” said Sata, referring to the 19th-century Dutch painter.

Anise-flavored drink, the main ingredient in absinthe is absinthe. Sata Souji uses sweet potato shōchū as a base while infusing the drink with a total of over 40 herbs in total, also including Sakurajima tangerines, kelp, and Japanese. uh (plums). The company prides itself on producing its wormwood without fertilizers or pesticides.

Reflecting the fact that anise was traditionally used as a medicinal plant, Sata Souji’s brand takes the name Absinthe Kusushiki, “Kusushiki” coming from the roots of the Japanese words for medicine (kusuri) and mysterious.

A German-made distillery brewed Kusushiki absinthe at the Sata Souji Shoten company in Minamikyushu, Kagoshima Prefecture. | KYODO

For Sata, part of what gives the drink its mystery is how when water is added it instantly turns milky white.

“It’s like a smile that breaks out the moment you meet someone you haven’t seen in 10 years,” he said.

Sata awakened to Western-style spirits during a visit to Europe in 2000 to sell his shōchū products. He recalled his shock upon discovering a spirit that used ginger as its main ingredient. He ended up visiting around 100 distilleries there.

A common refrain he continued to hear from almost every local brewer on his trip was that success in achieving a specific flavor depended on using the right distillery equipment. It opened Sato’s eyes to what he could accomplish.

He imported four distillery machines from Europe and paused the brewing process, which takes around six hours, every 90 seconds, to test the flavor, aroma and other aspects of the alcohol.

Besides absinthe, he has developed more than 20 spirits with ingredients unique to Japan, such as Japanese chili peppers and shichimi togarashi, a mixture of red peppers and other spices.

Meanwhile, Osuzuyama Distillery, which sits on a site surrounded by forest in Kijo Town in Miyazaki Prefecture, also in Kyushu, started selling Osuzu Gin last summer.

The artisanal gin, which is made by further distilling the company’s Yamaneko shōchū from sweet potatoes, is infused with local agricultural herbs such as kumquat and hyuganatsu citrus fruits as well as shiitake mushrooms. The fragrant gin can be enjoyed as a drink mixed with sparkling water.

Shinsaku Kuroki, head of sister brewery company Kuroki Honten, holds a bottle of artisan gin from Osuzuyama Distillery, Osuzu Gin.  |  KYODO
Shinsaku Kuroki, head of sister brewery company Kuroki Honten, holds a bottle of artisan gin from Osuzuyama Distillery, Osuzu Gin. | KYODO

Shinsaku Kuroki, 33, fifth-generation chef at sister brewery Kuroki Honten, which helped work on gin, says that as a producer he wants to “continually seek out new tastes.” He began to devote himself to gin production a year after taking up his post in 2015 at Kuroki Honten, which opened in 1885.

Kuroki’s main concern was figuring out which plants to use. It took three years of trial and error to perfect his product. Although Kuroki imports a small portion of the ingredients essential to gin production, such as juniper berries, he tries to use local produce and even tries to grow them on the company’s farm.

It is said that after the introduction of shōchū in Japan, it took some time for sweet potatoes to become a main ingredient, while types of koji the mold used has also changed over the ages.

“The production of shōchū has changed over time. Gin production is an extension of that, ”Kuroki said.

Sata Souji Shoten: satasouji-shouten.co.jp; Osuzuyama Distillery: osuzuyama.co.jp/en; Kuroki Honten: kurokihonten.co.jp/en

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