For the Love of Japan & Shochu

Part 1: A lot has happened in the last year, for our customers, our Sake Social business, and me personally. It is mind-boggling to consider that last year at this time I was preparing for a weeklong trip to Kyushu Island, Japan to learn about shochu. Immediately upon my return the world effectively shut down and we all started our collective work-from-home, social-distance experience. While the world citizenry stopped being able to easily move about, our desire to enjoy life's pleasures, stay curious about the bigger world, and remain engaged was not tempered. As we head into the Valentine's season, and the one year anniversary of a human experience unlike anything we have previously known, I would be remiss to not share my love for Japan and the Japanese people by highlighting some of what I learned on that wonderful trip one year ago. To be honest, our customers have kept us extraordinarily busy this past year, for which we are deeply, deeply grateful. So this is my first opportunity to reminisce on what was a beautiful adventure.

When I first arrived in Kyushu, the southern most island of Japan, I was sent straight to Hitoyoshi, a city in the Kumamoto Prefecture whose main product is kuma-shochu or rice shochu. There are at least 28 shochu distilleries in this town with a population of about 35,000. At the heart of this town is the Kuma River, the water source for nearly all of the breweries.

The larger Kumamoto region is the most appropriate entry destination for learning about shochu because it is considered to be the shochu mecca. In the northern part of the island, in Kyushu, is a concentration of barley shochu distilleries, while the buckwheat shochu distilleries dot the eastern coastal towns of Oita and Miyazaki, and the sweet potato shochu distilleries are at the southern tip in Kagoshima. So why is the region so perfect for shochu? The water!

The geographic region is known as "the land of fire” for the highly volcanic land. But is also known as the "land of water" because of its overflowing water resources, including the Kuma River, the thousands of volcanic hot springs [onsens], and the melted snow from the surrounding mountains.

The hot spring's not only attract tourists year-round but they produce a supremely high quality mineral water great making sake and shochu. While some hot springs produce harder waters, others produce soft water. The result is that each brewery in the region has their own distinct flavor.

But it is not just the water that makes the Kumamoto sake/shochu legendary. There is the rice: Hananishiki. This varietal took 14 years to research and develop and is a combination of the Yamadanishiki variety - one of the best for sake making - and the Yumeizumi variety - a hardier rice plant that can withstand the strong regional winds.

So far we have covered the most popular region - Kumamoto - for shochu and the geographic characteristics that make it the best locale for distilleries: volcanos, hot springs, and a hardy rice strain. Next we will talk about the history of how sake came to be a distilled beverage [shochu] and that other critical ingredient: koji [mold].

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