While Japanese whisky is all the rage world wide, Japan’s koji spirits of Honkaku Shochu and Ryukyu Awamori predate Japanese whisky making by at least 400 years. These intensely artisanal spirits made by master craftsmen reflect the true spirit of Japan.
The origins of these spirits are murky at best, but distilled spirits were almost certainly being made in Okinawa by 1477 and on the Japanese island of Kyushu by 1559. Ryukyu and Japan were independent countries at the time, but trade between them was robust so it’s possible that Ryukyu (modern day Okinawa) introduced distillation technology to Japan, though it may have come from Korea, another common trading partner given its proximity to Kyushu.
What is unique to these spirits traditions is their use of koji fermentation and single pot distillation. Since most other spirits traditions have lower alcohol ferments, they are almost always double or even triple distilled to achieve a high enough alcohol level. Ryukyu Awamori and Honkaku Shochu virtually always use just a single pot distillation to reach 37 to 45% alcohol. Due to the single distillation these spirits are full of lush flavors and aromas that would be lost in a second pass through the still.
The World Trade Organization has recognized the historical provenance of these drinks and has granted Geographic Indication status 4 styles:
Pot distilled spirit made with 100% black koji rice.
Pot distilled spirit made in the Kuma River Basin of Kumamoto Prefecture using local water, koji, and rice.
Pot distilled spirit made on Iki Island in Nagasaki Prefecture using rice koji and barley.
Pot distilled spirit made in Kagoshima Prefecture from koji and local sweet potatoes.
While not WTO recognized, kokuto sugar shochu is protected by the Japanese government.
Kokuto Sugar Shochu
Pot distilled spirit made in the Amami Islands from rice koji and kokuto sugar.
They by no means represent the only styles of shochu and awamori made in Japan, but represent a large percentage of the market. Other recognized styles include:
100% Barley Shochu
Pot distilled spirit made with barley koji, usually in Northern Kyushu.
Sweet Potato Shochu
Pot distilled spirit made with koji and sweet potatoes, but not qualified for Satsuma Shochu status. Most often made in Miyazaki Prefecture.
Pot distilled spirit made with koji and buckwheat (soba), most often in Miyazaki Prefecture.
Sake Lees Shochu
The grappa of shochu, this is made by sake brewers nationwide as a way to extract the alcohol remaining in the sake lees so that the lees can then be used as fertilizer.
These 9 styles represent 99% of the shochu market, but we would be remiss if we did not mention aromatic shochus, which are made by adding an herb, flower, or other aromatic ingredient to a rice, barley, or even sweet potato fermentation before distillation to capture the aromas of that additional ingredient.
Nothing can be added to shochu or awamori after distillation other than water and time. These resolutely traditional drinks are still made as they were hundreds of years ago, though, of course, the equipment has been improved over time.