Japan’s brewed and distilled drinks have lots to offer Scotch lovers, as Peter Ranscombe finds out.
YOU’VE heard of sake, but how about shochu?
While sake has been growing in popularity and prominence in Scotland, I confess that shochu was a new one on me.
Sake is brewed like a beer, while shochu is distilled like a whisky.
Indeed, there’s even an old adage that “Sake is brewed like a beer, but drunk like a wine”, which is partly due to its higher alcohol content, which usually sits at around 15%.
In simple terms, sake is made from rice that’s been milled – or “polished” – before being washed and steamed.
It’s then fermented with an enzyme called “koji-kin” that converts the starch in the rice into sugar, which a yeast can then turn into alcohol.
Shochu, on the other hand, can be made from a wide range of about 50 raw materials, including barley, rice, and sweet potato.
It tends to be lighter than many other spirits, sitting at around the 25-30% mark, and can be aged in wooden barrels, ceramic pots, or stainless-steel tanks.
Some 90% of shochu might be made in southern Japan, but that hasn’t stopped Ellon-based beer company BrewDog getting in on the act, with its distilling arm producing a shochu made from barley, ginger, and Scottish rhubarb.
While the way in which shochu is aged will affect its flavour, it’s the milling or polishing of the rice that’s important for sake because it helps to determine the intensity of the flavour in the finished drink, leading to the way in which sake is labelled, along with whether or not alcohol has been added.
What struck me most while tasting through a small selection of sake and shochu was the freshness of each drink, along with their wide variety of flavours.
There are more than 20,000 sakes made by around 1,200 producers in Japan, so there are plenty to explore – especially for fans of the flavours we find in our Scotch whisky.
Kanpai Sumi Junmai Sake (£18.90 for 375ml, Nysa Wine)
Made not in Japan but in London, this clear sake is classified as “junmai”, meaning the rice has undergone less milling or polishing, and so retains more of the rice flavours. For me, those flavours centred around the apricot French set yoghurts of the 1980s and 1990s, with banana, lemon, and grapefruit notes. The result was really fresh and uplifting.
Akashi-Tai Honjozo Tokubetsu Sake (£14 for 300ml, Woodwinters)
Akashi’s sake is a good comparison with the Kanpai – it’s “honjozo” classification means it shares the same level of rice polishing as the junmai, but alcohol has been added to enhance the flavours, without raising the final alcohol in the bottle, as both weigh in at 15%. There’s a definite sherry-like note on the nose, with cereal and asparagus aromas. It’s much fruiter on the palate, with green apple and banana, developing into red apple and apricot on the finish, delivering an altogether more savoury package than the Kanpai.
Konishi Shuzo Shirayuki Genroku Redux (£10.50 for 180ml, Bottle Apostle)
One for the Speyside whisky fans. A lovely honeyed-orange colour hints at the Christmas cake, butterscotch, warm cigar smoke, and honey to be found on the nose. There’s a fresh hit of lemon on the palate that then develops into fig, prune, butterscotch, and even deeper toffee, before finishing with sweet brown sugar and vanilla. Again, it’s junmai, so a lower level of polishing and no added alcohol, but this time it’s made using a recipe that dates from 1702.
Suntory The Osumi Shochu (currently out of stock on Amazon Japan)
Suntory – the Japanese distiller that jointly-owns Scotch whisky brands including Bowmore, Laphroaig, and Teacher’s – is also a big player in its domestic shochu market. This clear shochu delivers lemon, apricot, banana, and floral notes on the nose and then a much fruitier collection of red and green apples and barley sugar sweets on the palate, all wrapped up warmth from the 25% alcohol by volume.
Kuroshitama The Smoke Shochu (equivalent to £36 for 720ml, Amazon Japan)
Made from sweet potato and rice, there’s something distinctly Islay-like in the smoky notes of this shochu, with a mix of wood smoke, lemon, brown sugar, caramel and floral hints on the nose giving way to an intense smokiness on the palate, reminiscent of Islay’s TCP peat. The 38% alcohol bring noticeable warmth when drunk neat, but not enough to overpower the enjoyable brown sugar, caramel, and honey flavours. At this strength, I can see why bartenders are looking to shochu as an alternative ingredient for cocktails.
Read more of Peter’s wine, beer and spirits reviews on his blog, The Grape & The Grain