The Gochiso Gourmet: Get the 4-1-1 on Japan’s alcoholic drinks

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When I was first asked to review this book, I thought, “it should be pretty straightforward, as most of the book probably deals with sake,” and I recently studied for the WSET (Wine & Spirit Education Trust) Level 1 Award in Sake, so it shouldn’t take a lot of time describing sake production and sake-based cocktails. Then I quickly realized that I still had quite a bit to learn, not just about sake, but Japanese drinks in general.

Co-authors Stephen Lyman and Chris Bunting took a roundabout process to complete “The Complete Guide to Japanese Drinks: Sake, Shochu, Japanese Whisky, Beer, Wine, Cocktails and Other Beverages,” as it primarily was accomplished online as the two only met face-to-face for about 24 hours in the north of England. Native New Yorker Lyman was becoming an acknowledged Western expert on Japanese shochu (distilled liquor) and Okinawan awamori, a rice-based distilled spirit, and he persisted in persuading former Tokyo denizen and UK native Bunting to partner in the comprehensive guide to Japanese drinks after Bunting published “Drinking Japan: A Guide to Japan’s Best Drinks and Drinking Establishments.” Finally, after several years, Bunting relented and this online collaboration came to fruition.

“The Complete Guide to Japanese Drinks” is broken down into two general sections, the first covering Native Japanese Alcohol (washu) Traditions, including sake, shochu, awamori and umeshu (a plum-based liquor), with the second covering Western Alcohol (yoshu) Traditions in Japan, including whisky, beer and Japanese wine. Surprisingly, the sake chapter isn’t the longest section, yielding instead to shochu.

Japan’s Drinking Culture
The preface starts with Japan’s drinking culture explaining that it’s intimately tied to rice cultivation, which started more than 3,000 years ago in Kyushu. The earliest rudimentary sake brewing started soon after rice cultivation, with ordinary citizens developing a taste for alcohol even if the commoner couldn’t afford the officially sanctioned sake. And though home brewing was prohibited, commoners found ways to brew their own alcohol, with villagers often creating elaborate warnings with bells, whistles or pot clanging whenever a strange official-looking stranger visited the village. And though the government attempted to restrict or even prohibit alcohol consumption through the centuries, the mass population conveniently ignored or circumvented government controls on alcohol.

Sake, the Soul of Japan
Although sake is commonly referred to as rice wine, creating sake is more akin to brewing beer, as yeast can’t simply create alcohol from starch, but first needs the starch converted to simple sugars by molds (koji). However, the earliest form of sake, kuchikamizake (mouth-chewed sake), depended on salivary enzymes to convert the starches to sugar. I, for one, am very thankful more modern production using koji starters became the norm, instead of saliva. The authors do point out that because sake production was considered a gift from the gods, Shinto priests originally recruited virginal girls to do the chewing and spitting at kuchikamizake festivals, and this tradition persisted in Okinawa until the 1930s.

By the sixth century, koji mold became the standard process to convert starches to sugars though religious institutions held a legal monopoly on the production of koji. However, in 1444, the 340 sake producers complained about the inflated prices the Kitano Shrine charged. They further stated that their supply couldn’t meet the demand, and revolted against the shogunate, which eventually relented, changing the sake landscape forever.

Without getting into the detailed descriptions that Lyman and Bunting provide for the complete process of sake production and classification and the commonly available styles of sake, I’ll simply highlight the information in a nutshell. Basically, gourmet varieties of short grain rice are first milled to remove the outer layer, then steamed. As the rice cools, the koji or mold (Aspergillus oryzae) starter is lightly sprinkled over the cooling rice, and as the koji culture multiplies and starts converting rice starch to sugars, more rice and koji starter is added. Eventually, the finished koji rice, more rice, water and shubo or moto (the yeast mother that converts sugars to ethyl alcohol) is combined over days in the fermentation vessel, and once thoroughly mixed are left to ferment over two to five weeks.

And just for your information, if you plan on visiting the Motherland or plan on visiting sake bars, here’s a quick guide to what several words in the sake world mean:

Zojoshu — The cheapest of sake, it is simply meant to get you drunk. Basically, it’s the “jug wine” of the sake world.

Futsushu — Most of the sake consumed from “table” wine quality to extraordinary quality.

Honjozo — This is a premium sake where rice grains are polished down to at least 70 percent, with added brewer’s alcohol added to extract flavor compounds, which creates a lighter body in the final sake.

Junmai — Previously required rice was polished down to 70 percent, but there’s no minimum polishing requirements now. It’s without any added brewer’s alcohol, but still considered premium sake.

Ginjo — Premium sake where rice grains are polished down to at least 60 percent. If labeled simply as ginjo, brewer’s alcohol was added. If labeled as junmai ginjo, no brewer’s alcohol was added.

Daiginjo — Premium sake where rice grains are polished down to at least 50 percent. Again, if it is labeled simply as daiginjo, brewer’s alcohol was added, if it was labeled as junmai daiginjo, no brewer’s alcohol was added.

Therefore, honjozo to ginjo to daiginjo, go from fuller bodied to lighter, fragrant sake and any sake labeled as junmai will have a fuller body than corresponding non-junmai sake.

Tokubetsu — This is a premium sake polished to at least 60 percent with special processing not usually used by the brewmaster.

Genshu — This is an undiluted sake with alcohol ranging from 17 percent to 20 percent alcohol. Most sake are diluted down to 15 percent to 16 percent alcohol.

Nigori — This is unfiltered or lightly filtered sake that appears opaque to downright cloudy.

Koshu — Sometimes aged in wooden barrels to achieve a Port-like richness, sometimes simply aged at sub-zero temperatures to create new flavor sensations.

Japan’s Best Kept Secret
Shochu or Japanese distilled spirits unlike sake is created from rice, sweet potatoes, barley or a mixture of all three, or simply distilled from the expended solids from sake production or sake kasu. Shochu production also employs the use of a koji starter to convert starches to sugars and like sake production, primarily uses white koji for this process, though shochu creates the initial fermentation product via a two-step fermentation process. Most sweet potato based shochu is distilled to the high 30 percentile of alcohol, while rice and barley shochu attain alcohol in the low 40 percentile. However, most shochu are diluted down to the mid 20 percentile, especially stateside, as any alcoholic beverage above 24 percent is subject to higher alcohol taxation along with stricter regulations.

Because of the higher alcohol level, shochu is usually enjoyed on the rocks or diluted with ice water to reduce some of the alcohol “bite,” though enthusiasts also enjoy shochu straight or even mixed with hot water. My personal experience imbibing shochu gives me the impression that rice-based shochu is the lightest and sweet potato versions the heartiest and funkiest, with barley-based shochu somewhere between the two.

Shochu’s Distant Cousin
Several hundred miles south in the original Ryukyu Kingdom, shochu’s cousin was created with a similar process. However, it was produced primarily with rice, and not the usual short grain variety for daily meals, but the long-grain Indica rice imported from Thailand. Therefore, Okinawa’s awamori is thought to have its origins in Thailand’s lao khao even if lao khao employs sticky, short grain rice, though both employ black koji mold for sugar production.

And unlike shochu production, awamori is only fermented once and uses the black koji mold, as this kurokoji produces higher acid levels, which inhibit other organisms from growing in the brew, especially since Okinawa’s temperate climate fosters the growth of a wide range of microorganisms which invariably can give the finished awamori off flavors.

Awamori is also frequently aged in the solera system, whereby older batches of awamori are mixed with younger awamori as the older awamori is consumed from their traditional clay pots. Unfortunately, during World War II, batches of awamori well over 100 years old were destroyed and most of the black koji starters destroyed with them. Despite restarting the distilleries since the war, only 40-something active distilleries remain.

The traditional way to drink awamori is from thimble-like cups called chibugwa from carafes called gari-gari. A ceramic ball in the gari-gari remains silent when the carafe is full, but makes a “gari-gari” sound as it empties, signaling the need for a new filled carafe. Nowadays, awamori is also served in glass tumblers or brandy sniffers, and diluting it with equal parts of chilled water or on the rocks is the norm.

Yoshu
Ever since Commodore Matthew Perry and his fleet of black ships opened Japan to Western society, along with 109 gallons of American whisky on his return, the Japanese developed a taste for this golden spirit. Some 20 or so years later, in 1879, a chemist named Jokichi Takamine grew koji spores on wheat bran to create one of the first Japanese created Western whiskies. Several years later, Eigashima Shuzo experimented with koji on barley, then distilled the fermented brew, immediately placing it into barrels, and White Oak whisky was born. Unfortunately, none of their product or distillery survived, so no one can say for certain that it was Japan’s first whisky. What is known about Japan’s whisky culture is that in 1923, a collaboration of Masataka Taketsuru and Shinjiro Torii created a whisky culture that exists until today. It set the framework for future Japanese whisky distilleries with whiskies that rival the best whiskies in the world. Taketsuru was a chemist who was sent to Scotland by the head of the Settsu Liquor Company to learn the secrets of that Scottish “water of life,” scotch. He even married a Scottish woman, Rita Cowan, and after working at several Scottish distilleries, returned to Japan in 1920. Because Japan was in a recession, he didn’t get very far opening his own distillery until he met visionary businessman, Shinjiro Torii who opened Suntory’s Yamazaki distillery in 1923… yes, the same distillery that still produces Yamazaki, Hakushu and Hibiki whiskies that can cost as much as $9,000 per bottle for the 25-year-old version. The authors provide a much more detailed timeline as well as subsequent distilleries that entered the market after Suntory.

However, the Motherland distilleries create much more than their own versions of scotch. In the past few years, gin has gained in popularity, with Japanese distilleries adding the traditional juniper berries along with adding Japanese herbs and flavor agents such as shiso, green tea, ginger, bamboo leaves, cypress wood, yuzu and sansho pepper.

Toriaezu Nama
Translated as “a draft beer to start,” the authors sadly highlight the fact that though the Japanese pay a great attention to detail when creating sake, shochu, awamori and whisky, and though beer has been the top selling alcoholic beverage in Japan for decades, beer culture still predominantly is limited simply to refreshing, lager types of beer, or the mass-produced brands from Asahi, Kirin and Suntory that you can find at most supermarkets. In fact, the dominance of the mega-brands was fostered by the Japanese government who initially imposed minimum production volumes back in 1906 of 47,500 gallons which effectively wiped out smaller brewers.

They do note that there are craft brewed operations that have had a resurgence ever since the government lowered the minimum production requirements in 1994, so it’s not uncommon to see bottles of Hitachino, Coedo and Echigo at your local Marukai market, though for the most part, the average Japanese consumer simply wants a brew that’s light and refreshing.

Western Wine
The final chapter describes Japan’s history with wine, namely wines created from grapes in the European tradition highlighting one individual; Hikosuke Isonaga, the son of a Satsuma samurai who adopted the alias Kanae Nagasawa, who was educated in Scotland then eventually moved to New York to create wine for the Brotherhood of New Life commune, which eventually moved to Santa Rosa Valley in California. The commune started the Fountain Grove Winery, which at one point was the largest winery in the U.S. It even exported wines to Europe and Japan. However, with Prohibition in 1919, along with the anti-Japan law in 1920, operations came to a halt and Nagasawa simply marketed grape juice, though he did give warnings to purchasers of the grape juice how not to let the juice ferment into wine.

Nagasawa passed in 1934 and was all but forgotten until President Ronald Reagan mentioned him in a speech to the Japanese Diet and the city of Santa Rosa honored him with a bronze bust in their municipal office and named a park in his honor.

Though Japanese wine now uses traditional European grapes in production, like Chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon, Japanese wineries also highlight what is considered Japan’s native grape, the koshu, as part of their regular wine production. In 2014 and again in 2016, a koshu-based wine won the gold medal at the London-based Decanter World Wine Awards.

I also highlighted Japanese wines in my March 2016 column, “Wines from the Motherland.”

Final Chapters
The final chapters of “Japanese Drinks” concludes with a section on Japanese cocktails highlighting the career of the father of Japanese bartending, Tatsuro Yamazaki who started as a 25-year-old in 1945 and continued to work until he passed away in 2016. He quipped two years earlier that when he originally planned on retiring at 70, he planned to visit all the bars of his former students, but then realized that most his trainees themselves had already retired.

The book ends with a listing of several bars both in Japan and Stateside that continue in the Japanese tradition including Ippuku in downtown Berkeley.

The Last Word
If you have any interest in Japanese drinks or Japan’s drinking traditions, I highly recommend getting a copy of “The Complete Guide to Japanese Drinks.” If I had known about the book, I would have purchased it while studying for the WSET Level 1 award in Sake and will probably re-read it if I apply for the Level 3 award classes. There’s also detailed information on both shochu and awamori and I now have a new appreciation for sake’s “stronger” cousin. And although I don’t consume whisky that often, I now have a lot more knowledge on Japan’s whisky culture and the story of not simply creating another whisky product but elevating it as great if not beyond the original European classics.

The Gochiso Gourmet is a column on food, wine and healthy eating. Ryan Tatsumoto is a graduate of both the University of Hawai‘i and UC San Francisco. He is a clinical pharmacist during the day and a budding chef/recipe developer/wine taster at night. He writes from Kane‘ohe, HI and can be reached at gochisogourmet@yahoo.com.

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