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Spirit of Japan
WATCH collectors and audiophiles will tell you that to get your hands on that rare Japanese domestic-market-only rare timepiece or superior CD pressing of a particular album, the only way is to book yourself on a six-hour flight to the Land of the Rising Sun (or pay through your nose on eBay). That's the reality of acquiring the best that Japan has to offer as many of these products seldom find their way out of the country.
Thankfully, shochu fans don't have to go the extra mile anymore as the spirit's global appeal continues to grow. Once Japan's best kept secret - where it was originally favoured by the people of the country's southern-most island of Kyushu, who have been making and drinking it since the 16th century - its popularity is now more widespread.
Since 2006, it has become trendy for bars in Tokyo to specialise in the tipple; and Yukio Hamada, director of the Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association, says that consumption of shochu is now on par with sake domestically. (The main difference between the two is the latter is brewed while the former is distilled.)
That in turn has led to growing exports as tourists who have been won over by it are starting to spread the shochu gospel themselves back home. The global popularity of Japanese cuisine is another factor for the growing consumption of the aromatic spirit, which pairs well with everything from sashimi to teppanyaki and can be drunk in different ways - straight for full flavour; on the rocks as a refreshment; or with hot water to enhance the aroma.
Depending on which region it is produced in, single-distilled Honkaku (genuine) Shochu - as opposed to the cheaper white liquor grade that is mass produced and distilled continuously - is traditionally made from ingredients such as rice, barley, sweet potato or brown sugar. Alcohol content ranges from 15 to 45 per cent but average at about 25 per cent in general.
Kagoshima Prefecture, often dubbed Shochu Kingdom because it's home to over 100 distilleries, specialises in the sweet potato variety, which incidentally is the most consumed type in Japan last year, according to Mr Hamada.
Distilleries such as Komasa Jyozo (www.komasa.co.jp), which has been making shochu since 1883 and whose products are exported to Singapore, even have their own farms where they grow the crop to ensure the strictest quality control of the ingredients used. At the neighbouring Satsuma Shuzo (www.satsuma.co.jp), the distillery uses piped-in Western classical music in the belief that the mellow vibrations produced from the melodies help improve the quality of their shochu.
At next door Kumamoto Prefecture, which boasts 28 distilleries, rice is the preferred choice of ingredient and makers such as Sengetsu Shuzo (www.sengetsu.co.jp) and Takahashi Shuzo (www.hakutake.co.jp) are also grateful for the crystal clear waters of the Kuma River contributing to the quality of their world-class Kuma (rice) Shochu.
While the distilleries mentioned above churn out an average of 40 to 50 different products each, Torikai Shuzhou (www.torikais.com) has put an artisanal touch to the craft of shochu-making by offering only one - Ginka Torikai, made from its own ginjo koji (rice polished to 58 per cent) and ginjo yeast. It is clearly a label of love for the company's president Kazunobu Torikai who takes a scientific approach instead of merely relying on traditional methods as he experiments endlessly in his distillery, which is uncharacteristically located in the woods surrounding Hitoyoshi City's Sozu River in Kumamoto.
While China and America are the biggest consumers of shochu outside Japan, the spirit is also showing strong signs of growth as well here in Singapore. At the Japanese food and drinks showcase that Oishii Japan held at Suntec City last weekend, the visiting shochu exhibitors sold out all their products and one visitor carted home 15 bottles at a go.
One of the biggest reasons for the boom is that shochu has earned a reputation for being a healthy alternative to other spirits such as beer or whisky. It contains an enzyme that breaks down blood clots in veins and arteries and can help prevent strokes and heart attacks.
"Because no sugar is used as it is produced only from natural ingredients, shochu is also low in calories and has zero carbohydrate," shares Mr Hamada, "Plus you won't get a hangover from it."
We'll definitely drink to that.
For more information, check out www.honkakushochu-awamori.jp.
- The writer was a guest of Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association on a trip to distilleries in Kagoshima and Kumamoto