CH Japan: Touring The Yayoi Shochu Distillery

Tasting a protected appellation only produced on the Amami archipelago

Sometimes considered Japan‘s national beverage, shochu outsells sake in its homeland and the most popular version has been listed among the 25 best-selling spirits in the world. A distilled liquor, shochu carries a 500-year history in Japan. (It’s also related to Korea’s soju.) During our CH Japan excursion to the island of Amami Ōshima—the largest of an archipelago in southern Japan—we toured the Yayoi Kokuto Distillery. It’s home to several different types of shochu, and one style in particular that can only be produced among the remote Amami island chain.

Shochu varies greatly in flavor and strength (from 25% to 45%), as it can be distilled from so many different organic materials and through several methods. More than half is derived from barley, but some is produced from rice and others from sweet potato. None come close to “kokuto” shochu, the Amami-specific protected appellation that’s distilled from brown sugar that began as sugarcane. Naturally, this is the specialization of the family-owned and operated Yayoi Kokuto Distillery.

Fourth-generation chief brewer Hiroyuki Kawasaki closely oversees production, marketing and more. Kawasaki left Amami Ōshima after high school to work in Tokyo but returned at age 35 to take on the business. For kokuto shochu, his distillery imports premium Okinawan brown sugar—though the subtropical island does have its own sugarcane plantations, some of which date back to the 17th century. The liquid goes through one single distillation to preserve the characteristics of its source material. That said, although sugar is used, it evaporates during distillation and the final product—often called “yayoi” or “mankoi”—has no sugar content.

Even without sugar content, kokuto shochu tastes lighter and sweeter than those drawn from barley. Yayoi Kokuto Distillery has an adjacent aging warehouse, where barrels lend further flavor to some of their expressions. Their entire range oscillates from light, fresh and fruity to rich and sturdy. Some of these are now available worldwide.

Shochu has become an important component in cocktail-making worldwide, but in Japan it’s often consumed neat, on ice (the recommendation for kokuto shochu) or mixed with water. It can also be served hot or cold. For anyone lucky enough to find themselves on the island of Amami Ōshima, a visit to the Yayoi Shochu Distillery is a must—but for everyone else, kokuto shochu offers a taste of their heritage.

Images by David Graver