Production method


The first step to provoke an alcoholic fermentation of cereals or potatoes is saccharification: the starches contained into vegetables do not ferment spontaneously in presence of yeasts. To make beer in any western country, as well as all spirt derived from cereals, sugars are obtained from malt, which consist of a controlled germination of the grains. This process launches saccharification: the transformation of starches into sugars, susceptible to alcoholic fermentation in the presence of yeasts.

Japanese obtain the same result, saccharification, with an entirely different method. Shochu and sake producers cultivate a fungus on part or all of the of steam cooked raw material, to be fermented later in the process. This fungus transforms starches into sugars susceptible to alcoholic fermentation in the presence of yeasts. This very same technique is also applied to miso, soya sauce and mirin production.

The fungus responsible for this transformation is called koji (aspergillus oryzae). Shochu’s distilleries have developed a wide range of koji. Awamori producers use exclusively a black one, known as kuro-koji. In general, shochu producers use white or black koji, while sake brewers employ a yellow koji.

Different types of kojj are responsible for different shochu’s characteristics, such as the taste of puffed rice in many barley shochu and the perfume of vanilla so typical of Awamori, not to mention the mushroom fragrance of many of these spirits. Koji is also responsible for Honkaku Shochu and Awamori roundness, harmony and the almost chewable fullness of these beverages, a sensation that Japanese define as umami.


After saccharification, koji has done its part of the process, while the yeasts gradually takes over, to produce a fermented must, moromi in Japanese, that can reach a remarkable alcoholic content: between 14° proof and 18° or more, while, for instance, malt fermented to make beer, whisky or vodka are generally between 5° and 7°. This is why, already after the first distillation, Honkaku Shochu and Awamori are between 37° to 45° alcohol proof. Whisky distillers, have to do a second distillation to achieve that level.

The single distillation is important, because it allows the retention of raw material fragrances, more than would be possible with a multiple distillation process: each distillation reduces the aromatics in the finished product. The emphasis of ageing in wood, so typical of whisky, is due to the fact that the spirit itself is largely neutral in terms of perfume and taste after two or more distillations. This also explains gin’s production method and reasoning the other way around, so to say, that of vodka: which is deliberately deprived of any perfume or taste, through repeated distillation, to reduce it to alcohol and water.


At this stage, Honkaku Shochu is matured for a few weeks up to a few months, to facilitate the agglomeration of oily substances, which are later removed through filtering. Naturally, one can decide to age spirit much longer, in different type of materials: steel, enamelled ceramic amphoras, or wooden casks.

Okinawa’s Awamori is the spirit most frequently aged over long periods of time, in enamelled ceramic amphoras. These are the so called koshu or kosu for Okinawa’s products, two words that indicate a spirit aged over many years.

Shochu can also be aged in wooden casks. However, precisely because of the single distillation, this is done with much less emphasis, relatively to the whisky world. Moreover, Japanese tend to dilute products aged in wood with new make, to obtain very pale spirits that easily differentiate from whisky. However, there are on the market Honkaku Shochu aged in wood to obtain a sort of “not-whisky”, which is Honkaku Shochu until it drops out of the alembic but “dresses as whisky” once it is taken out of the cask where it aged. A sort of “bridge” between Japanese and Scottish distillation traditions.







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