This is a piece I’ve been meaning to write ever since I bought this bottle of kokuto shochu in 2019.
However, I know little about shochu, so learning about it would mean having to read about it. Traveling has also always immensely helped with clearing my mind, and my resultant inability to do so for the past year hasn’t put me in the mood.
When Japanese spirits are mentioned, it’s safe to say that gin or whisky are the first to come to someone’s mind. Sadly, neither of these are traditional Japanese spirits. Even sadder is that very few Japanese spirits fans know what shochu is. Yes, shochu, and not soju. Lots of folks tend to mix these up too. Shochu is Japanese. Soju is Korean.
So just what is shochu? The easiest way to describe it is that it is probably Japan’s oldest spirit. According to Stephen Lyman’s The Complete Guide to Japanese Drinks, there are only theories as to how distilling arrived in Japan. Some scholars point to records of liquor being brought from Okinawa to Japan via boats in the early 1500s. (For clarification, the archipelago where Okinawa is wasn’t always part of Japan. It was once ruled by the Ryukyu Kingdom.) What most agree on, though, is that spirits arrived through the China Sea trade in the late 1400s or early 1500s.
Being a spirit, it is distilled. It can have many bases such as steamed rice, barley, sweet potato, kokuto, buckwheat, or even sesame. However, being a Japanese alcohol, it uses koji-kin. Since it’s a spirit that has so many base ingredients, I can see why it’s a confusing category; there is no simple phrase to describe it that the regular consumer can understand; i.e., brandy is easily described as distilled wine, and whisky can be easily described as distilled beer.
Koji is a mold very important to Japanese culture. It’s needed to make essential Japanese ingredients like soy sauce, miso and sake (nihonshu). In case you haven’t read my previous nihonshu reviews, koji molds the starches in the main ingredients into sugar. The sugar, in turn, is converted by yeast into alcohol. However, koji are usually propagated in rice by koji makers. These koji makers package the koji-inoculated rice to be used by food and alcohol producers.
Now that we’ve covered the basics of shochu, it’s time to discuss the subject of this review. This kokuto shochu is called Tomoet Moi from Nishihara Shuzo.
Kokuto means “black sugar.” This particular style of shochu is from the Amami Islands between Okinawa and the coast of the Kagoshima prefecture. Lyman, in the book mentioned earlier, points out that unlike rum, which can be made from different types of sugarcane byproducts, kokuto shochu is exclusively made from black sugar formed as blocks of sun-dried molasses. (Kokuto can also translate to brown sugar.)
Nishihira Shuzo is an old and small shochu producer from the Amami Islands. Their website indicates they’ve been around since 1875. They currently have only seven employees and are run by Selena/Serena Nishira, the great-granddaughter of their first toji (head distiller) Tomi Nishihara.
Tomoet Moi was only launched in 2019. The rest is copied and pasted from their website: “This creation is Serena Nishihira, after 90 years of history, and ‘Tomowa’ was born in the first year of Reiwa. A book named by quoting the letters ‘Tomoe’ used in the brand at the time of its founding, and multiplying ‘Tomoe again (more)’ and ‘Toi et Moi’ (meaning ‘you and me’ in French). The work is a gem with respect for the predecessor. Harmony of old-fashioned white jiuqu and yellow jiuqureminiscent of a new era. Aged for two years and finished mellowly. The gold leaf that dances like a starry sky against the moon seen from Amami expresses hope for the future.”
Tomoet Moi Kokuto Shochu – Review
On the nose: Intense sugarcane aromas that make me think of a mix of pot-distilled molasses rum, Van Oosten Batavia Arrack; that layer of Koji from nihonshu and peppers. At the end are bold and quick flashes of vanilla pods, cloves, burnt orange peels and muscovado sugar.
In the mouth: There’s an enveloping, yet not full, taste of pepperiness and koji. After you get past that, there are medium yet brief tastes of honey, vanilla, muscovado sugar and sugarcane syrup.
Similar to my nihonshu reviews, I hesitate to score this; it is my first proper experience with any type of shochu. I’ve probably had the rice-based and barley-based shochus before, but I was way younger then. Thus, I don’t think I had the proper sense or knowledge to appreciate it.
This needs a lot of time to breathe. It initially only gives off that koji flavor you get from most Junmai sake, but later on, more of the sugarcane flavors come out. It’s an interesting enough kokuto shochu, which will make me explore more of these and other types of shochu. It’s certainly another rabbit hole I don’t mind getting lost in.
The website also recommends Tomoet Moi to be drunk with ice. Here are my thoughts on it:
On the nose: Pretty much nulled out.
In the mouth: That layer of koji really dies down. More of the sugar is expressed. A lot more of the sweet, but not too sweet, flavors come out. I get a bit of an orange zest at the end.