Kou-Itten: Oaked Imo
Distillery: Oimatsu Shuzo Co, Ltd.
Location: Hita, Oita Prefecture, Kyushu Island, Japan
Grain: Satsuma Sweet Potato
Alcohol: 37% (74 proof)
Until I tasted Kou-Itten (Kohitten on the box) I thought I understood the range of shochu flavors and impressions. Nothing like trying a different style for the first time to turn your entire impressions of the spirit on its head. Koiden is an imo shochu aged in oak barrels a minimum of 500 days.
I thought Kaikouzu was a big imo. I thought oak barrel aging were strictly the purview of mugi shochus. I was wrong on both counts. Well, okay, so Kaikouzu is a big imo by U.S. import standards. Kou-Itten is not available in the States unless you bring it yourself. Luckily, it’s available at Narita International Airport (NRT) so if you find yourself there or are fortunate enough to have a friend on their way home through there, pick up a bottle. That is if you’re brave enough.
I picked this up in the airport on my way to Taiwan, because I wanted an imo to drink while I was there. I’d picked up a couple mugi shochus by request, which left me with a single bottle for myself. I went with an imo. I picked this one, because the wooden bottle tag promised oak aging. Perhaps it was the 14 hour flight. Perhaps it was the complimentary shochu in the JAL Sakura Lounge. For whatever reason I didn’t put two and two together. Imo flavor with whiskey barrel aging.
Let’s start with imo shochus. Sweet, yet robust. Earthy.
Now oak aged shochus. Smokey. Whiskey-like. Golden.
Now Kou-Itten. Sweet, robust, earthy, smokey, whisky-ish, golden.
Except that doesn’t quite capture it. Kou-Itten has this rich, earthy nose that’s mildly alcoholic. You can smell the dirt on the sweet potatoes, but the dirt is soaked in alcohol. That’s new.
The initial mouth feel is a warm sweet buttery flavor, but that’s almost immediately replaced with a wooden spice that turns smokey almost as quickly. The lingering finish rewards with a sweet earthiness layered with an herbal richness not unlike walking into a Chinese medicine shop. The party in your mouth makes you want to take another sip almost immediately, but at 37% alcohol you might want to slow down.
And here’s the thing. Cutting it with water (60:40 ratio) completely changes the complexion. The sweetness lingers, the wood mellows, and the finish is smoothed over yet still richly rewarding. The herbal flavor almost completely disappears.
I decided not to try it on the rocks, because I’m afraid it might lose too much of its lush character.
The Verdict: Exceptional
I’m not sure if this is the best shochu I’ve ever had or if it is just so completely different from everything else I’ve tried. That said, I’m extremely grateful to a good friend from Japan who brought me another bottle when he visited the U.S. recently. I’ll be careful which friends I share this with. It’s not for everyone. That said, I can’t help but give Kou-itten an exceptional rating. The complexity of the oak aged imo is outstanding. This isn’t an easy-drinker. This is more of a sippin’ shochu. I can live with that. I have a feeling you will too.