Kagemusha means “shadow warrior” … and was the title of a 1980 Akira Kurosawa film. The shochu gets its name from the black koji and robust imo flavor. The sexy black bottle & black label with gold and red trim add to the mystique.
Distillery: Tsutsumi Shuzo Co, Ltd.
Location: Asagiri, Kumamoto Prefecture, Kyushu Island, Japan
Grain: 70% amakusa shimon sweet potato (im0) & 30% rice (kome)
Koji: white (shiro)
Alcohol: 24% (48 proof)
It’s not often anymore that a shochu surprises me when I start to do research about it. Most shochus imported to the US use pretty standard ingredients and processes that have been carefully chosen for the American palate. Others, of course, are blatantly available simply for Japanese expats living in the US, which unfortunately is a shrinking population thanks to the economic crisis of 2007 when many Japanese companies were forced to downsize their oversees offices.
Kuratake surprised me as soon as I opened the bottle. The rich sweet potato aroma and flavor I expect from imo shochus is largely absent from this spirit until you pay attention. It’s got a subtle presence, but not the overwhelming sensation you’ll get from a traditional Kagoshima style black koji imo shochu like Shiranami Kuro. This shochu takes the experience in a completely different direction.
Kuratake is made in Kumamoto, traditional home to rice shochu, and uses water from the Kuma River, which is used in virtually all of the Kumajochu (famous rice shochus). The dry, sharpness of the richly mineralized river water comes through in the finish of Kuratake, but before that you experience some pretty interesting things. One of those is the variety of sweet potato, the Amakusa Shimon, which is grown on the Amakusa Islands off the coast of Kumamoto Prefecture.
The aroma is light, with faint hints of white koji and sweet potato. But those are under an aroma I’ve never found in a shochu before. I smell grilled chicken – especially the distinctive sweet soy tare of yakitori. It’s nearly as light as the underlying sweet potato, but it’s there.
Flavor wise this is one of the lightest, sweetest sweet potato shochus I’ve found and it comes with a surprise in the middle – vanilla punches through midway through the sip before the mineral rich finish takes over.
The real surprise is that this shochu is not more popular. Among imo shochus this might be a hit with uninitiated shochu drinkers. Many people start off with the lighter barely shochus before venturing into the sweet potato varieties. They’re often put off by the overly strong flavors and aromas while something like Kuratake may help bridge that gap.
I can’t really say how you should enjoy Kuratake, but you should give it a try. It’d be a shame to have it disappear back to Japan like so many of their expats recently.