The First M
I’m beginning my exploration of “The Thee M’s” with Maou. For those unfamiliar, the 3 M’s are the 3 most famous shochu brands in Japan. They are, Maou, Mori Izo, and Muraou, and I’m going to tackle them in this order.
I’m starting with Maou, because it was the one I was first drawn to. I had the good fortune of stumbling upon a shochu bar in Fukuoka, Otsu (乙), which I highly recommend if you ever find yourself in that amazing city. Otsu had all three available, and not at the exorbitant prices you’d find in Tokyo. A flight was ordered and I was particularly drawn to Maou, because it was so unlike any other shochu I’d ever tried. In fact, it changed my perception of what sweet potato shochu could be.
Let’s take a short step back. All 3 M’s are sweet potato shochus. Among shochu lovers in Japan, there is sweet potato and everything else is a distant second. I don’t necessarily agree with that. There are some amazingly delicious rice and barley shochus as well, which deserve their due. However, in Japan sweet potato rules. In fact, in the September 2013 “shochu issue” of the Japanese food and drink magazine Dancyu, the editors brought together 30 shochu experts from around Japan for a blind tasting and rating of shochu, but only sweet potato shochu was considered in the rankings. Since the tasting was blinded, the experts were not influenced by the brand’s reputation. Despite that, 2 of the 3 M’s finished in the top 10 of their respective classes. The only one that did not? Maou. The reasons for that are many, but I’ll get to that later.
Maou comes in a stunningly beautiful smoked green bottle. When the light hits it just right, the bottle appears to be glowing. The label is every bit as beautiful as any other shochu or sake label I’ve ever seen. A gold foil topper completes the elegant package.
Upon pouring Moau, the first thing you notice is the distinct lack of strong “imo smell” – that distinctive sweet potato scent is heavily muted. I suspect this is why it became so popular – many Japanese don’t like that funky aroma – and also why it failed in the blind taste test – shochu experts love that funk. Upon first sip two things become immediately apparent. First, it’s sweet, especially for a distilled spirit. Second, it has a long luscious finish. It was this combination of light nose, sweet flavor, and long finish that made it so unlike anything else I’d tried previously.
Now, I’ve probably tried close to 1,000 shochu since that first taste at Otsu several years ago, and my palate and preferences have evolved, so Maou no longer captivates me the way it once did, but it’s still really nice to drink and, wow, that bottle.
Coming soon(ish). The second and third Ms. Oh, and probably a 4th too. There’s another “M” shochu that is every bit as good as these three and deserves to be in the conversation. And it seems headed there too.