Distillery: Sake One (Oregon, USA)
Grain: North American barley (mugi)
Koji: white (shiro)
Distillation: low pressure (genatsu)
Alcohol: 24% (48 proof)
Tombo is the only honkaku (single distilled) shochu I know of that is not produced in Japan. It’s also the only honkaku shochu, to my knowledge, made with North American barley. At $14.99 at my local liquor store no other honkaku shochu comes close to the price point. Don’t let the nontraditional location or grain put you off. This is an authentic shochu.
The decision to distill in Vietnam was precisely because they were hoping to achieve a low export price. Building a state of the art distillation facility capable of large volumes is much more affordable in Vietnam than in rural Japan. Likewise, the choice of using American barley was made between the distiller and the exclusive U.S. distributor, Sake One of Oregon.
A grainy nose offers a fresh scent – almost as if you can smell the raw barley sitting in a storeroom. The first touch to the tongue hints at a honeyed cinnamon, giving way to a buttery mouthfeel. This is vaguely reminiscent of an Awamori, though without the overwhelming nose.
The Verdict: Worth Drinking
Admittedly, given the low price point and Vietnam origins, I had modest expectations when I first spied Tombo in a liquor store. Upon first reflection my skepticism held, but I put the bottle aside for a while. Coming back with a fresh eye (& nose & mouth), I discovered the complexity the lies beneath this bargain shochu.
Tombo is the essence of globalization come to shochu production. While purists may balk, the spirit should be judged on its merits rather than its origins. If I want to drink a premium mugi shochu, this clearly would not be my choice, but if I was looking for an affordable, full flavored mugi, I can’t think of anything better. Others seem to agree. In an informal poll of New Yorkers trying various shochus at the recent shochu tasting contest, Tombo was often cited as their favorite.
Photo courtesy of Sake One.