I arrived in Amami still jet lagged and confused on where to go. My phone wasn't working. I had no place to stay. No English translations to rely on. No idea which bus to catch (there are no trains in Amami).
I just spent 2 months in Amami-o-shima, an island off the coast of Kagoshima Prefecture in southern Japan. I went there to learn how to make kokuto, or black sugar, shochu. How did I get there? Well, that’s kind of a long story. Let me start at the beginning. In fact, before that.
Nakanaka is the main brand of barley shochu from the very well respected Kuroki Honten in Miyzaki, which makes a wide range of delicious shochu across two different distilleries, but under the same ownership. Their premium barley shochu, Hyakunen no Kodoku, a 40% ABV barrel aged barley shochu, is arguably the most famous barley shochu in Japan. Nakanaka takes a more straightforward approach with atmospheric distillation and 100% barley.
Unique to the US market, Shima Senryo is a blend of white koji and black koji sweet potato shochu. While this blending style can be found more commonly in Japan, this is the only brand currently in the US that uses this unique approach. Blending has an interesting, but incompletely understood history in shochu production, but more and more distilleries are blending intentionally rather than as a way to cover up some off batches.
Tantakatan is an easy drinking shochu with distinct shiso notes and aromas, though it also carries a bit of seaweed funk in the nose. It's not as strongly shiso-flavored as you get form a shiso-infused shochu (Uminoie in NYC makes it in-house if you're ever hoping to try).
As many of you know, the origin story of my shochu obsession began on a Tuesday night at Izakaya Ten (now Juban) back in 2008. As a result, "Shochu Tuesday" has always had a special place in my heart and for the past 2 1/2 years I've been a guest-bartender-in-residence at SakaMai on the Lower East Side. As for December 15, 2015 that tenure ended - and with a bang. We had more than 40 guests for the farewell Shochu Tuesday at SakaMai.