Unraveling a few mysteries about Shochu!

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Hello everyone! Max here enjoying the spring, nature and… whaaat?! A new look to the blog??? And a new name?? Well, I decided to upgrade the blog a bit and with that came an actual domain name. I feel very special! To be honest I spent quite a few sleepless nights desperately trying to come up with a name that would reflect the contents of the blog and at some point, I’m pretty sure I had a panic attack.
For me, the unrivaled upside of living in the countryside is the possibility to live close to nature, enjoy relaxation, human connection and doing mostly nothing at all when I have the chance. In other words, enjoying a slower pace of life. Thus, the name I settled for is, as you can see, “My Slow Living”! I hope you like it as much as I do! 🙂

Anyway, let’s move on to the theme of this post! The Japanese liquor called Shochu, and what makes it different from what we in the West know as “Sake”. IMG_9952.JPG
What we see in this picture is 3 bottles of Shochu. A word that most people outside of Japan and Asia have little familiarity with. Most people in the West would see these bottles and think “aaah Japanese Sake”! Which, in a strange way, is correct while also being dead wrong. In Japan, the word “sake” literally means alcohol and can be used to indicate wine, beer, whiskey, or any form of alcoholic beverage. What the western people call Sake is known as “Nihonshu” which translates to Japanese liquor, but let’s keep calling it Sake because it’s easier! So what is the difference?

(Shochu trivia nr 1. Shochu is actually the most consumed alcohol in Japan after beer!)

スクリーンショット 2019-06-02 20.22.52.pngSake is made fermentation which is achieved by adding koji (a form of rice mold) and yeast to rice. Shochu initially follows a similar process but there is one major difference. In the same way as whiskey and many other stronger liquors, Shochu also goes through distillation. In other words, you boil the liquid to separate alcohol and water, then the alcoholic vapors are cooled back into a liquid form which results in liquor with a higher alcohol percentage. Another major difference is that Shochu doesn’t only use rice as its raw material but is often made from sweet potatoes, barley, and other ingredients. (Picture source)

I might sound really knowledgable with all these information bombs and fancy words I keep dropping but to be honest, it is all new to me as well! Until recently I thought Shochu and Sake were made the same way but Shochu was from China and Sake from Japan (Yes, you can laugh). So how come this sudden interest? Well…
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Shochu is mostly made in the south part of Japan known as Kyushu. In Kumamoto where I live there is an area known as Hitoyoshi Kuma which is known for its clean and clear water. For this reason, many makers of Shochu have gathered there to utilize the natural environment in their strife toward the best Shochu. This has led to an acknowledged brand of Shochu that uses rice as raw material and is called Kuma-shochu (pronounced kuma-jochu) has emerged.
In this town, at a small Shochu factory called Jufuku is where my interest in Shochu shot straight through the roof. (They are the producer of the middle bottle in the picture above which is called Musha-gaeshi. It is my unrivaled favorite and the Shochu that stole my heart! <3)

The series of events that led me to this factory started with the making of this Kumamoto promotion video.

The team that did the shooting for this video consisted of me and 3 other members. I was mostly there to carry the tripod and provide Viking-power in desperate times though! We arrived in Hitoyoshi Kuma in hope to find a Shochu factory that would participate in the production. And there was one name that kept coming up wherever we asked… Jufuku distillery!
You can see Jufuku distillery at 1:22!

(Shochu trivia nr 2. There is 3.5 times more Shochu produced in Japan than there is Tequila in Mexico!)

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Here we have the facade of Jufuku distillery (From here on Jufuku)! Established in 1890 this small distillery is a strict family business that can boast with a history of almost 130 years!

As we entered the first person we met was the proud owner and representative of Jufuku… Kinuko-san!
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This is me and Kinuko-san (and Gon-san with the bottle in the back!) at an event last weekend (I’ll get back to that so don’t worry!). Kinuko-san is one of the most impressive persons I have met. She took over the business and have been running Jufuku and making top-quality Shochu in an era where many women would be criticized and looked down upon for such an endeavor. She has had to handle everything from prejudice to Japanese mafia suddenly bursting into the shop, all while also running a business and being a parent. And what remains at the end of the day is an incredibly warm, cool, funny and wise woman that I respect deeply! Seriously, someone needs to write a book about this woman’s life!!

There is another thing that is special about the Shochu made at Jufuku.IMG_6855
At Jufuku they are very passionate about making everything by hand. The work of preparing and processing the raw material (rice) requires a loooooot of physical labor and many distilleries have thus introduced machines that make the process easier enabling larger batches of Shochu to be made. This is not an option at Jufuku and since they are only two people actually making Shochu at the moment the amount of bottles that can be produced is therefore also limited.

Oh, it seems like I have forgotten to introduce an important player at Jufuku!LRG_DSC01343
Meet Ryota-san! Kinuko-san’s son, the current master brewer at Jufuku, and the living example that making Shochu requires a looooot of strength! (But according to rumor, his bulking body is more a result of regular visits to the gym than the distillery!)

(Shochu trivia nr 3. Historically Shochu was a form of Japanese moonshine with no real aspiration to sell on a broader scale.)

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Even though it was the first time we visited Jufuku, Kinuko-san asked Ryota-san to show us around the distillery. As we listened to Ryota-san talk, his love for Shochu literally beamed out of him and I doubt that anyone can come in contact with his strong passion and not come out on the other side as anything but a dedicated Shochu-lover. 

 

 

 

At Jufuku they don’t only refuse to use machines that would simplify the process out of some old Japanese stubbornness or samurai code of honor or anything like that. It comes from a pure ambition to pour love and respect into every single grain of rice that is used to produce their Shochu.


Every single step of the process is done by hand which makes every single bottle produced into a fine work of art that represents the skill, preference, and emotion of Jufuku distillery.

(Shochu trivia nr 4. The alcohol percentage of Shochu is often around 25% but can go as high as 40% and taste almost like Whiskey.) 


By the way! As you can see, this is not Kinuko-san to the left! Since age makes it tough to keep doing the hard manual labor of brewing Shochu, Ryouta-san’s cousin is now helping out instead. Thanks to him we can keep enjoying wonderful Musha-gaeshi without wearing out Kinuko-san’s body!

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I can still remember clearly how Ryota-san told us how they don’t see the making of Shochu as a simple process of creating a product. At Jufuku they see it as parenting. The mold and yeast used to make alcohol are living beings. Once the fermentation-process begins you can choose to leave it alone and not care for it and as long as it survives the result will be an alcoholic beverage. But it won’t live up to its inherent potential and grow to be the best Shochu it could’ve been. That is why Ryota-san’s job is to provide a good nurturing environment that enables the Shochu to grow and mature into a fine high-quality Japanese Shochu.

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But as many of you know, parenting is hard work! During the brewing process, Ryota-san lives at the factory for half a year, wakes up during the night to control temperatures, wakes up early in the morning regardless of the cold winter season, has no days off, and keeps pouring his utmost into Jufuku and Musha-gaeshi and Japanese Shochu. And the result? Well, you just have to make sure to taste it for yourself! But I can promise you this much, you won’t be disappointed!

There is a lot that could be said on the process of making Shochu but I am no expert so if you want more details you should check out the link I referenced for the sake vs. shochu-picture earlier!

My first visit to Jufuku distillery also led me to another important encounter!
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At the time I still lived in Kumamoto city. When Kinuko-san heard this she quickly recommended the Izakaya concurrently Yakitori restaurant concurrently Shochu bar, Kaminari Sakaba. Which also happened to be so close to where I lived that I could almost place an order while keeping one foot still in the apartment. At least if I shouted… definitely if I called! (Borrowing the picture from the official website!)

Anyhow! Of course, I had to pay a visit! Which led to me getting so hooked that I kept going 1-2 times a week during my time in Kumamoto city.IMG_9841
Here we have Yabe-san! The proud owner and master of Kaminari Sakaba. If Ryota-san is the Luke Skywalker and Kinuko-san is the Ben Kenobi of Shochu, than Yabe-san is none other than Master Yoda himself. He previously lived in Kagoshima working as a brewing master, he has now retired from the front-lines and opened up his small Izakaya in the backstreets of Kumamoto, he doesn’t wag his tail at big business and mainly promotes small Shochu factories that he himself has visited and acknowledged. He is funny, caring, knowledgable and teaches you a lot of things. Oh, and prominent people in the Shochu industry travel from afar to seek his wisdom! I’m telling you, apart from the green skin and ears, this is as close you get to a real-life Master Yoda.

Oh, and he has one skill that Yoda could only dream of…IMG_8037
He makes some of the best Yakitori I have ever tasted!!! ❤ ❤ ❤ And the seasoning goes perfect with Shochu! Just the thought of it brings tears to my eyes… Seriously, I’m crying right now…

So! Finally back to the reason that I decided to write this post now…IMG_9859
Last weekend (26/5) was seriously like a dream come true, the ultimate collaboration, the best of the best, Jufuku distillery x Kaminari Sakaba-event! Without the slightest hesitation, I jumped into my fateful little cube-shaped car and burned down the mountain into the big city! Actually for the first time (non-work related at least) since moving to Minamioguni.
And what can I say, I had high expectations but I was not disappointed in the least. Best night in a long time! Surrounded by amazing people I know like Kinuko-san and Ryota-san! And of course Yabe-san!

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I also met new friends like Gon-san here who is a friend of both Jufuku and Yabe-san. She is also a passionate lover of Shochu and works as a writer… Guess what she writes about! …? SHOCHU!!! 😀 Gon-san is so friendly and open, and more than anything, extremely knowledgable about Shochu! I would give a lot to be able to just have a single percent of all her Shochu-wisdom.

Another friend stopped by for a visit as well! We didn’t take any picture at the event so I’ll go ahead and link his Instagram instead.

Kenji-san, or Juri as he is also called, is a skateboarder who also participated in the promotion video we made for Kumamoto (street version). The picture I chose from Instagram is from the actual recording and on the next picture in his instagram-post you can even see our little film crew of four.
Kenji-san is yet another person I respect a lot! It is rare to find a person so loved by a city. When you walk around in Kumamoto with Kenji-san people keep calling out to him wherever you go. And not in the oh-look-a-celebrity-way, but in a familiar and loving way that displays true connection. So I was super happy that he decided to show up and look forward to the next time!

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Anyway, I had a truly amazing night and I’m glad that it gave me an opportunity to write a bit about Shochu, Jufuku distillery and Kaminari Sakaba! Because all of the people I have mentioned in this post are people I truly respect who have had a positive impact on my life. Sometimes life truly feels like a weird chain of coincidences and when you trace back the steps that were required for you to meet someone, it soon becomes obvious how little would have needed to change for the two of you to pass each other by in life and never meet at all. That is why I feel so blessed to have gotten to know these people and privileged to call them my friends, even if they are new friends!

Thanks for everything and I hope to see you soon again! You are always welcome to visit here in Minamioguni as well!

Finally, let’s end this post with my beloved Musha Gaeshi-apron that I proudly have displayed on my wall at home!
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(Shochu trivia nr 5. Most Shochu is very low on calorie which makes it a good choice if you are worried about that belly! Shochu is also said to have health-benefits in proper amounts! So what are you waiting for?! Start drinking Shochu!!!)

Sincerely,

Max

 

3 thoughts on “Unraveling a few mysteries about Shochu!

  1. Nice re-design and great name! However Im not totally convinced about the background with all the logs. Makes it a bit messy, but mabe its just something to get used to. Hugs!

    Like

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