Japan is known for producing some of the most unique alcoholic drinks in the world. There’s a growing interest in nihonshu, shochu and awamori from a western audience, but that hasn’t stopped the Land of the Rising Sun from exploring western categories. This is evident in the rise of Japanese rum, with many sake breweries trying their hand at making the spirit.
The world of Japanese rum is one of experimentation and innovation. Here are four brands that are worth knowing about so you can add them to your bottle collection.
Rhum agricole isn’t isolated to Caribbean destinations like Martinique or Haiti. Japan has its own variety and one of the best is Santa Maria, a rhum that’s made by the Iejima brewery on Ie Island in Okinawa. The Iejima brewery has been producing awamori for years but they wanted to celebrate the heritage of Ie Island by using the local sugarcane to produce rhum.
Santa Maria is named after the white Easter lily that blooms on the island during spring, which has come to represent Saint Mary in the west. The rhum is soft and ephemeral, containing beautiful notes of banana, pineapple and cocoa.
These sweet flavours are balanced by an undercurrent of woodness, courtesy of the Nikka whisky barrels that the rhum has been aged in. Santa Maria is the perfect introductory Japanese rhum.
Another Okinawan rum brand that is making waves, Cor Cor is produced by the Grace Rum Company. The CEO, Yuko Kinjo, started the company after noting the similarities between the islands of the Caribbean and the islands of Okinawa. The shared history of sugarcane and sugar production inspired her to make a rum that celebrated her home.
Cor Cor sources its sugarcane from the Island of South Borodino, Minamidaito. Harvested just once a year, the sugarcane is used to make both molasses and agricole variations. The Cor Cor Green is a white agricole rhum bottled at 40% ABV, while Cor Cor Red is molasses-based and also bottled at 40% ABV.
Perhaps the best known Japanese rum producer, Nine Leaves is a rum powerhouse. Founded by Yoshiharu Takeuchi in 2013, the Nine Leaves distillery is located on Honshu Island in Shiga Prefecture. Takeuchi-san immediately made a name for himself with his unique production method, using kokuto (brown sugar) as a raw ingredient instead of molasses or sugarcane juice.
Nine Leaves rum usually goes through two distillation phases. After the kokuto is diluted in water, the fermentation mash is distilled for the first time in a copper still. A second distillation happens in another copper still and then the aromatic profile of the rums are defined.
The brand is also known for experimenting with the ageing process, as Takeuchi-san has used ex-Italian and ex-French wine barrels. Recommended bottles to try include Nine Leaves Almost Spring, Nine Leaves Encrypted and Nine Leaves Angel’s Half.
The Kikusui distillery of Niigata Prefecture has earned a reputation for producing some great sake over the years. So, when it started producing rum there was plenty to be excited about. Kikusui is the mastermind behind Ryoma 7-years, which is made from sugarcane that comes from the island of Shikoku.
The rum is meant to have a revolutionary edge to it, reflected in its name. Sakamoto Ryoma was a samurai and revolutionary active during the Meiji era, who worked to overthrow the Tokugawa shogunate. Considered to be an agricole rhum, Ryoma is aged for seven years in American oak barrels and bottled at 40% ABV.
For a deeper dive into Ryoma, check out The Lone Caner’s awesome review.