When it comes to diverse spirits, rum deserves to be at the forefront of the conversation. The range of flavour profiles is incredible and this diversity can provide a gateway into spirits that have similar qualities but are unique in their own right. An example of this is kokuto shochu, a Japanese spirit that’s perfect for rum lovers.
What is shochu?
Shochu is Japan’s national spirit, distilled from a dizzying array of ingredients, which include sweet potato, barley, sesame seed, rice, buckwheat and more. As you can imagine, this range of base components create some truly phenomenal flavours that electrify the taste buds.
There are three main categories of shochu: honkaku, korui and konwa. Honkaku is single-distilled/authentic shochu and the stuff that should be on the top shelf of any liquor store. Korui is a multi-distilled drink that’s blended with other ingredients like grapefruit and make for decent cocktails. Konwa is a mixture of honkaku and korui, great for people who like both.
Kokuto: The superstar sugar
Kokuto is a high-quality, healthy sugar common in Japanese cooking. It contains a large amount of iron, potassium and calcium, which is thought to help to lower cholesterol and reduce stress. It’s also one of the most popular ingredients used to make shochu and this superstar sugar is key to understanding the differences between kokuto shochu and rum.
Often translated to black or brown sugar in English, these translations don’t do kokuto the justice it deserves for how versatile it is as a food source and alcohol primer. The literal translation of kokuto is black sugar, which is misleading because kokuto has a brown colour. On the other hand, referring to kokuto as brown sugar gives it connotations of low-grade baking powder, so it’s important to understand how it’s sourced.
Kokuto comes from a type of sugarcane called Saccharum officinarum, a robust varietal that originates in Okinawa Prefecture and the Amami Islands. The subtropical climates of both regions are ideal for the growth of Saccharum officinarum and the sugarcane is harvested by hand with a sickle.
Shochu expert Chris Pellegrini has written an in-depth article about how kokuto is produced. According to him, it’s a labour-intensive process that takes up to 18 months, as the sugarcane needs to fully mature, be hacked, pruned and checked. The sugarcane is delivered to a kokuto factory, where it’s crushed, and the cane juice is simmered in a collection of pots. Then, the cane juice is boiled in vats, with the temperature gradually increasing. The vats are usually opened so the juice can flow into a new container.
At the end of this process, the cane juice has taken on a dark colour and looks like melted chocolate. Before the mixture hardens and cools it’s poured into a mould, solidifying. The hardened kokuto gives off grassy, mineral notes that’s similar to the profile of rhum agricole.
Creating kokuto shochu
Kokuto shochu comes with a Geographical Indication (GI), much like Martinique rhum agricole does. It must be produced in the Amami Islands and be fermented with koji mould to be considered honkaku shochu. This is a key difference for setting kokuto shochu and rum apart, as koji is essential to the production process.
As kokuto is rich in molasses, it’s usually added to the second shochu fermentation. Slabs of the stuff arrive at distilleries, which is then melted in vats of hot water. The kokuto is then added to the fermentation once it’s been cooled.
Kokuto shochu vs rum quickfire comparison
- Shochu is a low ABV spirit that ranges between 25% – 45%. The ABV of rum can be much higher.
- Kokuto shochu is produced from a high-quality kind of sugar that is on the same level of rum sugarcane varietals like demerara and muscovado.
- Kokuto shochu requires koji to be used in the production process, while rum doesn’t.
- Kokuto shochu has similar tasting notes to rum, which ranges from molasses and treacle, to vegetables and minerals.
With punchy flavours and a low ABV percentage, kokuto shochu is an ideal drink for rum aficionados that are looking for something different. It’s a highly accessible style of shochu that can open the floodgates into the category, leading you down a brand-new rabbit hole.
Interested in trying kokuto shochu? Check out this review of the Tatsugo Gold and see if it’s the kind of drink for you.