Christopher Pellegrini is my go-to expert on shochu. He’s lived in Japan for 20 years, has written a book about the spirit, and recently started a company, Honkaku Spirits, to export the stuff to the U.S. As Pellegrini noted during a recent, lively Zoom tasting from Japan, where we tasted 8 of his company’s products, he noted that there is more shochu made in Japan every year than there is tequila made in Mexico — and while more than 60% of tequila is exported, less than 0.1% of shochu is.
Pellegrini wants to change that — though given the tiny production of distilleries in this country, it’s slow going. It starts, of course, with education. Unlike most spirits, 53 base ingredients can be used to make shochu, which is always single pot distilled and is generally bottled at just 50 to 60 proof, ensuring that the distinct character of the base mash invariably makes it through to the bottle — and gives every shochu a unique flavor.
One of the other key distinctions around shochu production is the use of koji mold to break down the raw materials’ starch into sugar — shochu isn’t malted the way a whiskey mash is — and which as you can imagine has a massive influence on the finished product. There are three different types of koji, a few of which we’ll dip into below.
In the tasting, we sampled eight of Honkaku’s products — four of which we’ve seen in the past (these are indicated with an asterisk; longer reviews for these products can be found here). With that as preface, notes on everything tasted follow.
*Honkaku Spirits Selephant Shochu (Nishihira Distillery) – Distilled from kokuto sugar. Very soft and sweet, touched with bubblegum and a gentle earthiness. Melon is clear on the finish. 60 proof. B+ / $60
*Honkaku Spirits Kana Shochu (Nishihira Distillery) – Distilled from kokuto sugar, aged in oak for at least one year, so it has a very light yellow color. Its sharpness is mellowed interestingly (diverging from my tasting notes from the summer), with some vanilla emerging in the mix, sweetening up the finish just a bit and giving it a lightly milky character. 60 proof. B+ / $68
Honkaku Spirits Jikuya Black Shochu (Jikuya Distillery) – Distilled from black koji and sweet potato. Interesting, quite earthy, with a soy sauce note and a peppery quality that builds with time in glass. Sweet on the finish, with, indeed, hints of sweet potato plus cloves late in the game. Mushroom notes pair nicely with the fruit that builds along the way. 50 proof. A- / $46
Honkaku Spirits Jikuya White Shochu (Jikuya Distillery) – Distilled from white koji and sweet potato. A bit lighter and a lot more floral, offering touches of coconut and white flowers mixed in with a mushroom and earthy note. There’s generally a little bit less to delve into here than in the Black, but it feels more suitable for mixing. The finish sees orange flowers and some sesame mixing with the earthier character. 50 proof. A- / $46
*Honkaku Spirits Colorful Shochu (Shoro Distillery) – A blend of two sweet potato distillates, one grown in 2016, one in 2019, made with a Thai rice starter. Wildly fruity on the nose — almost like bubblegum — then mushroom and yam notes on the palate. Much less savory than I remembered, with notes of tea leaf, white pepper, and bay leaf all making an appearance amidst a lingering body of peaches and sweetened grains. Muddled, but fun. 60 proof. B / $55
Honkaku Spirits Mugi Hokka Shochu (Tensei Distillery) – Distilled from dark roasted barley. Pungent and pushy, like overcooked sesame seeds and burnt toast. This has the distinct expression of a new-make whiskey, albeit watered down. Very funky and mushroomy on the finish, with notes of bubblegum adding a saccharine quality. Not my fave. 50 proof. B- / $35
*Honkaku Spirits Motoko Shochu (Furusawa Distillery) – Distilled from white koji and long grain rice, aged 8-plus years (actually 10, due to label printing delays) in ceramic and neutral tanks. This is a pretty good introduction to shochu on the whole, fairly gentle in comparison to the field, without a whole lot of funk — or nuance. The mild bite driven by the relatively high abv evokes a white whiskey or cachaca comparison, with umami-driven mushroom lingering on the finish. Fairly neutral on the whole; I like this better now than last time around. 70 proof. B+ / $49
Honkaku Spirits Yokka Koji Awamori (Chuko Distillery) – Distilled from Thai rice koji. Awamori is a spirit that predates shochu and can only be made from 100% rice which is kojified (and only with black koji) — making it unique, as most shochu is only partly kojified. A double-length koji propagation and a 43% abv make this especially unique — and you’ll notice it right away. Unlike soft shochu, this immediately hits sharply, offering a very mild nose that hints at lemon and green grass, then fades away. More than anything else on this list, Yokka Koji could be readily mistaken for a vodka, with its bright, lemon-dusted palate and approachable, lightly earthy finish. Definitely my favorite in this collection. 86 proof. A- / $45