Had I known it was the last time I’d be sleeping in a bed for the next 10 weeks, I would have enjoyed the moment more. I found myself at 5 a.m. wide awake staring at the ceiling in my small hotel room in Amami City. It still hadn’t hit me how much different Amami is than the Japanese mainland.
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.
Hoppy Beverage Company, which only recently began selling in the New York market, recently hosted their 2,500th radio show (as a post-war phenomenon a radio show was a natural form of advertising) at SakaMai in the Lower East Side. At this invite-only private party an ice flume was used to pour Hoppy’s sweet potato beer (not yet available in the US market) and the hundreds of guests enjoyed Hoppy, a rokugo performance (traditional Japanese “stand-up” comedy performed in kimono kneeling on a cushion), and live music.
Like other kokuto shochus, Amami lacks the distinct scents of some other styles of shochu, but a delicate scent of molasses does appear with patience. Overt molasses flavors hit the palate immediately, though this is better described as a black sugar flavor. The full richness of the black sugar is present before the sweetness invades followed by an unexpected dryness, likely thanks to the mineral rich aquifer in the Amami islands.