Brand: iichiko Kurobin
Distillery: Sanwa Shurui
Location: Usa & Hita, Oita Prefecture, Japan
Grain: barley (mugi)
Koji: white (shiro)
Alcohol: 25% (50 proof)
I am embarrassed to admit it has been 3 1/2 years since we posted a new shochu review on Kanpai! Christopher’s recent summer shochu piece had tasting notes, but quite abbreviated compared to our usual reviews. I can promise that you will not have to wait nearly that long for our next review, which is already in the works. You may notice some formatting changes to these reviews, and if you have any comments we would appreciate feedback.
We remain focused on prioritizing reviews of brands that are available overseas, particularly in English speaking countries. Therefore, you will likely see a few iichiko product reviews over the next few months since they have a wide portfolio available in overseas markets.
My personal favorite iichiko brand available in the US is iichiko Kurobin. Kurobin is literally translated as “black bottle,” which is a pretty on the nose description of this evocative packaging. It is simply too pretty to throw away after finishing.
More About iichiko
As with nearly all iichiko products, Kurobin is a blended 100% barley shochu. A common misconception of iichiko is that they are a “convenience store shochu.” This is due to the success of their iconic iichiko brand, which is available in nearly all of the estimated 50,000 Japanese convenience stores.
However, rather than thinking about iichiko as a discount shochu, I prefer to think of iichiko as “The Johnny Walker of shochu.” In short, they are master blenders. This concept ties in well with their own tagline, “Shitamachi no Napoleon” (下町のナポレオン), which implies “old neighborhood cognac” or a fine drink for the common people. This branding launched iichiko in 1979 and has carried them into every nook and cranny in Japan.
Not content to sit on their laurels as the largest shochu producer at the time, they began to export. Today iichiko silhouette is the largest export brand in the US market. As they expanded they began making more premium products, which is where iichiko Kurobin enters the conversation.
As with most iichiko products, Kurobin pours “water white” with no hint of color. Since a vast majority of the blend is tank aged barley shochu, there is no color imparted during the aging process as there would be if aged in wood or ceramics.
The funny thing with iichiko shochu is that they all share the same DNA. Sanwa Shurui makes more than 20 different 100% barley distillates between their headquarters in Usa City and their 2nd distillery in Hita (the location of their tasting room and tours). These various distillates are then blended to create the unique flavors and aromas distinct to each brand.
If you blind taste me on a Sanwa Shurui product I am very likely able to say “this is from Sanwa, but I have no idea which brand it is.” The DNA is distinctive, but the differences are so subtle it is hard to identify brands unless you taste them side by side.
For Kurobin, the nose is all ripe banana and milk chocolate. A little fresh aroma of green leaves lies underneath thanks to the vacuum distillation and 100% barley fermentation.
I start with it straight, an uncommon way to drink shochu for enjoyment, but how I continue to start all of my reviews. There is a round sweetness of almost buttered caramel – perhaps butterscotch – with a medium-long finish. Despite being only 25% alcohol it stays on the palate for a little while.
On the rocks brings out more of the bitterness of the barley and shortens the finish, but is still imminently drinkable. Soda is where is really shines for me with a flavor of early harvest strawberries, or perhaps the flavor you might expect from a tropical fruit you’ve never tried before. You can also drink this with hot water (oyuwari), which is where the banana flavor will come through very clearly.
The Verdict: Exceptional
The striking bottle notwithstanding, iichiko Kurobin is a fantastic drink in its own right. This has long been my favorite iichiko product in the US and revisiting it has not changed my mind. In fact, it has reconfirmed that if I am in the mood for a light, fruity barley shochu, this is the bottle I reach for. Confession: the photographed bottle was empty and repurposed long before I found time to sit down and write this review.