Humid evenings wearing a jinbei or yukata, fireworks over the water, and being reminded once again that old-school strawberry kakigori doesn’t taste much like strawberries at all. These are the indelible hallmarks of summer for many. But I am happy to propose a new addition, Japan’s summer shochu and awamori category.
Semi-officially known as natsu (summer) shochu, the seasonal sub-category is an industry newcomer, interfacing smoothly with the trend toward carbonated drinks such as chuhai and highballs. Summer versions of various sweet potato shochu brands have been joined on the market by rice, barley, kokuto, and awamori (also made with rice) to name a few.
“It’s a light and unassuming style that has become popular recently,” explains Reina Mori, owner-chef of Yokaban 017, a shochu izakaya in Kagoshima City. “It’s a style that matches the season and quenches your thirst.”
Blue shochu bottles everywhere
Kagoshima Prefecture is home to more than 100 active shochu distilleries–the most per capita on the planet–and a majority of the new natsu shochu brands hail from there. By default, a great many of these products are sweet potato shochu, Kagoshima’s pride and joy.
The style is relatively easy to identify, even for kanji-challenged drinkers. Although the penguin-themed bottle featured below is an outlier, look for summery motifs such as dragonflies and paper fans, fireworks and coconut trees. As seasonal products, they are often displayed separately from year-round shochu brands, and there’s no missing those pretty blue bottles. While the glass color is neither required nor exclusive to this relatively recent (and growing) wave of summer brands, there is a clear and satisfying synergy between the hue of a sunny sky and light, easy-sipping shochu.
Alcohol proof is another commonality. As weather apps warn of heatstroke, many folks reach for something more refreshing. With that flavor profile in mind, you’ll find that most summer shochu are bottled at around 40 proof. Poured over ice, dilution quickly reveals an ABV that’s in the neighborhood as wine and sake. Light on the attack, these spirits are still fragrant, even on ice.
Kozue Miyahara, a licensed Shochu Meister who is also the most recently crowned Miss Satsuma Shochu, recommends club soda, but only a little bit.
“Choisoda is nice. Maybe 80% shochu and 20% sparkling,” she said. ‘Choi’ is a casual way to refer to a small amount of something and is a riff on ‘choimizu,’ a more common way to serve shochu where only a little water (mizu) is added to the shochu along with ice.
After adding some summer shochu to my collection, I figured I’d take a few of these summer shochu for a test drive. Now, a quick disclaimer. Two actually. First, although I’m not opposed to it, I don’t normally drink shochu on the rocks or with carbonation. And second, a couple of the bottles (Chingu and Mannen) are from one of my spending sprees last year, so they’re not members of the 2020 vintage. The sunflower bottle from Komasa, on the other hand, was delivered to my apartment last week.
Natsu Jojo Chingu (19% ABV)
Brand: 夏上々ちんぐ (Natsu Jojo Chingu)
Distillery: Omoya Shuzo
Location: Nagasaki Prefecture (Iki Island)
Main Ingredient: Nishinohoshi Barley (2-row) harvested on Iki Island
Koji: Rice (Koshihikari)
Notes: Fruity aroma (green melon and strawberry) with sake lees highlights
Natsu Shochu Himeayaka (20% ABV)
Brand: 夏焼酎ひめあやか (Natsu Shochu Himeayaka)
Distillery: Komasa Jozo
Location: Kagoshima Prefecture
Main Ingredient: Sweet Potato (Himeayaka)
Koji: Rice (black koji)
Serving: Rocks, club soda, oyuwari
Notes: Balanced sweetness and earthiness with hard candy accents
Natsu no Mannen (20% ABV)
Brand: 夏のまんねん (Natsu no Mannen)
Distillery: Watanabe Shuzojo
Location: Miyazaki Prefecture
Main Ingredient: Sweet Potato (Daichi no Yume)
Koji: Rice (black koji)
Serving: Rocks, chilled, club soda
Notes: Steamed sweet potatoes with notes of cinnamon and baked bread
I’m normally an oyuwari drinker, even in the summer (someday you’ll understand), but I found all three of these shochu delicious. I like how they maintain some of their bouquet even when ice is added to the equation. I also like their experimental nature. For instance, himeayaka sweet potatoes like the ones used in Komasa Jozo’s sunflower-themed blue bottle are relatively fresh on the industry scene.
“Because they’re often bottled at around 20% ABV, I’d put the bottle and glass in the refrigerator. Then you can make a sodawari (highball) with no ice and avoid losing the carbonation to ice melt,” recommended Mori. Indeed, the back label of the Chingu barley shochu above recommends chilling the bottle and serving in a wine glass to go alongside a meal.
Mori also said that while she doesn’t have the fridge space at her cozy izakaya to chill shochu glasses, she stirs ice in a glass for a minute or two as a workaround. If you’re looking to try some Natsu no Komaki, one of the few summer shochu that is bottled at the standard Kagoshima shochu proof of 50, then Yokaban 017 is certainly a great place to do it. 017 is pronounced Reina, by the way.
Which brings me to the point that many readers are undoubtedly thinking–is natsu shochu available outside Japan? Not yet. And unless you can get here by the end of August, it will mostly be sold out (just in time for shinshu season). But never fear, the blue bottles will be back again next year, right in time for fireworks, the beach, and shochu spritzers.