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.
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.
Kikaijima is a small island just north of Okinawa. This is as close as you can get to Awamori country without making Awamori. As such, Kikaijima Kurochu, or "Kikai Island Black Kiss" is an aged black sugar, black koji shochu with all of the rich characteristics you'd expect from the southern islands.
Jougo was my first introduction to “black sugar” shochu. Black sugar is a richer, darker Asian version of western brown sugar. It contains molasses and sugar cane. And it’s delicious. If you can find black sugar in your local Asian market, pick some up and experiment with it as a replacement for other sweeteners. Jougo is smooth, sweet, and rounded. It lacks the complexity of many other shochus, but it’s easy drinking. It’s not as sweet as you’d expect from something distilled from a sugar, which is probably due to the spring water added at the end of the distillation process.