Dining is one of the most essential pleasures of travel. And what makes a meal truly stand out are the drinks that accompany it. When you come to Kumamoto, there is one drink that you must try. It’s Kuma Shochu. Rich in flavor when enjoyed straight, mellow when mixed with water, refreshing when mixed with soda, and aromatic when mixed with hot water. So let’s dig deeper into the charms of Kuma Shochu.
The world is filled with many different types of alcoholic beverages. But did you know that some names such as Champagne, Bordeaux, Scotch, and Cognac, are exclusively permitted to bear their place of origin? Known as Protected Designations of Origin (PDO), such names are designated in each country by the European Designation of Origin system and the framework based on the WTO’s TRIPS Agreement. This is because only products with outstanding features deriving from a specific geographical environment or climate can be named after their place of production. This enables the protection of products through differentiation and high added value. In fact, Kuma Shochu is one such alcoholic beverage permitted to use a place name as a PDO.
The Kuma River flows through the southern part of Kumamoto Prefecture. This distilled alcoholic drink is made using exclusively water from the Kuma River system in the Hitoyoshi Kuma area that extends around it. It’s one of only four in Japan with a recognized PDO. Currently, only 27 distilleries in the Hitoyoshi Kuma area are permitted to use the name Kuma Shochu.
Kuma Shochu boasts an astonishingly wide range of flavors and characteristics, depending on the brewery and the label. The general perception in Japan on Shochu is that it the aroma and peculiarities become stronger in the order of rice to barley to sweet potato. People who have this perception are always surprised when they compare varieties of Kuma Shochu. Many varieties of rice shochu have a typically light, refreshing flavor. Conversely, others have the stronger aroma and distinctive flavor that many people usually associate with sweet potato shochu. Between these extremes, there is a rich variety of labels with truly diverse flavors. It’s no exaggeration to say that this diversity of flavor is the greatest of Kuma Shochu.
So where does such a wide range of flavor come from? As mentioned, there are 27 distilleries in the Hitoyoshi Kuma area, together producing over 200 varieties of Kuma Shochu. The features of each brewery vary greatly: some have modernized their facilities to efficiently produce rice shochu with a more contemporary flavor, while others continue to follow the traditional route. Some distilleries are large enterprises with numerous employees, while others are small, family-run operated. In all of these distilleries, successive generations of master distillers have pursued their own tastes and worked tirelessly to create the very best rice shochu available. These differences in approach are behind the amazing diversity of flavor found in Kuma Shochu today. (Rice shochu is usually prepared from November to May. At one brewery that insists on making shochu by hand, the master distillers stays overnight at the brewery during this period of six months. Repeating the processes from early morning preparation to midnight inspection every day, without taking a break. Understanding that the master distillers steam, cool, and culture several hundred kilograms of rice every morning, you can see that making rice shochu requires not only physical power, but also a dauntless spirit.)
If this story has sparked your interest in Kuma Shochu, we encourage you not only to try it, but also to visit the Hitoyoshi Kuma area. Enjoy the tranquil climate that has nurtured the wonderful culture of Kuma Shochu. Pehaps visit one of the many distilleries and buy sake directly from the manufacturer, or even take the tour offered by some distilleries. If you are lucky, you may be able to hear about the process of making rice shochu from a master distiller in person. Experiencing the ambience of the brewery, the passion the master distillers have for rice shochu, and learning the background of each brewery are sure to make your time in Kumamoto even richer and more satisfying.