Rum in Japan, by more than one name…

Originally posted 16 July 2012

I was enjoying a meal in a small Japanese restaurant yesterday evening and decided to try shochu, the Japanese distilled liquor, rather than sake. I observed that along with shochu made from yams, barley, sweet potatoes, and other raw materials, there were some made with sugar cane and muscovado sugar. The one made from muscovado sugar had a pleasant light peppery taste, while the one made from cane resembled a typical cachaca. This is the label from the Jougo, made from muscovado sugar.

Jougo1The experience piqued my interest and I started researching Japanese rum, which has a longer history than I expected. Sugar grows well on the Ryuku and Ogasawara islands, which are about a thousand kilometers south of Tokyo, and the plant has been cultivated there since sometime before 1860. Rice-based alcohols were traditional in the region, but by the 1920’s mixes of sugar and rice were used to make a distinctive drink called Kokuto. By 1940 true rums were made, albeit in small quantities, and distilling continues today. Even when these drinks are made primarily or entirely with sugar or molasses, most are classified as shochu for tax reasons; foreign drinks like rum have a much higher rate than traditional alcohols like shochu. Only certain islands may claim this exemption, so Jougo, which is made from in the Ryuku Islands, is classified as a shochu despite being made almost completely from cane juice, while Ogasawara, a molasses rum from a nearby island chain, is sold as rum and is much more expensive.

Thanks to everyone who showed up at my recent events – I enjoyed meeting many of you at Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco, at the meeting of the Culinary Historians of Northern California, and at the various other places where Bay Area fans of rum history congregate.