When Japan hosted its first Summer Olympic Games in 1964, saké was served freely on opening day as part of a festive ceremony known as kagami biraki. This ancient tradition, which dates to the 17th century, is an integral part of Japanese culture, taking place at celebrations throughout the year.
Japan has since played host to two Winter Olympics—1972 in Sapporo and 1998 in Nagano, where saké and shochu were the drinks of choice—but it will make history this year as the only Asian nation to host a second Summer Games. Because Americans won’t be able to attend in person, they’ll be seeking ways to experience the tournament from afar—and, surely, raising their own toasts to the occasion.
In fact, they already are. According to a market research report from Kalsec, a leading producer of natural spice and herb flavor extracts, pandemic travel restrictions are fueling dining and drinking trends that emphasize cultural authenticity.
Interest in Japanese cuisine in particular is growing; take, for example, the newfound popularity of “sandos,” or katsu sandwiches, and sudachi, a Japanese citrus fruit from Tokushima Prefecture that’s being touted as the new yuzu.
As these foods grow in recognition, saké and shochu are also gaining traction
in the U.S. market—and for consumers who are increasingly drawn to the
stories behind the products they purchase, iichiko, Japan’s most popular shochu brand, has what they’re looking for in spades.
The Spirit of Umami
While saké is a fixture at all of life’s important moments in Japan, the similarly lengthy history and traditions of shochu have made it the nation’s distilled spirit of choice—and iichiko its most notable producer.
With a name that translates as “it’s good,” iichiko conveys a level of complexity that few white spirits can rival thanks to its barley base and koji backbone. It’s distilled on the island of Kyushu in O¯ita Prefecture, but because the area lacks the cold winters that were once so essential to fermentation, shochu became the key alcoholic beverage, as warmer weather wasn’t a factor in the distillation process.
That said, the two-row barley used to produce iichiko is treated very similarly to saké rice in that it’s polished, steeped, and steamed in soft, iron-free water, preparing it for the addition of barley koji. The koji initiates the fermentation process, releasing the rich flavor of the grain and creating citric acid, which protects the shochu from bacteria that causes spoilage.
To produce its two expressions, iichiko uses a mix of low- and high-pressure distillation techniques at different temperatures, resulting in raw shochus with different characteristics. These are then blended to create Silhouette—which, at 25% ABV, offers notes of melon, grapefruit, and herbs with a smooth, elegant flavor profile and nutty finish—and Saiten, a 43% ABV shochu that shows aromas of honeydew melon, white grape, pickled watermelon rind, Kabosu citrus, and umami notes of soy and barley as well as flavors of jasmine tea, white peach, minerals, and earth.
Saiten was developed specifically for mixology, while Silhouette is frequently
mixed with oolong or matcha tea, showcased in a classic Highball with soda or fruit juice, or served on the rocks. Together, they reinforce shochu’s undeniable versatility.
As an ambassador of Japanese culture, iichiko has a unique story to tell. From its heritage grains and traditional production methods to its affinity for pairing with umami-rich foods, iichiko is a metaphor for Japan itself: a place where the enduring past sets the stage for the future.