RICE GRAIN DISTILLED SPIRITS
If you are a connoisseur of whiskey and a big fan of rice, then you are in for a treat. Whiskies distilled from rice are relatively new to the scene, even in Asia. Here in America a handful of Japanese rice whisky expressions have already made their mark, changing the hearts, minds and palettes of devoted and traditional whiskey-heads.
Do rice grains make a good base for whiskey spirits? Depends on who you ask. There are some strong opinions out there, some held by those who have never even tried one. The mantra here at W&SJ is that it is always best to keep an open mind.
Snob alert: Attendees at New York’s Whiskyfest last year were blown away!
The real question is how do the best rice grain whiskies stack up against the reigning competition ––as in traditional whiskeys made from corn, barley or wheat? If you’ve never tried a really good one you are in for a pleasant surprise.
Rice Grain Alcoholic Beverages
Rice-based alcoholic beverages are ubiquitous throughout Asia, just like corn is in West. If you prefer bourbon whiskies or Tito’s Vodka is your go-to vodka, you’re more than likely team corn. Certainly nothing wrong with that, but keep in mind that not all spirits made from corn – or any grain for that matter – are created equal.
Quality beats quantity all day, every day. Rice grain spirits are no different.
Put another way, barley grain lags a distant fourth behind rice in terms of global consumption. Good luck telling a Scottish barman their hometown spirits are shite. Expect a snarky comeback from the entire whisky plutocracy ––and wee bit of ice for the shiner he just served you!
Rice Grain Needs A Better PR Team
Historically, the vast majority of Japanese whisky distillers import their barley grain from Scotland. It’s a Scotch thing, you wouldn’t understand. And that is the point! The legacy of Japanese whisky borrowed from Scotland is starting to feel – dare to say – less and less authentic. Just keeping it real.
A modern version of Japanese whisky crafted from rice grain is certainly a welcomed alternative.
Rice-based spirits have been around for thousands of years. The same ancient methods of fermentation and distillation that gave the world Japanese Sake and Shochu can certainly craft a whisky made with rice grain instead of barley with conviction. The Japanese rice whisky recipe sticks very much to the original, only changing the base ingredient to make it more authentic Japanese.
For a perfectly balanced and complex Japanese whisky distilled from rice: 1) Add 100 years to perfect the art of Japanese whisky making. 2) Ingredients substitute: Distill it from rice grain instead of barley to make it more real Japanese. 3) Age it in a select wooden casks for 15 to 30 years for taste and complexity. 4) Save some for the angels.
Peddling that single grain rice whiskies are not as good as traditional whiskies feels a tad bit elitist. A pointless boondoggle that gives the appearance of adding value.
The truth is ingredients matter. Craftsmanship matters. The type of rice grain matters.
I know of at least one Japanese whisky purveyor that argue the quality of rice grain makes a huge difference. Up until now, we didn't even know what we were missing.
Just like Bourbon whiskey made from corn, rice-grain spirits begin clear and un-aged. The Asian equivalents to eau de vie or water of life.
When it comes to traditional un-aged rice grain spirits, Sake is different from Sochu, Soju and Awamori in that Sake is brewed like beer and the others are distilled like liquor.
The Korean spirit called Soju and the Japanese spirit called Shochu are both made with rice, however Korean Soju can sometimes use other grains such as wheat, sweet potatoes and more. They are both distilled like vodka, but low in alcohol comparable to beer and wine.
Japanese Sochu (Shōchū)
Shochu is also traditionally made with rice can often use sweet potato or other grains. Unlike it’s twin Korean Soju that is often made with flavoring, sweeteners and other additives. Shochu follows a stricter process and is usually single-distilled, retaining the flavor of its original ingredients.
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