Wapirits Tumugi claims to be Japan’s first spirit for cocktails. “The UK has gin, Russia has vodka, Cuba has rum, Mexico has tequila. And Nippon has Wapirits,” reads the potentially incendiary marketing copy.
“But Whiskey Richard, you cover Japanese gin all the time,” you respond. Well the truth is that Japan doesn’t really have its own national cocktail spirit. Japanese whisky may be globally acclaimed, and Japanese craft gin is rapidly emerging. But at the end of the day those are still non-Japanese spirits: Japan is recreating–and hopefully improving upon–something originally made outside of the country.
We need to look for something more Japanese. The most likely candidate is of course shochu, since with a history in Japan back into the 16th century, it’s Japan’s first distilled spirit. Unfortunately, while recent years have seen non-traditional spirits like pisco, arak, and mezcal hit bar menus in a growing number of places, shochu cocktails remain virtually non-existent. Low-pressure single-distilled honkaku shochus tends to be pungent, heavy on cogeners, and not matured. “Funky,” for the hipsters in the room. And they hover around 25% abv, leaving them in a limbo between a solid base spirit and an overpowering liqueur.
Wapirits Tumugi is trying to change that. It’s a shochu at heart: distilled from malted barley, and it uses koji for fermentation. The latter is important since it means Tumugi undergoes multiple parallel fermentation like a sake, where saccharification and fermentation happen simultaneously. After an initial distillation, five botanicals are then steeped independently: kabosu, mint, yuzu, mandarin, yuzu, and lemon. Each steeped mix then distilled once again, and finally they’re all blended together, yielding Wapirits Tumugi. I suppose we could call it a shochu/gin hybrid, if we had to categorize it. To make it more workable by bartenders, Tumugi is offered at a base-spirit strength of 40% abv.
The makers behind Wapirits Tumugi aren’t some crowdfunded startup or small-time craft shochu shop. Instead, Wapirits Tumugi is powered by shochu superpower Sanwa Shurui, makers of the iichiko brand of barley shochu. They are Japan’s second biggest producer of shochu. While sales of have shifted to a slight decline in recent years, it’s still a behemoth of a category: per Japan’s NTA figures, in 2016 Japan produced some 820 million liters of shochu. To put things into perspective, there were 125 million liters of Japanese whisky made that same year. And Scotland itself made “only” 277 million liters of malt whisky in 2015. So while it’s not very well known outside of Japan, shochu is huge. That marketing muscle makes itself known: there’s an entire Wapirits Tumugi Bar in Tokyo’s ritzy Hibiya district that features Tumugi-only glasses created with the help of Gerard Basset. There have also been not one, but two Tumugi-sponsored cocktail competitions since the spirit was released in 2017.
We’ve seen other shochu makers get into Japanese craft gin and whisky, but Sanwa Shurui has instead chosen to make an entirely different kind of spirit. Is it another “because: Japan!” gimmick, or is the two-time SWSC Gold Medal winner Tumugi actually trailblazing a true Japanese cocktail spirit here?
As they’re specific about calling this a cocktail spirit, for purposes of this review, I’ve also made the Wasabi Salty and Tumugim cocktails (pictured).
Wapirits Tumugi Review
Nose: On the nose we get fragrant almonds, banana nut bread, with a slight rubbery tinge. Yuzu joins the crew later. There’s a wortiness about it, but it’s still stiff. Could be easily mistaken for a harder Awamori.
Palate: The palate forgets this was a shochu at one point, I’d put it closer to a gin. There’s plenty of citrus: mostly orange, mandarin, and yuzu coming through. In the middle we get a slight brashness of cherries, and I’m reminded of an eau de vie or kirsch. Adding citrus juice does wonders here. Mirin brings in heaps more koji for those that like it.
Finish: There’s a hint of chocolate alongside cooked fruit. Toasted herbs and a touch of mint at the end.
Price paid: Zero, this review was made using a sampler bottle. But a 700ml bottle of Wapirits Tumugi is around 2000 yen on Amazon JP.
All in all, this is a very unique spirit that sits at a 4-way crossroads of shochu, awamori, gin, and unaged brandy. But it retains a strong character that’s begging to be amplified by the wide variety of unique Japanese citrus available, or something thick and milky like a fresh cream. Forget experimenting with shochu in cocktails!
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Interestingly, I was just reading Difford’s Guide over the weekend, and they predicted the rise of Botanical Spirits for 2019 as most new Gin drinkers don’t actually like Gin (or really they don’t like the taste of juniper): https://www.diffordsguide.com/encyclopedia/1607/cocktails/trends-drink-trends-predicted
The pink gin thing rings true from what I saw when I went back home to England for Christmas. And I feel myself I want to like gin more than I actually do from the few I’ve had neat. I guess I just don’t love juniper yet.
Wapirits seems like it fits into that larger trend, even down to how most botanical spirits are coming from non-Gin distilleries (Vodka was called out in that article). The guys from Noma are also making koji based botanical spirits.
The 40% strength is missing a different trend though. I keep hearing about low and no ABV cocktails as a trend (along with the rise of spritz) due to people wanting to drink less and being a good option for happy hour after work (as popular in Italian culture). Shochu in my mind is ideal for this trend , especially as a replacement for vodka or maybe gin. I wonder how much being funky is an issue. I guess it depends on the type of funk (buckwheat shochu tasted like drinking soba noodle water to me on its own), and the type of person ordering the cocktail, but mezcal was a trend and that is funky. Rhum agricole and Jamaican rum are getting their day in the sun and are the definition of funk. I don’t know enough about shochu to know what the funk is like for the various types.
My main issue with Shochu is that it is light enough to have no burn at all, so it is so deceivingly dangerous and easy to drink too much lol.
David, thanks for the comments.
Shochu has both a otsurui/honkaku type and kourui type, where the difference is essentially single-distilled in a pot still/traditional style vs. being multi-distilled in a column still. Both end up around 25% abv, but the latter is understandably far more neutral–closer to a vodka–so it often ends up as a base in something like umeshu or chuhai.
As you mention, the trend towards low-ABV continues, and soju (not shochu) has latched on to this in a few places. Importantly, soju is low enough abv that it doesn’t require additional licenses that are required for hard liquor. This means that a restaurant only allowed to serve wine and beer can serve, for example, a Bloody Mary that uses soju instead of a vodka. In theory kourui shochu could also occupy the same space. Why that hasn’t happened yet is anyone’s guess, but I assume it’s mostly due to a (lack of) marketing by Japanese kourui shochu makers.
Kourui shochu doesn’t really have the funk that I describe above: that’s why I specified honkaku shochus as being funky. I could definitely see kourui shochu being used as a stand-in for vodka or perhaps even gin.
On the other hand. Honkaku shochus are funky to the point that even many Japanese people don’t drink them. For a whisky drinker I would recommend starting at buckwheat shochu solely because it’s slightly closer to home. Once that becomes palatable–or better yet, enjoyable–consider graduating to potato-based honkaku shochu as that opens up so many more options. The “funk type” is, like much of Japanese cuisine, usually focused on showcasing the unprocessed, natural, and raw potency of the original ingredients.
Wapirits Tumugi is trying to tackle a lot of above at once: it’s trying to be not as funky as a honkaku shochu, not as boring/neutral as a kourui shochu, yet also still have some character (and proof) to make it a unique base spirit usable in cocktails. I think they’ve accomplished that.