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the end of the day those are still non-Japanese spirits: Japan is recreating--and hopefully improving upon--something originally made outside of the country.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?
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!
Whiskey Richard is the founder of nomunication.jp, and has been saying he has lived in Japan for ten years for the past four years. He enjoys drinking basically anything except straight-up Campari.