History & Culture
Historically, the Amami Islands experienced rule from several outside forces, such as the Ryukyu Kingdom during the mid-1400s to early 1600s and the Satsuma domain during the early 1600s to 1871. The United States government also declared rule over the area after the Second World War until 1953.
Most likely, awamori consumption arrived in the archipelago by the mid-1500s through frequent interaction with the Ryukyu Kingdom. Awamori production methods may have also come to Amami during this period. The first potential mention of brown sugar in shochu comes from the 1800s in the book “Nantou Zatsuwa.” Written by a Satsuma official, the book contains a description stating “the juice of sugar cane is sometimes added to the shochu.” However, before the 20th century, the main alcoholic beverage produced on the islands was still awamori.
After years of restrictive legislation in the Meiji era, the first distillery of the archipelago opened on Okinoerabujima in the Taisho era. Under postwar US rule, shochu makers faced harsh base ingredient shortages. As a result, they made shochu using cycads, pumpkin, morus alba, and brown sugar. US occupation law limited the export of brown sugar. This led to widespread production of brown sugar shochu instead of shochu made with hard-to-find rice. Notably, koji was not used during this time.
When the Amami Islands returned to Japanese rule in 1953, the law classified Amami liquor made from sugar as rum. Rum counts as a spirit under the Liquor Tax Law, which faced higher taxes than shochu. The producers of the Amami Islands earned special permission under the Liquor Tax Law to continue making brown sugar shochu. The only condition was the inclusion of rice koji during the production process. This is when brown sugar shochu earned official legal recognition. The rice koji produces citric acid and helps the fermenting mash from being spoiled, supplies amino acids and vitamins necessary for healthy fermentation, and adds a unique flavor derived from rice, all contributing to making brown sugar shochu unique.
A pork dish that is often eaten in Amami is a perfect match for brown sugar shochu that has a rich flavor and aroma.