Ordinarily Japan’s traditional rice spirit, shochu, is not barrel aged, but when Sugii-san started making it in 2000 he became fascinated with the way barrel ageing of another distilled drink, whisky, results in rich aromas.

He was not able to draw a picture that would explain clearly how the initial clear and very simple aroma of the drink right after distillation becomes so rich and flavourful by the end of the process.

So Sugii-san bought himself a book about the production process of whisky and visited the Yoichi and Miyagikyo distilleries run by Nikka Whisky, where he was able to see the change from the freshly distilled spirit to 3 and 5 year aged versions. The transformation brought by contact with the natural materials from which the barrel is made was surprising and astonishing. The taste created inside the barrel is a mysterious thing that cannot be easily replicated by artificial aromas or other means.

Sugii-san was strongly drawn to barrel ageing and although his shochu production was just in its experimental stages, he decided to try his hand at it. He had no idea whether it was going to work, and neither did he have any commercial plans for the aged product, but he wanted to see if his shochu would age the way Nikka’s whisky did.

Obtaining the barrels, a sherry cask from Europe and an oak cask assembled in Japan, was easy. Sugii-san filled the barrels with some of the shochu that he had just started making, and left them in a dark corner of the kura [brewery]. He started this project out of fascination with barrel ageing and never devoted any thought to its commercial side, and before he knew it 14 years had passed.

During that time, the power of nature had changed the taste in ways that Sugii-san could not have imagined. Obviously, this is a rice-based spirit so its composition is different from what whisky, a malt-based spirit, would be. Sugii-san is very interested to find out if this drink, created by the meeting between his shochu and the barrel, will change peoples perception of how shochu can age.