Shochu is one of the world’s most diverse spirits, thanks to the plethora of ingredients it can be made from and the range of styles it can be enjoyed in. Outside of Japan, shochu awareness is becoming more apparent and some western distilleries are looking at how to incorporate it into their portfolio.
UK-based drink mavericks BrewDog took the plunge by creating the UK’s first shochu Inugami. While I’m happy that shochu has been introduced through a western lens, it’s important to point out how Inugami differs from traditional shochu so consumers can make an informed buying decision.
BrewDog are well-known for their irreverent marketing tactics and that plays into the story of Inugami, which is inspired by the Japanese dog spirit that can possess people and be used to carry out evil deeds. The label features a sinister-looking inugami being held up by wild birds found in Scotland, as a nod to Japan and Scotland’s relationship that has existed since the time that Japanese whisky was first produced.
The story behind the bottle is that of a ‘revenge’ angle, which taps into the history of the Japanese ‘appropriation’ of Scotch. This is meant to reference Masataka Taketsuru’s study of whisky in Scotland from 1918 to 1920 before returning to Japan to establish the Yamazaki Distillery for Suntory. Eventually, Taketsuru left Suntory to establish Nikka, which retained the Scottish style.
You only have to read the back of the bottle to see this revenge played out. “From now on, shochu will do BrewDog’s bidding. Like the fearsome Inugami dog spirit said to possess unsuspecting travellers, we’ve taken control of Japan’s most popular drink.”
Creators of the spirit, head of distillation Steven Kersley and distiller Dzeti Zait, have pointed out that the marketing isn’t to do with an ‘us-vs-them’ mentality, but as a way to stand out in the category.
Zait explained “it was a maverick move for that person from Japan to take whisky and bring it to an uninitiated crowd, and since then Japanese whisky has gained such popularity and won awards. We’d quite like to do the same with our shochu. So it’s not so much about revenge – it’s that we want to see how far we can get, and be in the same ranking as the top shochus.”
BrewDog have made their shochu by distilling malt barley, malt wheat, molasses and rice. The ingredients are passed through an eight-plate rectification column still and then the drink is infused with rhubarb and ginger. Bottled at 23% ABV, Inugami falls comfortably into the low-ABV spirits category. But this means that Inugami is not honkaku (authentic/single-distilled) shochu, as it has not been made in the traditional way.
Shochu expert Stephen Lyman has created a fascinating Twitter thread about Inugami that I’d recommend you read to learn more about how it compares to honkaku shochu. Lyman states that to qualify as a honkaku shochu, Inugami couldn’t have molasses or rhubarb in it. Column distillation and malting are also not allowed.
Some articles have referred to Inugami as konwa shochu, i.e. a shochu that is a mixture of honkaku and korui (multi-distilled). But I’d say it was exclusively korui because konwa must be clearly labelled under the Japanese designation, so consumers don’t accidentally buy korui when they intended to purchase honkaku. The precise measurements of konwa shochu can be read about in Chris Pellegrini’s excellent Shochu Handbook.
More credence is given to the korui designation by BrewDog featuring a recipe for chuhai on the label, which is a common and delicious korui shochu infused drink.
My first impression of Inugami was that it had an inviting floral scent reminiscent of gin with hints of lemon and citrus. The first sip revealed strong hits of rhubarb and ginger and a linear, watery quality that made the shochu feel flat in the middle of the palate. An undercurrent of caramel and anise came in towards the back of the mouth, creating an overall silky texture.
I experimented with the Inugami in a few different ways. After drinking it straight, I opted for a mizuwari style, which involves mixing it with cold water. The third experiment was mixing it with tonic water. Of all three methods I found I enjoyed Inugami most when mixed with the tonic.
While the Inugami didn’t blow my socks off, I think it’s a decent drink to get western consumers interested in what shochu can be. There’s some good flavours going on that make it a good mixer and it’s classically BrewDog, so it will please long-time fans of the brand.
Type: Korui (multi-distilled)
Ingredients: Barley, wheat, molasses, rhubarb and ginger
To learn more about honkaku shochu, be sure to read Yamato Magazine’s shochu reviews, which feature insight into different varieties, such as imo (sweet potato) and mugi (barley).