By most accounts fungus is a bad thing. But for KC and Amy Sheehan, owners of Sodo Spirits Distillery, fungus is friend, not foe. Not just any fungus, but Aspergillius Oryaze, or koji, to be exact. The Sheehans use koji as a key ingredient when producing their shochu, a Japanese spirit made from barley.
A former toolmaker, KC Sheehan started distilling shochu in 2008 as part of what he calls “the Washington distilling movement.” While most other distillers were planning to make vodka, gin or whiskey, but he had a different plan.
“I had had Japanese shochu several times,” KC Sheehan said. “I knew a little about it but not tons. A friend of mine who runs a brewery and distillery told me to look into shochu. My friend gave me the basics of it and we just started experimenting.”
Neither KC nor Amy had any experience distilling shochu. Everything they knew about the process came from knowledgeable friends, research and trial and error.
Three-dozen experimental batches and one and a half years later, the Sheehans had their first final product, a rosemary flavored shochu that they named EvenStar. This first flavor would eventually be joined by three additional EvenStar products: mint, ginger, chilies, and a barrel aged version of the original rosemary. The Sheehan’s are wholly focused on the production of these five flavors of shochu, they make no other spirits.
In order to make shochu, Sheehan cooks barley grown in Eastern Washington in large rice cookers. He then spreads the barley on a table in a small warm room called a koji-mura, where he seeds the barley with the koji fungus. The koji eats through the starch of the grains for the next day and a half. Sheehan stirs the barley to ensure full and even inoculation of the barley. He then lets the inoculated barley, or koji kin, cool for another half day.
Once it is cool, Sheehan adds more cooked barley to the koji kin and places it in barrels with yeast and water, beginning the fermentation process. After fermenting for 10 days the mixture is hand loaded into the still, where it is distilled into liquid. This liquid is collected and blended with distilled water, resulting in the final product.
Sheehan’s shochu is the only handcrafted shochu in America, and a bit different from traditional Japanese spirit because of the addition of flavoring.
“Ours is traditional, the only thing we are doing differently is we add whatever flavor you see,” Sheehan said. “We just macerate it and put it into our pot still and then distill with it. Because ours is distilling with it, it’s the molecular flavors coming up, so it’s very subtle.”
Subtle indeed. The clear liquor is smooth and almost tasteless. The taste is reminiscent of vodka, but with an earthier feel. The unique added flavor isn’t immediately apparent; rather, it is a aftertaste that lingers on your tongue.
Because of its subtlety, shochu is a prime ingredient for mixed drinks, which is Sheehan’s favorite way to have it.
“You can make great cocktails and they’re not super high calorie, they’re not loaded with sugar which is hard on your body. That’s another thing I love about shochu, it’s so versatile,” he said.
EvenStar Shochu is gaining popularity in Seattle. Sold at Maneki, Seattle’s oldest restaurant, EvenStar is best known by Japanese restaurants and Asian grocery stores such as Uwajimaya.
“Most of the bars and restaurants that buy from us are Asian oriented. We’ve done pretty well in the Japanese-American community,” Sheehan said. “We’re trying to move into broader market. But nobody knows about it so that’s the challenging thing.”
But, Sodo Spirits Distillery might be in luck. It recently signed on with its first out-of-state distributor, a company based in Portland.
Sheehan’s passion for shochu is evident in his hope that this new deal will bring the drink to more people. He returns time and again to the versatile nature of EvenStar, suggesting a myriad of cocktail recipes. The best way to drink shochu during the winter?
“Warm with a little bit of water,” he said. “EvenStar was the original name for the North Star, and both will guide you through the night!”
Mae Jacobson is a student in the University of Washington Department of Communication News Laboratory.