Hakusen Shuzo's Hon-Mirin
An aromatic, beautiful, and delicious full-bodied alcohol made from rice, artisanal hon-mirin has an essential role in the pantheon of fermented Japanese seasonings by virtue of its flavor-extending umami and complex sweet-savory flavors created by the Maillard reaction. It is also a delicious and healthy liquor to drink.
Hon-mirin, or true mirin, is traditionally made by combining, fermenting, and aging three forms of protein-rich and starch-laden types of rice ingredients: steamed glutinous rice (mochi-gome), cultured rice (kome-koji), and distilled rice liquor (kome-jochu). It is a delicious and compelling alcohol that is an essential kakushi-aji, or secret ingredient, in Japanese cooking because its unique culinary properties and range of rich flavors are key building blocks for making dishes light yet satisfying. With an alcohol content of around 14%, hon-mirin helps to purify aromas and tenderize foods. Being mildly sweet, it balances saltiness and acidity in dishes.
But what makes hon-mirin special is the rich, creamy umami it develops during fermentation and the complex aromas, colors, and flavors it acquires during aging. Suspended in a slightly syrupy alcohol, its umami penetrates into foods and gives them mouthfeel, carrying and extending the flavors in a dish the way that fats and oils do in other cuisines. Aging generates a browning of the sugars and a Maillard reaction of the amino acids created from the rice during fermentation. Named for Louis Camille Maillard, a French chemist, who first described this phenomenon in 1912, the Maillard reaction produces new, rich and complex aromas and flavors. Depending on how long hon-mirin is aged it can have flavors similar to honey, butterscotch, caramel, maple syrup, chocolate, and coffee and also earthy, and meaty ones. These flavors are usually created in dishes when searing and roasting meats and cooking foods for long periods of times.
There are only thirty artisanal brewers of hon-mirin left in Japan, and they produce about 330,000 kiloliters annually, which is equal to 1% of the mirin (the word used for a broad range of commercially-made products) on the market. The varieties of hon-mirin made by Hakusen Shuzo, a 170-year-old, family-run brewery located in the small town of Kawabe in the foothills of Japan’s southern Alps in Gifu prefecture, are among the best. They are made using high-quality, locally grown rice and soft spring water. In addition, Hakusen makes each of the key components, including the distilled rice liquor (kome-jochu), and also ages its hon-mirin for longer periods than most other artisanal brewers. Its “Fukuraijun” hon-mirin (shown in the title block above) is aged for three years and its “Koko” hon-mirin for ten years. Full-bodied and extremely mellow, they both have beautiful aromas and colors and distinct flavors. “Fukuraijun” is a rich gold color and has a buttery, toasty, light caramelized flavor. “Koko” is a dark reddish-brown and has richer, more intense flavors. It has a savory almost meaty aroma but a taste that is sweet as well as savory and slightly smoky.
Kawabe is located about an hour by train from Nagoya City, which was the epicenter of fermented food production during the Edo period (1603-1868). Sake, mirin, vinegar, soy sauce, miso, and pickles were all made here in large quantities to fuel the food desires of the era’s growing urban middle class and support the refinement of Japanese cuisine that took place during this time. Nagoya was the center of Japan’s fermented food culture for a variety of political, logistical, and culinary reasons. It was the home base of the Tokugawa clan that unified Japan in 1600 and then went on to rule the country until 1868. In addition, Nagoya had a large port located roughly midway along the length of the Japanese archipelago, enabling easy shipment of its food products to anywhere in the country. Most importantly, the city is backed by the Japanese Alps whose mountain people relied on fermented foods to get them through the harsh winters. The difference in temperature between the area’s cold winters and warm summers also created ideal conditions for fermentation.
Currently led by fifth generation Yuki Kato, Hakusen Shuzo was founded in 1850 by an ancestor who was a traveling salesman of household goods who married the daughter of a Kawabe sake brewer. Instead of joining her family’s business, he began making hon-mirin across the street from their sake brewery. At the time, hon-mirin was an expensive liquor mainly drunk by high class women for its vitamins and other health properties; especially its aid to digestion (hon-mirin is full of the active enzymes known today as pro-biotics). Presumably they also enjoyed it because of its deliciously sweet and gently intoxicating flavors. Chefs at refined restaurants in Kyoto and Tokyo did use hon-mirin but typically only as a glaze on specialty grilled dishes, such as eel kabayaki and chicken teriyaki. The high heat of grilling induced a further Maillard reaction of the hon-mirin and gave these foods a rich, complex, and lustrous coating.
It was not until after the Second World War, when new alcohol tax laws made mirin cheaper, that mirin became commonly used in cooking. At one time there were 3,000 licensed mirin makers in Japan. But competition and industry consolidation led to a steep decline in the number of brewers as well as the quality of mirin, and nearly all the mirin made and used today in Japan is little more than alcoholic liquid sugar or almost completely artificial. These include products called shin-mirin, mirin-fu, and aji-mirin (new mirin, mirin-like, and tastes like mirin), which are mainly mixtures of water and sugar with an alcohol content of 1%; hakocho-miryo (mirin-type condiment), a fermented facsimile of mirin made from starch syrup, water, and sake or some other alcohol added to give it an alcohol content of 5-14%; and other imitations that call themselves hon-mirin but are commercially made in large batches and have glucose, fructose, corn syrup, and processed amino acids added to speed up the production process. All of these products have salt in them so that they are undrinkable and are not technically a liquor and therefore are cheap (they are not subject to an alcohol tax) and can be sold in supermarkets.
In addition to their obvious deficiencies, these products lack hon-mirin’s key attributes of naturally fermented umami and the complex flavors produced by aging. Due to their disagreeableness, most people in Japan do not think of mirin as a drink anymore, and most self-respecting cooks do not use it, preferring instead honey or maple syrup to add sweetness, flavor, and shine to a dish and sake to gain the cooking and flavor benefits of alcohol and umami. However, these substitutes are no match for hon-mirin’s creamy umami and complex flavors and ability to make light dishes very satisfying and rich dishes even more complex.
Hakusen survived the industry’s consolidation, unlike most of its peers, because of the quality of its products and also because it makes a variety of alcohols. In 1900, Hakusen began making sake and later on further diversified into making shochu. All of its liquors are full-flavored and delicious, and like its hon-mirin, its sake and shochu, including the rice shochu which it uses to make its hon-mirin, have unique flavors that are distinct tastes of place.
Hakusen’s process of making hon-mirin is largely done by hand following the recipe that was developed over time during the Edo period. Initially, around the year 1500, hon-mirin was made with rice, amazake, and sake. Over time, the rice was replaced with sticky glutinous mochi rice because it has more starch that can be converted into sugars. The amazake was replaced with rice koji to deepen hon-mirin’s flavor and facilitate a strong, umami-generating fermentation. The sake was replaced by distilled rice shochu to further deepen hon-mirin’s flavor and, most importantly, to allow for long aging because its alcohol content of around 25% makes it a better preservative than sake, which typically has an alcohol content of 15%.
At Hakusen the process starts with making the rice koji. Rice is inoculated with a unique strain of koji mold, which Hakusen breeds at its brewery, and left to ferment in a muro room for three days in order to produce a robust rice koji. The rice koji acts as the starter for the fermentation process and also underpins the hon-mirin’s ultimate flavor. This is the most labor-intensive part of the process of making hon-mirin, and the rice koji is regularly massaged by hand and the temperature and humidity in the muro room carefully maintained at constant degrees. Working alongside Yuki is Mr. Hishimoto, Hakusen’s chief brewer (toji).
Next, the rice koji is mixed with steamed sticky mochi rice. The rice is high quality Takayama and Hidahomare mochi rice grown locally. A large mixing machine with blades is used to thoroughly and evenly combine the sticky steamed rice and rice koji. Last, Hakusen’s home-made rice shochu is added, and the mixture, called the moromi, is fermented in glass-lined steel tanks for 60 to 90 days depending on the weather. These comparatively long fermentation times are necessary when brewing with soft water. They also help to produce a richer and creamier type of umami.
Hakusen brews its hon-mirin in steel tanks instead of traditional kioke wooden barrels because the government has mandated that all alcohol makers in the country use steel tanks. This came about because alcohol brewers chronically exaggerated the amount of leakage (the “angel’s share”) they experienced to the authorities in order to reduce the taxes they paid. To eliminate any leakage, steel tanks became mandatory. Fortunately, the flavor benefits imparted by kioke wooden barrels are less important for hon-mirin, as well as for sake and shochu, given their relatively short fermentation times compared to artisanal soy sauce, which requires at least two years of brewing in microbe-laden kioke wooden barrels to become truly great.
At the end of the fermentation period, Hakusen’s hon-mirin is dripped, rather than pressed, from the moromi to create a pure, translucent liquor. At this stage the hon-mirin has an alcohol content of around 14% and a sugar content (called its todo in Japanese) of 48%. It is also packed with naturally fermented amino acids—its umami. The hon-mirin is then decanted back into tanks to be aged. During aging, the alcohol, sugar, and umami levels do not change, but the flavor does. As the hon-mirin matures it tastes less sweet and also becomes smooth and mellow. Due to chemical reactions between the sugars and amino acids, the Maillard reaction occurs, and the hon-mirin acquires its elegant and appetizing aromas and complex flavors. The hon-mirin is not pasteurized and will continue to age even after bottling, becoming mellower, richer, and more flavorful. The colors will also deepen, and “Fukuraijun” will gradually become a glowing red while “Koko” will become a mesmerizing black.
Story & Photos: Tom Schiller
Hakusen Shuzo 白扇酒造
28 Nakakawabe, Kawabecho Kamo-gun, 509-0304, Gifu Prefecture Japan
Phone: +81 (0574) 53 2508
There is a shop at the entrance of the brewery that is open daily from 8:30 to 17:30. It is the only place that you can taste and buy the full range of Hakusen’s products, which includes a variety of rice and potato shochu, sake, and o-toso—the spiced liquor traditionally enjoyed at New Year’s—in addition to hon-mirin and mirin kasu. The brewery also has an online shop on its website.
The most direct way to get to Kawabe is by train from Nagoya’s central station. Take the JR Hida line train to Mino-Ota station and change there to the JR Takayama line. Get off at Nakakawabe station and then walk for about 15 minutes to Kawabe.
However, more than likely you’ll be coming from another direction given how many interesting spots and adventures there are in the area. To the south are the famous old pottery towns of Mine, Tajimi and Seto. North of Kawabe is Gero Onsen, a hot springs area known for the special qualities of its water. To the east is the headland of the Kiso Valley.
Where To Buy
“Fukuraijun” hon-mirin can be found at department stores, high-end supermarkets, and specialty food shops in most of Japan’s major cities. You may also find “Koko” hon-mirin at these places. The retail price for a 720-milliliter bottle of “Fukuraijun” is a little over ¥900, which is incredibly reasonable considering its quality. The price partly reflects the minimal liquor tax on mirin compared to sake and shochu. A bottle should last you long enough to make it well worth your while of packing it in your luggage to take home with you after a visit to Japan.
Note: If considering buying another type of hon-mirin, be careful. Not all products labeled as hon-mirin are true, traditionally and naturally-made mirin. They may be an imitation the producer believes closely mimics the taste of hon-mirin.
How To Use
Hakusen’s hon-mirin should be in every cook’s pantry because of their unique flavors and magical seasoning properties. They should also be on the sideboard in the dining room because they are delicious to drink. Although mirin is listed in many Japanese recipes and is present in many Japanese dishes, it is probably safe to say that cooking with exceptionally well-made hon-mirins like Hakusen’s is relatively unexplored territory. Hon-mirin did not become a Japanese chomiryo, or seasoning, until after the Second World War, and then its use in the kitchen was quickly usurped by poor quality commercial imitations. These are mainly used to create delicious dishes in a fast-food kind of way—a liquid sugar to make foods sweet, thick, glossy, and artificially satisfying.
Instead, Hakusen’s hon-mirin are deliciously mellow forms of fermented and aged sugar and the Maillard reaction conveniently stored in a bottle. Their flavor attributes will better enable you to cook light and quick and to preserve and enhance the flavor of your foods. Use them for uncooked foods, quick-cooked dishes like stir fries, and light cooking techniques—steaming, blanching, poaching, and boiling. They are especially helpful for enhancing the flavors of seafood and vegetables. Use them to make raw fish dishes like zuke maguro, ahi poke, and seafood carpaccio. Add them to dipping sauces and dressings for salads and vegetable dishes. Being a non-meat basis of the Maillard reaction, they are great in vegan and vegetarian cooking.
Because the rich, full flavor of Hakusen’s hon-mirin complements rich, full foods, they are also wonderful in stocks, broths, soups, stews, braises, and sauces like tomato sauce and reductions. And, of course, they are excellent in their classic application of glazes and also marinades and barbecue sauces.
“Fukuraijun” can enrich any dish, including savory and sweet ones. “Koko” is particularly good in stronger, richer flavored and spicier dishes and is very useful in Western and Asian cooking. It is also great for desserts.
Here are a few rules of thumb when cooking with Hakusen’s hon-mirin:
A little goes a long way. A half to a full tablespoon should be enough for light foods; use at most two tablespoons for rich foods that include meats and animal fats and dishes that require long cooking times.
Do as the best Kyoto chefs do—use hon-mirin (or a combination of hon-mirin and sake) when a recipe needs sweetness. In addition to its flavor benefits, it blends in dishes easier than sugar and does not darken the color of vegetables nor leave a film on foods.
Taking into consideration that hon-mirin has a 48% sugar content; a half tablespoon of hon-mirin equals less than three-quarters of a teaspoon of sugar.
Hon-mirin’s relationship to Japan’s other core building block seasonings is as follows. It goes hand in hand with sake to purify and tenderize foods and add sweetness and creamy umami to dishes. It is a perfect fit with soy sauce and miso. Hon-mirin balances their saltiness, and soy sauce and miso’s saltiness, in turn, enhances hon-mirin’s distinct flavors. In addition, they complement one another in terms of umami and depth and complexity of flavor. Hon-mirin also balances the acidity of rice vinegar and complements its umami.
Similar relationships apply when combining hon-mirin with Western seasonings like wine, salty fermented seasonings like anchovies, and fruit and other kinds of vinegars. Getting the balance of seasoning right using hon-mirin with either the Japanese or Western pantry of seasonings will mean less, even no, animal fats like butter and cream and oils will be needed to make dishes satisfying.
On the other hand, adding hon-mirin at the end of cooking, during the last minute or so, or using it in uncooked dishes will best preserve its pro-biotic benefits.
There is no need to boil off the alcohol in Hakusen’s hon-mirin because of their mellowness and lack of any sharp alcoholic taste. In addition, the alcohol will dissipate during cooking and even largely evaporate in uncooked dishes. However, you may want to boil a sauce containing hon-mirin if serving to children.
“Fukuraijun” and “Koko” hon-mirin are also delicious to drink as aperitifs and dessert liquors. Serve them straight, on the rocks, and mixed with club soda or hot water. Yuki Kato suggests mixing “Koko” with milk, giving it a taste like Kahlua. You can tell yourself that you are enjoying a health drink given that hon-mirin is good for digestion.
The alcohol and sugar content in Hakusen’s hon-mirin are natural preservatives and they will keep for a long time. To maintain the nuance of their flavors, store them in a cool dark place or the refrigerator.
Mirin kasu is the lees remaining after the hon-mirin has been extracted from the moromi mash. They taste rich and sweet, and because Hakusen drips the hon-mirin from the moromi instead of pressing it, its mirin kasu is fluffy, moist, and chewy. It is also full of healthy pro-biotics. Mirin kasu can be eaten as is or used in a myriad of ways—to ferment vegetables, make breads, cakes, and other pastries, and season savory and sweet dishes. Because it does not have the funky smell and flavor of sake kasu, it is a much more interesting and delicious by-product of the brewing process to experiment with in your cooking.