Oka Kura Bermutto Japanese Vermouth Review
Updated: Oct 9, 2022
Sometimes my never-ending hunt for vermouth leads me to some really fantastic products. Enter: Oka Kura Bermutto. After seeing it in use at bars in Taipei, I was beyond excited to discover Skurnik was importing it to the US, and it was available at Astor Wines & Spirits in NYC.
Note: Bermutto is a Japanese phonetic spelling of vermouth. The Japanese language has no “v” sound, so the v's in foreign words are written and pronounced with “b” instead.
Described as the world's first Japanese vermouth, Oka Kura is Junmai sake based, aromatized with four unique Japanese botanicals, and fortified with shochu. It is produced in Kumamoto, Japan, at the Tsutsumi Distillery. Tsutsumi, renowned for its sherry cask finished shochu, has been producing shochu for nearly 150 years. It's no surprise, then, that Oka Kura is made with both shochu and Junmai sake.
According to Tsutsumi, sake producers have a long history of adding botanicals to their products. In that same tradition, Tsutsumi fortifies their aromatized sakes with shochu, just as vermouths are typically fortified with a neutral distillate.
Sake and Shochu
There are a lot of potentially unfamiliar words I just threw at you, so let's back up.
When most westerners think of sake, they think of Japanese rice wine (though in Japanese, sake technically refers to "any alcoholic beverage"). What we call “sake” is more accurately called “Nihonshu,” which translates to "Japanese wine." By definition, Nihonshu is not wine, because it is not made from fermented fruit – rice is a grain, so its production more closely resembles beer. But, to be fair, sake belongs in a category of its own: Sake.
I'm not going to tackle the intricacies of language barriers, translation, marketing terminology, and common cross-cultural nomenclature, so when I refer to sake, I refer to Nihonshu: Japanese rice alcohol made by fermenting rice with water, yeast, and koji.
To produce sake, distillers polish off the outer layers of rice grains, steam the dense, starchy centers, and combine them with yeast and koji to ferment. Koji, a fungus used in the fermentation of many traditional Japanese foods and drinks, breaks down rice starches into glucose, which the yeast then converts into alcohol.
Junmai sake refers to “pure rice” sake which is made with nothing other than the ingredients listed above. There is no additional sugar, alcohol, or flavoring added during production. Junmai sakes must use rice polished to at least 70%, or rather, with rice that has had at least 30% of its outer layers polished away. It is typically characterized by bold and earthy rice flavor, rich body, and a slight acidity.
Shochu is a low proof spirit (generally 25% to 35% ABV, but 40% and above aren't uncommon) usually made by distilling rice, barley, buckwheat, sweet potato, or sugar cane. Oka Kura uses a 100% rice shochu.
Oka Kura Bermutto
Oka Kura is sold and marketed as a Japanese vermouth, though the English label makes it clear that technically this isn't vermouth because it isn't made with wine – remember, sake is not wine, it's sake.
That said, Oka Kura Japanese Bermutto is a uniquely Japanese interpretation of the classic fortified wine we call vermouth. It starts with a low-proof fermented alcoholic beverage, which is then bittered with wormwood, flavored with citrus and herbs, and finally fortified with a distillate.
There are four botanicals used in the production of Oka Kura:
1. Yuzu – An acidic, aromatic citrus. It's as acidic as a lemon with a flavor that lands somewhere in the middle of a triangle made of lemon, grapefruit, and Mandarin orange.
2. Kabosu – A very high-acid citrus fruit with a flavor profile landing somewhere between yuzu and lime.
3. Sansho peppercorn – A peppery and slightly citrusy peppercorn. It is a relative of the Sichuan peppercorn and produces a similar, but more mild, numbing sensation on the palate.
4. Yomogi – A Japanese wormwood, also known as Japanese mugwort.
The first thing you'll notice before opening the bottle is a fair amount of sediment floating around. This residue comes from harmless rice and yeast, leftovers from the filtration process. This kind of sediment is common with sake.
Cracking the seal unleashes a wave of yeasty citrus. It pours a kind of cloudy, straw-yellow color with some sediment (which goes unnoticed on the palate).
I tasted it at room temperature to start, then again when chilled a few hours later. For the next few days after opening the bottle, I tasted the vermouth both chilled and at room temperature to observe the way it oxidizes.
Oka Kura has a medium-light body with a round mouthfeel provided by the sake. You can very clearly taste the rice, yeast, yuzu, wormwood, and sansho. The combination of yuzu and yomogi creates a strong grapefruit backbone that dominates the palate beginning to end.
Like all vermouth, this bottle takes several hours to fully open up – 24 hours, in this case. After that time, you'll be able to more clearly pick up on some notes of tropical fruit, as well as more herbal complexity. After about 3 weeks, it becomes a little duller and less sharp with a plum flavor and aroma.
Stylistically, this Japanese vermouth emulates dry vermouth and should be treated as such – that is, kept refrigerated and ideally consumed in less than a week. Because there are solids in the mix, which act as nucleation points for bacteria, it will go bad faster than your average vermouth. Then again, nobody should be letting their vermouth last months anyway.
Oka Kura Bermutto
Wine Base: Junmai Sake (fermented rice alcohol, not wine)
Known Botanicals: 4 total: yomogi (Japanese wormwood), yuzu, kabosu, and sansho peppercorn
Nose: pear, sansho peppercorn, yuzu, grapefruit, peach, yeast, guava, green apple
Palate: yuzu, grapefruit, wormwood, sansho peppercorn, yeast, tarragon, rice shochu, grass
Finish: grapefruit, yuzu, grass, yeast, tarragon, sansho peppercorn
(full notes available on the updated Complete Guide to Dry Vermouth)
Verdict: Oishii desu!
Delicious on its own, it reminds me very much of something between a grapefruit Radler like Schofferhofer or Stiegel and a grapefruit Chu-Hi (a canned grapefruit-flavored shochu-and-soda drink best consumed on the curb outside of a 7-11 or Family Mart) on account of its beer-like yeast flavor.
But how does it work in cocktails, you ask?
For such a non-traditional take on vermouth, the Oka Kura plays surprisingly well in traditional applications. Despite its lack of conventional herbal complexity found in many vermouths, it's still bitter, which is one of the most important considerations when using vermouth in cocktails.
I often turn to the Martini as the litmus test for a dry vermouth's mixability as there are so few components. If one aspect is off or out of balance, it will ruin the entire thing.
I used my baseline Martini spec:
2 oz London dry gin
1 oz dry vermouth
2 dashes orange bitters (The Bitter Truth)
3 drops saline solution
To start, I went with the regional pairing of Oka Kura and Suntory Roku Gin. Roku is a Japanese gin which shares the prominent yuzu and sansho peppercorn botanicals we find in the Oka Kura. As you might imagine, it was a harmonious pairing. The warming sansho peppercorn tempers much of the overt citrus. I garnished mine with a lemon twist since it was all I had available, but I imagine yuzu, grapefruit, or even orange peels would make for fantastic aromatic garnishes.
Next, I moved along to everyone's favorite workhorse gin: Beefeater. Again, a perfectly balanced Martini. The sansho peppercorn was lost, but the yuzu and grapefruit played well, and somehow the drink never got too citrusy.
And finally, I turned to my ideal Martini, the 50/50:
1.5 oz NYDC Perry's Tot Navy Strength Gin
1.5 oz Dolin Dry Vermouth
2 dashes orange bitters (Reagan's No. 6)
3 drops saline solution
Subbing the Oka Kura in place of the Dolin Dry still made for an excellent 50/50 Martini. While I missed the deep herbal complexity of the Dolin, I found the Oka Kura kept the Perry's Tot Gin (57% ABV) bright and quaffable even as it warmed. Perry's Tot contains cinnamon, cardamom, grapefruit peel, and star anise, which all pair wonderfully with the grapefruit-forward profile of Oka Kura.
And, yes. The sediment is noticeable if you're looking for it, but I never found it distracting or off-putting. In a chilled glass, you'd have to strain to see the particulates. In a dark bar, this would be a non-issue.
So okay, cool. Oka Kura seems to work well in a Martini. It's not necessarily the ideal call for every gin, but it gets the job done, and it's interesting as heck.
But there's more fun to be had mixing dry vermouth than just balancing Martinis!
1.5 oz rye whiskey
.75 oz Campari
.75 oz dry vermouth
Rittenhouse made for an excellent Old Pal. The other version I made with Old Overholt was good, but not ideal. I used the new 43% ABV non-chill filtered bottling, but it wasn't quite able to balance the massive grapefruit notes from both the Campari and Oka Kura.
Next up, I went for one of my favorite low ABV sippers, The Vermouth Cocktail. I use the recipe found in William "The Only William" Schmidt's 1891 book The Flowing Bowl: When and What to Drink. I consider this recipe to be more of an Improved Vermouth Cocktail due to the addition of absinthe and maraschino.
Improved Vermouth Cocktail
3 oz vermouth of choice
.5 tsp rich simple syrup (if using dry or light-bodied vermouth)
2 dashes Luxardo maraschino
2 dashes Angostura bitters
1 dash absinthe
As expected, great vermouth makes for a great vermouth cocktail.
Lastly, it's summer in NYC, which means I'm constantly craving fortified wine on crushed ice. The last few ounces of the bottle went into a vermouth cobbler.
3 oz vermouth of choice
.25 oz rich simple syrup (if using dry or light-bodied vermouth)
2 orange peels
The cobbler proved to be a little sharp and acrid until I swizzled in a long dash of Angostura bitters, which worked like magic (as Ango tends to do). The cobbler hit the spot and, more or less, drank like a yuzu-grapefruit swizzle. I chose to garnish the drink with grated cinnamon to compliment the grapefruit. If I could do it all again, I'd replace the simple syrup with cinnamon syrup or velvet falernum. Next time...
While I would have loved to try Oka Kura Japanese Bermutto in something shaken like a Scofflaw or a Clover Club, I didn't have grenadine or raspberry syrup at the time so expect an update to this post down the line.
Until then, have fun with this tasty and unique addition to the world of vermouth! And be sure to check out my review of the follow up expression from Oka Kura, Sweet Bermutto.