Shochu is only just beginning to appear on diners’ radars outside Japan, even though it outsells nihonshu (sake) on its home turf. More often than not, people are introduced to the drink when they set foot in a Japanese or Asian fusion restaurant in a major metropolitan area.
Others come across it for the first time in liquor shops or markets, and although curiosity abounds, there has been precious little information available on the subject in a language other than Japanese. Enter Japan Eats contributor, Christopher Pellegrini, a Shochu Sommelier certified by the Sake Service Institute. Pellegrini’s new publication, The Shochu Handbook, was published last month and it’s the most comprehensive English language reference on shochu to date.
It was a long time in the making. Pellegrini spent more than three years researching and writing the book. He recently returned from a brief book-signing tour, which took him to three venues in two countries. He talked shochu in New York City at SakaMai on August 19th and Sakaya on the 20th before jetting to Vancouver for an event at Legacy Liquor Store on the 23rd.
The book was well-received, but Pellegrini insists that promoting awareness of shochu was the most important goal of his trip.
“To a certain extent, I was preaching to the choir in New York. There are a bunch of decent Japanese restaurants and bars there, and I actually piggybacked on an established shochu lovers’ event. I had a great time talking shochu with the members of that community.”
He highly recommends Shochu Tuesdays at SakaMai for anyone that wants to learn more about shochu in New York City. Shochu expert Stephen Lyman organizes the weekly events and there are usually two or three shochu available at happy hour prices. Uminoie is another great place downtown to try a variety of shochu along with some good Japanese cooking.
One pleasant discovery from the book tour was that shochu has significant potential worldwide even if many people haven’t heard of it yet. Bartenders are beginning to catch wind of the variety of flavors available, and bar managers are beginning to add shochu cocktails to their menus. Cherry Izakaya, a new addition to the New York City scene, has a refreshing list of Mizu no Mai-based shochu cocktails that are definitely worth a taste. The creative work of mixologists is beginning to help spread shochu to a wider audience.
Pellegrini’s events, though, focused on some of the more standard serving styles, at least as far as premium shochu fans in Japan are concerned. The events at Sakaya and Legacy featured potato shochu served maewari (blended beforehand with cool water) while most of the shochu at the SakaMai event was served over ice.
“Many are surprised that shochu is often served on the rocks in an old-fashioned glass rather than something more akin to a shot. Shochu is a sipping drink with layered flavors to be savored,” quipped the longtime Tokyo resident.
“I had a lot of fun revealing shochu’s complexities to customers at Legacy in Vancouver. Several people said the shiso and potato bottles I poured were like nothing they had ever tried before. They were really into it, and several bottles left the shelves even though it retails in British Columbia for more than five times the price that you’d pay in Japan.”
Pellegrini is now eyeing an official launch party for the book in Tokyo in November. After that, he’s planning to head to Honolulu for a book event in February of 2015. He said he is also working to develop a new website that will provide valuable information to consumers and shochu manufacturers alike.
Tokyo has well and truly discovered the pairing of American-style BBQ and craft beer.
TY Harbor Brewing has a wonderful restaurant out on Tennozu Isle (or however you spell it) that has boasted a top-notch kitchen for several years. The beer’s pretty good, too, and getting better, but you still get the sense that most folks dining there aren’t really there to see how the brews are coming around. However, make no mistake, TY Harbor is no slouch in the brewing department, and they’ve recently found a new way to get their beers out there to the red-blooded folk on the west side of town.
It’s called the Smokehouse.
The Smokehouse is on Cat Street not far from that warehousey second hand shop that features brand name kit previously owned by folks who couldn’t fit into it either. Over the course of several visits, I managed to make my way through much of the food and beer menus.
During my most recent trip, I had the Chopped BBQ Pork (￥1,700) which is fall-off-the-bone soft with a notably smokey flavor. It comes with a side of coleslaw and a muffin, which was somewhat sweet for my taste. The Smokehouse cheeseburger (￥1,500), meanwhile, is fantastic – the perfect balance between soft/crunchy, savory/sweet. Certainly in the running for the best burger of its kind in the city.
I was also able to try the grilled marinated chicken breast with chipotle mayonnaise on toasted whole wheat (again served with a large helping of fries). This too had plenty of flavor, and maintained its structural integrity despite the presence of tomato, the juices from the chicken and a generous coating of sauces.
Where Smokehouse really excels, however, is in its selection of sauces. Each table has a selection featuring names like “Voodoo Hot”, “House Pit”, “Porter Pepper” and “Carolina Vinegar”. We fancied the herb-rich House Pit, which we were soon squeezing on everything, particularly the crunchy fries that accompanied the burger.
You also can’t go wrong with a side of Chili Cheese Fries (￥900) or a small bowl of Home Style Mac-n-Cheese (￥400). Calories be damned.
All of T.Y. Harbor’s regular beers are on tap with 420 ml (14 oz) glasses for ￥800, and 250 ml (8.6 oz) pours for ￥480. My favorites are still the Pale Ale with its balanced cascade hops and bready malts, and the Imperial Stout which goes from sweet to bitter as it travels toward the back of the palate. There are also always at least a few guest beers on tap that are more expensive but will generally be worth your while, and the spirits list sports more than 20 labels of bourbon, rye, and other craft whiskies from all over the US. The wine list is 10 bottles long (five red and five white) with all priced at ￥5,000.
Directions: From Harajuku station, walk down Omotosando-dori and turn right just after Shakey’s onto Cat Street. Smokehouse is about 150 meters down, on your left.
2F, 5-17-13 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku
11:30 – 15:00 (L.O.) & 17:30 – 22:00 (L.O.); Weekends, holidays 11:30 – 22:00 (L.O.)
In the third and final episode of JBB’s Kyushu series, Christopher Pellegrini tries Kirishima and Kuro Denen shochu
Convenience stores in southern Kyushu usually carry a wide selection of shochu. Unlike in Tokyo, much of what can be found in Miyazaki, Kagoshima and Kumamoto prefectures comes in small cans or bottles, similar to the so-called ‘one cup’ nihonshu found elsewhere in the country.
We stopped by a combini and picked up a couple that caught our eye. According to its label, Kirishima is from Miyazaki prefecture and is an imo jochu (potato shochu). It’s easily recognized by its very own gold-colored tasting cup. Kuro Denen, meanwhile, comes from Kagoshima prefecture and (we read with interest) is only 12 per cent by volume.
Once again, we sat beneath Kagoshima City’s cherry blossoms and familiarized ourselves with Kyushu’s favorite spirit.
It may be out of fashion, but Christopher Pellegrini argues mugi shochu’s worth your attention
Satsuma imo (sweet potato) shochu is getting all the love at the moment, but interestingly mugi (barley) shochu actually sells just as well.
This will come as a bit of a surprise to anyone who has looked at a menu in an izakaya or restaurant that stocks several honkaku (premium) shochu labels. In many cases, satsuma imo offerings outnumber mugi two-to-one. The same observation can be made at many supermarkets where the satsuma imo section dwarfs every other type of shochu.
So if the majority of the selection is satsuma imo, then how is it possible that in April of 2010 tax authorities reported that 19,311 kiloliters of satsuma imo shochu were shipped while mugi actually clocked in at 19,950?
Perhaps the single biggest reason is that mugi shochu is relatively smooth and easy to drink. The aromas and flavors imparted by the ingredients used in its production are less earthy and milder than shochu with a satsuma imo base. It’s arguable that this makes it appealing to a larger number of social drinkers and helps to drive up sales.
It’s also good for mixing. Mugi shochu is smooth enough that it’s a logical choice for making any of a number of cocktails. Personally, I enjoy mixing it with oolong tea when I go to baseball games here in Tokyo. It’s definitely a crowd pleaser at the stadium—I march in with about a liter of it in a thermos and dish it out to friends who come by with a mixer! I tend to go with a bottle of Iichiko 25% (green cap) which I pick up at Bic Camera in Shinjuku on my way to the game.
Some readers out there in Japan Eats land may now be saying to themselves, “OK, sounds good. I’ll try some of that. But what exactly is it?” Good question. And not one that’s easy to answer in a single tweet. The production of mugi shochu, just like every other variety of Japan’s unheralded spirit, is an incredibly painstaking and exacting process.
The production of mugi shochu is similar in many respects to other spirits. A mash (moromi) of some grain or other plant and hot water is combined with yeast to create a liquid compound containing alcohol through the process of fermentation. This moromi is then distilled, aged and bottled to create a pleasing final product.
The one major difference, and one of the main reasons why mugi shochu is generally so different from whiskey, is that the barley is not malted. Malting involves causing grains to germinate before halting the process with high temperatures and is essential to the creation of popular drinks such as beer and whiskey.
Shochu, on the other hand, employs koji (Aspergillus oryzae) instead of malting to turn the starches present in barley into sugars such as fructose and glucose. This then makes fermentation possible as yeast can deal with sugars but not starches.
But mugi shochu does occasionally taste a bit like whiskey even though the production processes contain some serious differences. This is often due to the fact that mugi shochu producers have taken to importing used whiskey casks. These casks, naturally, will leak some of the flavors of their former inhabitants into the shochu. This is a delightful surprise for anyone who is a Scotch or Bourbon fan as cask recycling is starting to increase in Japan.
The production of shochu in general, and mugi shochu in particular, is much more complicated than what’s written here, but hopefully you now have a better grasp of what this major player in the shochu world is all about.
And if you’re looking for ideas, here are my mugi shochu recommendations:
Light and smooth
Iichiko (Oita Prefecture)
25% alcohol by volume (ABV)
Serving style: on the rocks or mizuwari (mixed with cool water)
Notes: the standard mizuwari mixture is 6:4 (six parts shochu, four parts water), but personal preference should govern here. In Oita Prefecture, many people enjoy mugi shochu on the rocks at a 3:7 ratio.
Yamazaru (Miyazaki Prefecture)
Serving style: on the rocks, mizuwari or oyuwari (mixed with warm/hot water)
Notes: when preparing shochu oyuwari-style, pour the hot water into your cup first. Add the shochu second. The heat from the hot water will draw out the bouquet of the shochu.
Hyakunen no Godoku (Miyazaki Prefecture)
Serving style: straight up or on the rocks
Notes: it’s not common for a honkaku shochu to be bottled at 40% ABV, but this mugi shochu is definitely worth trying at least once.
This is one that you shouldn’t miss. Purchase your ticket online now.
THE JOY OF SAKE is finally coming to Tokyo!
Tuesday November 2nd, 2010, from 6-9PM on the 13th floor of the TOC Building in Gotanda (Tokyo).
Click here for a map.
The Joy of Sake has held tasting events in San Francisco, New York and Hawaii in the past, and this is the first time that the party, which typically hosts 2,000+ sake-loving guests, has come to Japan.
These events have been pivotal in opening North Americans’ eyes to the wonders of the sake world. Please join Japan Eats in supporting this non-profit organization’s quest to bring sake to the masses!
Reserve your ticket here.
Several industry insiders came together to bring the nihonshu-loving public “Taste of Akita” on Saturday
October 23rd at Akita Bisaikan. And 40+ fortunate souls were treated to an evening of Akita’s finest, all while being guided every step of the way by nihonshu author and expert, John Gauntner, bilingual guide and brewery tour organizer, Etsuko Nakamura, and brewery representatives such as Saiya Shuzo’s Akihisa Sato.
Starting with a quick introduction to the history of sake production in Akita Prefecture, Gauntner simultaneously espoused on the mystery sake, a unique unlabeled contest sake given to each table. From there the food began to arrive. First, a hinaidori chicken liver pate followed by broth-simmered Azuki Babylon Shellfish.
And by this time sake number two had already been delivered, again one bottle per table, but this time every table got the same thing–Mansaku-no-Hana Daiginjo. Aged for two years and much more refined than the contest sake, this sake was an excellent counter point to the far richer flavors found in the shellfish and pate.
Next up was the Kariho Hiyaoroshi (fall seasonal sake), a junmai ginjo that nicely complemented the fresh sashimi selection with its pronounced and bright aroma.
Right on Kariho’s heels was crowd favorite Saiya Shuzo’s Yuki-no-Bosha which is actually a genshu at 16%. Genshu is the result of a brewing style that doesn’t involve using water to dilute the sake, and the fact that this sake peaked at 16% means that the toji (master brewer) is one of the best in the business. Most genshu end up being several percentage points higher in alcohol content.
Last but not least, and as the small dishes of food continued to appear in front of the six people at our table, a tokubetsu junmai sake by the name of Ama-no-To Umashine appeared. Teamed with Akita’s specialty, Kiritanpo Nabe, this sake from Asamai Shuzo added liquid notes of raisin and butter to the end of the meal.
From start to finish, “Taste of Akita” was a wonderful experience for both the uninitiated and experienced sake tippler. The Akita cuisine matches easily with what Gauntner calls the “fine-grained” nature of the sake produced in that region, and there were ear to ear smiles on everyone’s face as they left the restaurant to take pictures with the two namahage waiting outside.
This was the first time that Gauntner and Nakamura have teamed up with a prefectural government to help sake reach a wider audience. To make sure that you don’t miss future events like “Taste of Akita”, subscribe to Gauntner’s monthly newsletter.
Rather than produce new libations, Hasegawa has repackaged some popular sake, shochu, and umeshu in fancy 2010 World Cup South Africa-themed bottles. While there were 13 different sake, two shochu, an umeshu, and a lemon liqueur thus bottled, we here were able to get our hands on six nice sake selections. Read more
Yes, the 2010 World Cup is infecting Japan Eats, too. While we have a little Japan-centered FIFA-related tippling on the way, tonight England, home to a good chunk of our friends out there, take on Germany, also a quite Japan Eats-friendly country.
So, what’s on tap tonight is not only what’s on tap, but what’s in bottles: the least scientific head-to-head imaginable. Battle of the beers! Read more
Host Christopher Pellegrini samples some of the many beers on offer at the 2010 Oktoberfest in Hibiya Park, Tokyo. But which was his favorite?
Rachael White explains how to prepare this delicious seasonal dessert.
As an expat in Tokyo, finding recipes that make one feel “at home” can be challenging. Many recipes westerners are familiar with require the use of an oven (not a common appliance in most Japanese kitchens). This recipe for fresh strawberries with whiskey sabayon fits the bill for a dessert that is: 1) simple to make with basic ingredients that can be found in Japanese grocery stores and 2) does not require an oven.
If you have a stove, a whisk, and a little time, you are more than equipped to make this impressive French dessert with a little Japanese flair. Sabayon, or zabaglione in Italian, is a southern French dessert made with egg yolks, sugar, and wine. The ingredients are whipped like crazy to form a light, foamy, creamy topping for fruit, cake, etc. In this case, Japanese whiskey and a touch of vanilla extract replace the wine. Sake would be an excellent substitute as well.
This time of year is especially good for strawberries in Japan. Although they can be found year round in some grocery stores in Tokyo, spring time seems to be when these ruby-red jewels are perfectly sweet and delicious. If they are purchased outside of the season, the texture tends to be hard and the inside is white and nearly tasteless. So, carpe diem and seize the strawberries, friends!
Ingredients (Makes 4-6 servings)
- 8 egg yolks
- 1/2 cup Japanese Whiskey
- 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1/3 cup sugar
- 2 pints strawberries, hulled and quartered
Combine the whiskey, vanilla and sugar in a bowl. Whisk to combine. Put the egg yolks in a medium glass or aluminum bowl. Add the whiskey mixture to the egg yolks and whisk lightly until the egg yolks are just broken. Place the bowl over a double boiler over medium heat. *Note: If you do not have a double boiler it is OK! Just find a heatproof bowl that will fit in the top of a small/medium saucepan.
Fill the saucepan/double boiler with about 2 inches/5 centimeters of water. (Make sure the bottom of the bowl is at least an inch away from the surface of the water. If it touches the water, the eggs will scramble.) Whisk constantly for 10-12 minutes until the egg mixture has almost doubled in volume and is light and foamy. The color should change from egg yolk yellow to a light, creamy, pale yellow color. Remove from the heat and the double boiler.
Divide the strawberries into 4 dessert bowls. Spoon the sabayon over the strawberries and garnish with mint leaves.