Japan Eats

Japan Booze Blind: Kyushu (Part III)

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.

Watch Part I.

Watch Part II.

Booze Basics: Mugi (barley) shochu

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.

Iichiko

Iichiko is perhaps the best known brand of mugi shochu

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.

Medium richness

Yamazaru (Miyazaki Prefecture)
25% ABV
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.

Full character

Hyakunen no Godoku (Miyazaki Prefecture)
40% ABV
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.

Boozehound: Joy of Sake Does Tokyo

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.

Tickets are 8,000 yen and will allow you access to more than 320 sakes and appetizers courtesy of Nobu (New York), Yoshi’s (San Francisco), KomahachiRestaurant J, and other gourmet chefs.

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.

Boozehound: “Taste of Akita” with John Gauntner

Several industry insiders came together to bring the nihonshu-loving public “Taste of Akita” on Saturday

John Gauntner, author of The Sake Handbook, answering questions at each table.

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.

Mr. Sato from Saiya Shuzo sat with the guests for much of the evening.

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.

World Cup Sake, Match 1

Hasegawa, purveyors of fine sake and savvy marketers of products such as the Tokyo Swallows baseball beer, have outdone themselves for the 2010 World Cup.

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

What We’re Drinking: England vs. Germany

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

Japan Booze Blind: Oktoberfest

Host Christopher Pellegrini samples some of the many beers on offer at the 2010 Oktoberfest in Hibiya Park, Tokyo. But which was his favorite?

Recipe: Fresh Strawberries & Japanese Whiskey Sabayon

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.

Strawberries & Whiskey Sabayon

Strawberries & Whiskey Sabayon: All of the ingredients are commonly found on Japanese grocery store shelves. Photograph: Rachael White

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

Method

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.

Fresh Strawberries & Sabayon

The most famous Japanese strawberries come from Tochigi and Fukuoka prefectures. Photo: Rachael White

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.

What we’re drinking: Tokyo Swallows Baseball Beer

Beer endorsed by a bird with a bat.

This Tokyo Swallows Baseball Beer surprised me with its aroma. It reminded me, ever so slightly, of “Duchesse”, that beautiful Belgian ale that is becoming increasingly easy to find in Tokyo.

Poured straight from the bottle into a pint glass, this beer has a hazy straw color to it and a thin head that disappears quickly.

This is a light-bodied beer that has a bit of tanginess as it travels towards the back of your mouth. And the tanginess hangs around for a little bit at the finish. This would definitely be an acceptable brew for a hot summer day. It gives you a lot more to think about on the palate than the typical Japanese light beer while preserving the expected refreshingness and ease of drinking.

Weighing in at a rather modest 4% alcohol, this signature brew was a present from my friend Kyoko, who also entrusted me with this bubbly nihonshu not too long ago (click here for the full article.) According to the label, this beer is contract brewed by monster liquid libations producer, Kizakura, through an arrangement with classy Tokyo sake merchants (and Tokyo Swallows fans), Hasegawa Saketen.

Recipe: Ichigo-shu (strawberry wine)

Stemming from my days as an apprentice brewer at Otter Creek Brewing, and even before that when I was homebrewing, I have a longheld fascination with making tasty beverages.

I’d therefore like to share with you a recipe for making ichigo-shu which can be loosely translated as ‘strawberry wine’.

This liquid treat takes only a couple of weeks to become drinkable, and it if you make a batch today it should be ready to drink by the end of hanami (cherry blossom viewing) season here in Tokyo.

Here’s how it works:

You’ll need a glass jar. My local Seiyu supermarket sells 22cm jars that are adequate for one batch of ichigo-shu (pronounced /ee-chee-go shoe/) .  A 22cm jar holds about 1,500 ml (48 oz.) of liquid.

You’ll also need 300 g of strawberries, one whole lemon, 50 g of rock sugar, and 600 ml of 35% alcohol white liquor.

1. Wash and then halve the strawberries. Remove the stems.

2. Peel and then thinly slice the lemon.

3. Put the halved strawberries, lemon slices, and rock sugar in the jar.

4. Pour the white liquor over the top.

5. Wait two weeks (the jar should be kept in a cool, dark place).

6. Strain the liquid into a bottle (a clean, empty wine/shochu/nihonshu bottle works just fine).

* Don’t eat too much of the leftover fruit at once. Think jello shots only slightly healthier. You will lose this battle.

7. Sip and enjoy! This delicious drink can be enjoyed ‘neat’, on the rocks, with a bit of water, or splashed over ice cream or yogurt. Store the bottle in a sun-free area. No need to refrigerate it as ichigo-shu is a distilled beverage.

A quick word to the wise: don’t underestimate the power of this cute little drink. Keep in mind that you dumped more than half of a liter of 35% alcohol in there. Even though it’s very sweet when watered down a little bit, it will go to your head in a real hurry.

Also, make sure to write down what you did and when. That way you’ll be able to adjust things slightly to your liking over a series of batches. For example, you may want to add a little bit of red wine at the beginning of the process to see how that affects the resulting flavor. Just how much you add and when is crucial for recreating that magical batch that you made last time.

Enjoy!