Japan Eats

Sharing Shochu in North America

The Shochu Handbook

The Shochu Handbook is available now from all good bookstores.

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.”

Pellegrini (r) and Stephen Lyman (l) conduct a lively round of shochu trivia from behind the bar.

Pellegrini (r) and Stephen Lyman (l) conduct a lively game of shochu trivia from behind the bar.

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.

Pouring and talking shochu in Vancouver.

Pouring and talking shochu in Vancouver.

“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.

The Shochu Handbook, available in both e-book and paperback, can be purchased on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and at many other global retailers.

 

Japan Booze Blind: Awamori

John Bailey and Rachael White join host Christopher Pellegrini in blind tasting awamori, Okinawan firewater.

Awamori is a beverage native to Okinawa, the island chain to the south of Japan. It is made from long grain indica rice (usually imported from Thailand) which is washed and soaked before being treated with a black koji mold. Yeast and water are then added to bring about fermentation. Finally, the moromi is heated and distilled. The result is a drink not unlike shochu, with a alcohol content of anywhere between 20 and 40 per cent.

On this episode of Japan Booze Blind, guests Rachael White (producer of the blogs tokyoterrace.com, rachaelwhite.me) and John Bailey (arts journalist, noted Japanophile) blind-taste three very different types of awamori: Donan, Nanko and Sashiba. The show was recorded at Dynamo, a skate themed bar in Koenji.

Thanks to Julien Arnaud for allowing us to film at Dynamo.

Japan Eats Podcast, Episode 17: “There’s something about kōji”

This week, the panel talk kōji – what it is, where to get it, and what to do with it.

The Japan Eats Podcast is presented by Garrett DeOrio, Marcus Lovitt and Christopher Pellegrini. To listen, click play on the audio player below:

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Book Review: “Drinking Japan”

Garrett DeOrio reviews Chris Bunting’s Drinking Japan

I tend to approach tomes of this genre with a fair dose of skepticism as they often fall into one of two categories, even when they’re not bad: a. strong on one drink or area, weak on the others, or b. written by authors who don’t know the turf and focus on spots tourists would find anyway.

Drinking Japan

Drinking Japan by Chris Bunting

Thankfully, my skepticism was dispelled within moments of cracking the cover on Chris Bunting’s attractive new release. He included a few places I know and love (which shows he has good taste!) and listed many more I either didn’t know or hadn’t tried. What better way to give a drink or travel book a fair shake than to road test it?

Bunting’s motivating premise, as he sets forth in his introduction is, simply, that “Japan. . . [is] the best place to drink alcohol in the world.”

He allows that the denizens and partisans of other capitals might be irritated by his proposition and grants them their due. He’s being too nice – those who put forth other locales, especially other cities against Tokyo (where the majority of the bars Bunting includes are located), simply don’t get it, which is why his book is so welcome.

Drinking Japan reads like a travel book – not a touring handbook, mind you, but a travel book, replete with anecdotes and impressions, which not only gives the reader a better idea of what they might be getting into, but also allows Bunting to establish a voice. And that voice is one that will make most readers feel like having a beer, or a whisky, or a glass of wine, or shochu, or awamori, or sake, or even makkori, with the man.

After a brief introduction to Japan’s drinking culture, complete with both a few warnings for the neophyte (or for those who just haven’t yet learned their lessons) and some history, Drinking Japan is divided up into chapters based on the sort of drink each of the 112 establishments he includes specializes in or is most-worth going for. These being: Sake, Shochu, Awamori, Beer, Whisky, Wine, and then others. Each of the seven drink-centered chapters is preceded by an introduction to the drink and its history and place in Japan’s tippling milieu.

The drink chapters are followed by a chapter on liquor stores and other retail establishments and a brief appendix on “Bar Japanese”.

Drinking Japan is focused on the good stuff and written for people who are interested in drinking, as opposed to people who just drink. While not every place he includes is pricey, this is far from a guide for the budget traveler. If you believe that you get what you pay for or don’t mind paying more for better drinks and good atmosphere, Bunting has something you’ll like, if not 112 things. On the other hand, if a cheap happoshu nomi-hodai is all you want out of your drinking life or don’t care how knowledgeable the bartender is or how friendly the clientele might be, you probably won’t get much from his work.

As with any effort of this breadth, Drinking Japan has a handful of minor shortcomings. First and foremost is geography: Of the 112 establishments included, 75 are in central Tokyo and a further nine are lumped together in “West Tokyo”. Yokohama, Japan’s second-largest city, rates only two entries – both beer bars. The entire Tohoku and Chubu regions merit just one each: Sendai’s Isshin and Takayama’s Pub Red Hill, which means Japan’s fourth-largest city, Nagoya, is overlooked entirely. Likewise, the entire island of Kyushu is represented only by two shochu bars in Kagoshima – nada for the Fukuoka metropolis – and lovely Shikoku is passed by.

Being centered on the drinks themselves, the book also omits a number of neighborhoods known for their charm more than their pure liquid gourmet appeal, although he does include the venerable Lion Ginza 7-chome (the old one) solely for its mosaic and its place in history. Similarly, the inclusion of the cheap izakaya Kaasan – a chain shop for the cheap gourmand and notable for its ability to host sizable parties seems odd. Nothing wrong with the place, and its branches tend to have a more relaxed atmosphere and fewer screaming kids than other chains, but it does raise a question: Why Kaasan and not any of the numerous more worthy entries of the same sort?

That said, I still eagerly took a number of Bunting’s recommendations and largely agreed with him. He doesn’t mind spending a bit at times, but he knows whereof he speaks, gets the details right, and won’t steer you wrong.

If you’re unfamiliar with Japan, especially Tokyo (and that seems to be the target audience), Drinking Japan is a great place to start. If you live here, you’ll still find some new gems.

If you pick it up and decide to try it out, let us know. If you have a beloved haunt Bunting missed, let us know about that, too. Heck, invite us to try it out with you sometime. (We bark a lot, but we rarely bite. Except for that one time, and Pellegrini is really sorry about that.)

Drinking Japan
by Chris Bunting
Tuttle, US$24.95/2,130 yen (may vary), 272 pgs.