Japan Eats

Japanese cuisine inspires beer, wine, and shochu creativity

Japan imported 2,458,013 cases of sparkling wine during the first nine months of 2014. That’s a 10% increase over the same period last year, and overall craft beer sales were up seven percent through August. This is no doubt splendid news for consumers, but these trends represent tart slices of a migraine pie for Japan’s brewers and distillers.

Beer for "washoku."

Beer for “washoku.”

Izakaya revelers and grocery cart pushers alike are enjoying an agreeable selection of wine and whiskey at bargain prices, and the craft beer selection is perpetually at an all-time high. That’s all well and good, of course, but don’t expect manufacturers to quietly cede territory to alcoholic upstarts and recently arrived, exotically labeled tourists.

Indeed, maturity in all segments of the market is inverting old marketing principles and allowing restaurants and bars to more carefully cater to discerning palates. Japanese food, drink, and advertising companies have reacted to the changing landscape in varied ways, with equally varied success.

Big trends in the drinks industry this year? Well, it seems that one of them is creating the perfect mealtime beverage.

Suntory, makers of one of the pricier macro-brewed beers in Japan, tried earlier this year to market a product that pairs well with washoku, or traditional Japanese dishes. “Wazen,” Suntory’s watery attempt at home-cooked food and beer harmony, has since disappeared from most store shelves, so we may not know until next year whether Wazen sixers were able to steal shopping cart space from Asahi’s bestseller, Super Dry.

“Wa” went well with wagyu, too.

Earlier this year the Westin Hotel in Ebisu hosted a sushi and white wine pairing to show off a collaborative effort by Australia’s Jacob’s Creek winery and Ginza Sushiko Honten. The tandem created a white wine that pairs well with sushi, and “Wa,” the label released in 2013, makes a good argument for inclusion in any sushi establishment’s drinks list.

Guests were not only treated to several plates of Ginza Sushiko’s finest sushi, but also to head chef Sugiyama’s commentary on the process of blending the perfect wine to complement different types of fish and soy sauce. Participants started with spoon sushi, before being treated to everything from squid and sea urchin to tuna and halibut.

The white wine was inspired by Sugiyama’s desire to find new pairing possibilities for the sushi that he serves in Ginza which averages US$200-300 per head. He collaborated with winemaker Rebekah Richardson to create a drink that would accentuate his shop’s well-regarded menu. The result is a white wine that feels at ease next to the flavors of a well-crafted sushi meal.

Try this with your sushi.

Try this with your sushi.

And here’s another new drink that you should try with your raw fish. According to Shochu Pro, Satsuma Shuzo recently released a soft sweet potato shochu that was produced specifically with a fish dinner in mind. The mild-mannered “Jan,” which works wonders served oyuwari, straight, and on the rocks, is especially suited to red (fish) meat, and you know what that means–maguro!

Shochu and awamori have always been at ease cozying up to sushi, sashimi, and grilled fish, but Shochu Pro reports that the Kagoshima Sushi Association reached out to Satsuma Shuzo for something new. The makers of the well-traveled Shiranami and Kannoko brands responded with “Jan,” and although the new kid on the block has yet to be featured heavily outside of Kyushu, it has been well-received at home.

You may recall that UNESCO recognized washoku as an Intangible Cultural Heritage last year, so it’s no wonder that all corners of the drinks industry are clamoring to find a steady perch beside it.

With the 2020 Olympiad looming, prepare yourself for a swarm of drinks begging to accompany your meal. Here at Japan Eats, we’d encourage you to give them all a fair shot.

But take it slow. Leave the headaches to Japan’s alcohol industry.

Boozehound: Satsuma Musou Distillery

Christopher Pellegrini visits Satsuma Musou Distillery in Kagoshima City

Doing the research part of writing a book is arduous, especially when there aren’t any resources available in one’s own language. I’ve read nearly everything that exists on the subject written in Japanese, but there just really isn’t that much content out there in general.

So I decided to go straight to the source. Kyushu, that is. Because I’m writing a book about shochu.

Mai Miyauchi of Satsuma Musou Shuzo.

Mai Miyauchi of Satsuma Musou Shuzo.

About a 20 minute walk from Goino train station in Kagoshima City is Satsuma Musou Distillery. Partly supported by the prefectural government, this distillery is an ideal place for tourists as it has a well-planned tour and large gift shop/tasting area. Much to my surprise, I was treated to a tour of the facilities entirely in English by the knowledgeable Mai Miyauchi who has gone so far as to attend industry-related classes at Kagoshima University.

The distillery that we toured is a smaller operation set up for the benefit of tourists. They were still working on batches of imo shochu even though the season ended in February or March for most other distilleries in Kyushu. This meant that we were still able to see the workers unload check frozen potatoes before they were dropped into the steamer. We also had a chance to see the mash bubbling away at different stages of fermentation in open earthenware pots half submerged in the facility’s concrete floor.

And of course, we sampled several of the distillery’s liquid treats. Even if you can’t travel to Satsuma Musou in Kogoshima Prefecture, you can probably find their Satsuma Musou ‘Red Label’ (Aka Raberu) or Kuro Mugi at finer liquor shops around Japan.

Satsuma Musou is recommended as an introduction to the complex process of making Japan’s wonderful distilled drink, shochu.

Website (Japanese): http://www.satsumamusou.co.jp/