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.

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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Boozehound: Kuroki Honten Distillery

Christopher Pellegrini tours Kuroki Honten in majestic Miyazaki Prefecture.

Click here to read the first Boozehound report from our recent trip to Kyushu.

After a day and a night in Kagoshima City, we hopped on a northbound train headed for Miyazaki Prefecture. Our ultimate goal for the day was to visit Kuroki Honten, the makers of well-respected shochu labels such as Kiroku, Nakanaka, and Hyakunen no Kodoku.

Planting sweet potatoes.

To our pleasant surprise, we were in for an incredibly educational and inspiring tour conducted by the president of the shuzo, Mr. Toshiyuki Kuroki himself.

Mr. Kuroki is the fourth generation to have piloted the family distillery, and it was under his watch that business flourished during the past 15 years. A trim and jovial family man, Mr. Kuroki is an executive with a serious hop in his step. He’s difficult to keep up with.

One thing that stood out about Mr. Kuroki is that he has a clear affection for his employees. That evening, and the next day, we observed countless instances of him talking to and joking with the distillers, bottlers and field workers. Solid sales will put smiles on many people’s faces, but it was obvious that the working culture at Kuroki Honten is buoyed by workers who share Mr. Kuroki’s passion and believe in his vision.

And another thing that grabbed our attention, and something that Mr. Kuroki is very proud of, is the shuzo’s determination to recycle everything they possibly can. This includes using the lees from the distilling process to make both fertilizer and livestock feed. Their efforts to make the shochu production process as circular and socially responsible as possible are detailed on the Kuroki Honten website (Japanese).

We later tasted several of the shuzo’s less widely available brands, such as their unfiltered Kiroku and Bakudan Hanatare. The latter, an 88 proof imo shochu that is best kept in the freezer, is supposed to be consumed like a shooter even though there tends to be served in vessels much larger than shot glasses. That might have been the highlight of the visit, but I don’t recall.

Casks of mugi shochu.

While Kuroki Honten doesn’t normally do tours, shochu fans can take solace in the fact that the shuzo’s exemplary products are easily locatable around Japan. In Tokyo, for example, one can purchase Nakanaka, the company’s smooth sipping mugi shochu, at vendors as diverse as Shinanoya (chain liquor store) and Bic Camera (chain electronics store).

Anything made by Kuroki Honten or their sister shuzo, Osuzuyama (the shuzo detailed in my next Boozehound article), is well worth your time and hard-earned cash.

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/

What We’re Drinking: Daimaou Imo (sweet potato) Shochu

This was another bottle that I received in the mail. It’s one that I’ve been meaning to pick up for a while as I’ve seen it a few times before at Seiyu, so I was very happy to see the shiny gold label and foil when I popped the box open.

This is another decent imo-jochu from Kagoshima prefecture, but it surprised me a little because it doesn’t smell like an imo-jochu. It’s more refined than the imo-jochus I’m accustomed to drinking while carrying some light fruit on the nose. Before ever putting it in my mouth this shochu was living up to its deceitful name, “Great Devil King.”

Enjoying Daimaou neat, it has a round, medium-bodied mouthfeel. There’s a sweetness to it that is understated to the point of being dry. The yellow mold (essential to the process of breaking the potato starches down into fermentable sugars) used prior to distilling obviously has something to do with this sweetness. The effect is very pleasant. Yellow mold is what is used in the nihonshu brewing process and is somewhat less common in the shochu industry where white mold prevails.

There’s something about this shochu that reminds me of drinking brandy. Try it neat and see for yourself.

I also highly recommend this shochu on the rocks. It’s light, refreshing and easy to drink–definitely one of the better imo-jochus I’ve had that retails in the 1,600-1,800 yen range. And as I alluded above, Daimaou is distributed widely enough by Hamada Shuzo that you can find it in major supermarket chains such as Seiyu.