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.

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.