The Wonderful World of Shochu
Along with ramen and sushi, sake is a part of Japanese food and drink culture that is ubiquitous here in New York. But as someone who spent the majority of my time in Japan in Kyushu, I sometimes wonder why shochu doesn’t get its fair share of the acclaim. Down there shochu is the go-to drink, and since 90% of domestic production takes place at distilleries in Kyushu it is known as Shochu Island. So I was thrilled when Japan Society asked me to interpret at its first ever event showcasing shochu, Distilled, Not Brewed: Discovering Shochu. The main speaker was Shinichiro Watanabe, CEO of Kyoya Shuzo and Chairman of the Committee on Shochu Planning at the Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association. His presentation on shochu was for the uninitiated, and highlighted aspects of this distilled liquor such as its history, cultural significance and health benefits.
To breakdown the basics of Watanabe’s presentation, the main way that shochu differs from sake is that it is distilled as opposed to brewed. Sake is made from rice whereas shochu can be made from ingredients such as sweet potato, barley and rice. The ingredient is determined by what region of Kyushu the shochu is produced in, and Kumamoto where I lived is rice-based whereas Kagoshima is known for sweet potato-based shochu. Finally, shochu is usually stronger than sake, with 25-30% alcohol vs. 15-18% alcohol on average. Shochu’s alcohol percentage is about half that of similarly distilled vodka and whiskey, giving it a clean taste that doesn’t lead to hangovers. It is not only able to prevent blood clots as red wine is said to do, but can dissolve them should they form. Shochu also contributes to smooth blood flow, and with no additives it is a sugar-free alcohol.
Following Watanabe’s engaging talk was an interpretative musical performance that featured the ethereal sound of shochu fermentation. But of course the main event was the tasting portion of the evening, where eight Kyushu distilleries were on hand to share samples of their products. I was happy to see producers of Kumamoto's famous Hakutake Shiro, but I have to say my favorite drink was the Ginza Susume Kohaku from Yatsushika Sake Brewery, a well-balanced, high-class barley shochu aged in oak bourbon whiskey barrels for three years. I am not usually a bourbon fan, but this shochu was so mellow and easy to drink that I could have stayed at that table all night.
Despite being in the center of Shochu Island for three years, there is still so much more for me to learn about this intriguing distilled liquor. In talking to a JET friend who lived in Shizuoka, I learned that over there it is common to cut shochu with green tea as opposed to hot water, the usual standard for お湯割り (oyuwari). Here’s hoping that going forward shochu becomes as familiar to New Yorkers as ramen, sushi and sake!