In spite of the fact that sake has been more well-known to American palates for a long time, shochu is finally prepared to have its moment in the spotlight. Shochu is Japan’s original distilled spirit, and it has amazing usefulness for drinking in a variety of ways, including plain, on the rocks, in cocktails, and other ways. Sake, on the other hand, is a rice wine that has been made.
In addition, because its proof point often ranges from fifty to eighty, shochu is well-suited for longer tastings that take place over the course of meals and social events. This is especially true when compared to other categories, such as cask-strength whiskies.
At the beginning of this year, Drinkhacker was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to experience a fantastic marriage of shochu and food at one of the most renowned Japanese restaurants in New York City. At the Sakagura restaurant, which is tucked away underground and is really very spacious, we had the opportunity to sample a variety of different expressions, preparations, and pairings that might very well be a preview of a new wave of drinking culture in the United States.
Who may be responsible for a possible wave of shochu?
Shochu is the kind of beverage that has the potential to follow in the footsteps of mezcal, with demand being driven by consumers who are eager for new experiences as well as a growing scene for artisan cocktails. It just requires the appropriate marketing strategy.
Various Types of Shochu
One such strategy is being spearheaded by a partnership between the New York Japanese Restaurant Association and the Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association, which is an organisation that represents more than 270 shochu distillers. Through its concentration on the most extensive restaurant and bar sector in the United States, the two organisations are working towards the goal of increasing both the knowledge of shochu and the demand for it, one partner institution at a time. To achieve this goal, they have designated the month of February as Shochu Month, and the beginning of the event in 2023 will concentrate on 24 pubs and restaurants in New York City that will mix shochu tastings with unique cuisine courses.
Sakagura, located in East Midtown, is one of the partner restaurants. Since 1996, Sakagura has been one of the most popular places in New York City for sake enthusiasts. The restaurant is almost completely unmarked and can only be reached through the lobby of an office building. It offers meals in the style of an izakaya. Additionally, they have been advocates of the versatility of shochu as well as the great flavour variation it possesses.
When it comes to shochu, Sakagura’s veteran manager, Masatoshi Omichi, believes that the beverage is well-positioned to become popular among a younger generation of drinkers. In addition, he is of the opinion that the very conventional highball is the most effective vector for that second wave of expansion.
The Highball Culture Approaching the Mainstream
Despite its seeming simplicity, the traditional shochu highball consists of shochu, seltzer water, ice, and a garnish (often citrus) that is either added or squeezed in for flavour. According to Omichi, the highball is an excellent way to begin a meal since it is both palate-cleansing and invigorating. It is frequently used in place of beer or wine. Omichi believes that a new generation of diners is somewhat more conscientious of their intake, with alcohol playing a less significant role in the dinner. As a result, he strives to achieve dilution levels that range between 8 and 12% alcohol by volume.
For the preparation of highball ice at Sakagura, Omichi and his crew make use of imported Japanese water, which is well-known for its relatively soft properties.
In addition, he argues that because the garnishes that are used in highballs are versatile, chefs and bartenders may work together to create highballs that are a perfect match for the flavour components of the cuisine. (For instance, combining lemon in a highball with a meal that already has a significant amount of citrus components.)
Following the introduction of consumers to shochu through the use of a highball, Omichi provides a few broad suggestions by which customers may get the most out of the spirit in its base form. Shochu is ideally served neat after it has been pre-chilled; later on in a meal, specific expressions can also be served over a rock, which helps unlock smells similar to those that one could discover with a high-quality whisky at the same time. According to Omichi, both neat and rough preparations are beneficial when used with heavier or fried foods since they help to bring down the level of fat in the dish and cleanse the palate in between bites.
Japan’s Shochu Whisky
Every Course Is Served with a Shochu
The basis for the mash of the shochu has a significant influence on the flavour, just as it does with any other liquor. Rice, barley, buckwheat, sweet potato, and potato are all capable of imparting uniquely diverse flavours, as can different distillation processes and yeast. It is explicitly pointed out by Omichi that potato and sweet potato shochu are trendy characteristics that are becoming increasingly popular both neat and in highball preparations.
During the course of our meal at Sakagura, we were able to try almost a dozen different brands and preparations of shochu, each of which was paired with a different section of the menu.
One of the first highlights was a highball made with shochu, which was accompanied with shishito peppers and white fish. It was made with Daiyame 40, and it had exceptional lychee overtones, which are indicative of the flavour trends that are currently prevalent.
Another sweet potato shochu, this time Komaki Jozo, was served in its natural state and accompanied by fried lotus root and prawns. It possessed what Omichi describes as a typical funkiness while simultaneously cutting through any fatty aftertaste. The fermentation process was executed in a more conventional manner.
An aged expression known as Hyakunen no Kodoku, which literally translates to “100 Years of Solitude,” was served with the primary protein dishes. Approximately six to seven months of age, it has a mushroom-like, earthy flavour that worked well with the rich umami flavours that were present in the meal, which in this case was fish that had been marinated in sake leaves.
Tenshi no Yuwaku Sweet Potato Shochu, which has been matured for up to ten years in old sherry barrels, was the one that we poured after the dinner. It is perfect for gradually easing into a dessert course.
If fresh imports are brought online within the next year, it is not difficult to imagine that shochu’s expansion in the United States will extend beyond the most important markets in the country. We are of the opinion that the sooner, the better.