AN IDEAL TIPPLE

Shochu appeal goes supersonic

by Stephanie Gartelman

FUKUOKA — Kyushu folk are feeling quite tickled about something at the moment: a shochu boom in bars around Japan. The surging popularity of this once-lowbrow spirit, which originated in Kyushu, suggests that its old-fogy image may be disappearing for good and that lucrative times lie ahead for the shochu market.

Japanese Bar Kuuki selects labels for their smoothness.

A clear liquor distilled mostly from sweet potatoes, wheat, rice or barley, shochu has an alcohol concentration between 20 and 25 percent and a crisp dry taste comparable to vodka, arrack or awamori. This is no coincidence.

Shochu is the easternmost result of a long history of distilled spirits that originated in Persia, spreading west to Europe and east to India, Thailand and Okinawa (the home of awamori). Around the mid-16th century, the technique arrived in Kagoshima, where shochu was born.

The liquor was a valuable product, jealously guarded by Kagoshima’s Satsuma clan and coveted by locals and the Edo daimyo alike. An early testimony to this is a disgruntled laborer’s 1592 grafitti on a Kagoshima shrine: “This shrine’s stingy manager hasn’t given me a single drop of shochu!”

Bar Goronese owner Goro Ishihara shares a laugh with customers.

Shochu has been the drink of choice in southern Kyushu for centuries since. It is drunk at family meals, weddings and modern bistros alike. Calling for “sake” at many Kagoshima eateries means you want shochu. At shrine rituals in Miyazaki, potent shochu is sipped instead of sweet sake.

Nationally, though, shochu had long been thought of as being “cheap and nasty.” This changed somewhat in the ’80s, when increased demand for korui shochu (the highest grade shochu — odorless and industrially distilled) took the drink out of its hard-boiled world into a female-friendly one. It was a hit in inexpensive cocktails such as chuhai and in making liqueur.

According to tax authorities, who monitor national alcohol sales, metropolitan Tokyo and Osaka still consume nearly 40 percent of Japan’s korui shochu. Meanwhile, choices are growing: With beer sales down, manufacturers such as Suntory and Asahi will crowd the market this summer with even more shochu products.

Kaku-uchi Japonica has top shochu at low prices.

During the ’90s, demand for shochu grew 120 to 190 percent — particularly for otsurui (second-grade) shochu. Also called “genuine” shochu, otsurui is an aromatic virgin liquor distilled using traditional methods. The distinct character of genuine shochu, a result of it containing more impurities than industrial shochu, has become its selling point. A top label such as the prized Mori Izou can sell for up to 30,000 yen a bottle, or 1,500 yen per glass to gourmets treating it as the latest beaujolais.

In 1999 Kyushu produced over 90 percent and consumed nearly 40 percent of Japan’s genuine shochu (the area accounts for roughly 10 percent of the population). Metropolitan Tokyo consumed just 13 percent, reflecting the tendency for big cities to prefer Western products and rural areas to have more traditional tastes. Nevertheless, reports of a strong demand for shochu at stores and bars suggest newer sales figures in Tokyo will be higher.

Why is shochu being drunk now in nontraditional areas? The answer lies in three interconnected factors: low prices, improved quality and changing culture.

Shochu has always been cheap. Although prices rose after 1998 in response to pressure from the World Trade Organization (Japan raised shochu taxes and lowered those for imported liquor), shochu is still the ideal recession drink. A quality 750-ml bottle costs around 2,000 yen and can easily last a party of four the whole night. Try that with wine, or even sake.

Due to recent innovations, quality has improved too. “Most distilleries in Kyushu are small family-run enterprises,” explained Shoichi Sugimoto, corporate affairs journalist at the Nikkei Shimbun’s Fukuoka office. “Under the new taxes, they gave up competing with national giants making korui, and concentrated on creating exclusive genuine shochu.”

As a result, choices have become more colorful than a Starbuck’s menu. The varieties include shochu that’s been aged in barrels, or made with chestnuts, organically grown sweet potatoes or distilled with high-tech choonpa (supersonic) techniques — virtually unheard-of 10 years ago.

Drinking culture has also changed as the gap between Japan’s sophisticated centers and rustic regions continues to shrink. Shochu drinkers were once stereotyped as simple southern granddaddies, drinking sprawled in their work singlets while bellowing to their wives for more food. But today’s shochu drinkers are as likely to be well-heeled young executives, male and female alike.

Drinking cheap shochu is so second nature in Kyushu that some locals are bemused by the trend of drinking in pricey Tokyo-style bars. But retailers know they’re onto a good thing. “We certainly expect shochu sales to continue rising,” says Teiji Hara, of the Fukuoka Regional Taxation Bureau’s public relations office. According to Hara, some manufacturers have even begun marketing shochu overseas.

After Pokemon and takeout sushi, it could well be the next hot export.

Shochu is available at almost any Kyushu establishment, but the following three bars in Fukuoka are particularly interesting places.

Japanese Bar Kuuki

This bar blends old and new Japan within a bright, fresh space — there’s tatami seating and scrolls upstairs, a nouveau artsy Japanese counter-style bar downstairs and the mellow vibes of reggae throughout. All is squeezed into a tiny building with a steep staircase that guarantees a fast descent if you’ve had too many of the 25-odd varieties of shochu. Shochu aficionados should note that to increase the appeal to young women, most labels have been selected for their smoothness, and not for the pungency. Delicious shochu-based cocktails made with fresh grapefruit or cassis are also popular with women, say the staff. Kuuki has a small selection of the more distinctive varieties, such as Murasaki and Torikai, and a good selection of sake.

3-13-28 Haruyoshi, Chuo-ku Fukuoka (behind Hotel Il Palazzo), (092) 752-0139. Open 7 p.m.-5 a.m. Closed irregularly. Shochu 700-1,000 yen/glass; light snacks from 500 yen; cover charge 500 yen.

Kaku-uchi Japonica

Self-described as a kaku-uchi (illegal stand bar), this bar offers rock-bottom prices and a kitschy, hip interior. Shortly before opening in December ’99, owner Gachao opted to keep the ’70s-style vinyl chairs, fake brick, heavy crystal ashtrays and yellow lights exactly as they were. A soft-focus nude photo or two added the finishing touch. Many of Japonica’s customers have publishing and music backgrounds, but its unpretentiousness and Gachao’s friendliness make it a comfy spot for a diverse clientele. Around 15 top-quality shochu labels are available at rock-bottom prices. Gachao and staff also concoct simple but delicious seasonal dishes. Their light, mustard-accented potato salad is excellent, and it’s worth asking what fresh fish of the day is available. Japonica is a little difficult to find, but one of the most refreshing places in town.

5-15-13 Watanabe-dori, Chuo-ku, Fukuoka (5-minute walk south of Fukuoka Station), (092) 762-8900. Open 8 p.m.-8 a.m. Closed Sunday. Drinks and snacks 300-500 yen; “keep” bottle from 2,000 yen, plus 500 yen surcharge; no cover charge.

Bar Goronese

A more mature crowd and slightly higher prices sets Bar Goronese apart from the crowd. The ambience is a mixture of upmarket izakaya and beachside bar, a testimony to owner Goro Ishihara’s fondness for all things Balinese. But the real attraction is the shochu selection — 130 different labels line an entire wall. Before opening the bar, Ishihara was a company man who traveled all over Kyushu on business, tasting great quantities of shochu in the process. He decided the drink had a stronger calling than his salaried lifestyle and opened the 12-seat Bar Goronese last September. First-timers should try the sampling special, three small glasses of shochu for 900 yen, before moving on to a full glass and some of Ishihara’s classy country-style Kyushu dishes. Goronese is a literal museum of shochu (and shochu drinkers) — make sure to visit with a full wallet.

Kazuki Mansion Minami Yakuin 1F, 3-1-3 Kego, Chuo-ku, Fukuoka (10-minute walk west from Yakuin Station), (092) 725-3556. Open 6 p.m.-2 a.m. Closed Sunday. Shochu 500-1,500 yen /glass; “keep” bottle from 5,000 yen; food orders 400-1,000 yen; cover charge 800 yen.

Drinking notes

Best drunk on the rocks or with hot water, shochu has a light texture and crisp dry taste. The taste varies greatly according to label, region and base ingredient. Satsuma imo (sweet potato) shochu is slightly pungent while kome, mugi and soba shochu (rice, wheat and barley respectively) tend to have smoother flavors.

Devotees claim shochu’s purity makes hangovers less painful than after drinking other liquors, although no scientific proof of this exists.