KAGOSHIMA — Some Japanese traditions are best left alone. Those who would attempt to capitalize on the popularity of Kyoto’s ancient temples by placing soft-drink machines and loudspeakers inside them deserve the severest form of punishment a society can devise, like being forced to watch a TV program hosted by so-called comedian Sanma while the World Cup final airs on another channel. Other traditions benefit from being tinkered with. Think modern interpretations of Okinawan folk music by artists who usually play rock, or the new life breathed into kimono by orange-tan Shibuya girls.
Shochu falls into the latter category of traditions that have benefited from an image upgrade. Once frowned upon by pretentious, socially nervous types as the drink of dowdy old men, over the past few years shochu has come to be smiled upon by pretentious, socially nervous types as a sign of bohemian cool. While the boom of a couple of years ago has peaked, there remain countless devoted shochu otaku (obsessives) who, like their microbeer otaku cousins, congregate at favorite watering holes and spend hours drinking, and talking about, their favorite beverage.
Nor has shochu’s newfound appeal been a strictly domestic phenomenon. Trendsetters from London to Los Angeles have learned that Japanese libations are not limited to sake and beer. Those who live in Japan are getting more inquiries from abroad about the beverage, and the international departure lounges at Narita and Kansai are full of Japanese and foreign travelers carrying wrapped boxes of shochu for friends and family abroad.
Such is its growing popularity among non-Japanese that, like sake and sushi, a basic knowledge of shochu is now de rigueur among resident Japanophiles wishing to impress dates, clients or perfect strangers with their knowledge of all things hip and Japanese. So, if you’re a clever old hand who talks loudly in restaurants, or if you wish to become one, the following may prove useful.
The best shochu comes from Kagoshima, which is to shochu what Scotland is to whisky. There are somewhere between 2,500 and 3,000 different shochu breweries in the prefecture, although many of these are simply side businesses to something else. And, like true whisky experts, shochu snobs can tell you with one sip where the hooch they are drinking was distilled.
Shochu is often translated into English as “sweet potato liquor.” But as Yoko Nomura, a Kagoshima native who is a gold mine of information on shochu, notes, while sweet potatoes form the base, shochu can also contain rice, barley, buckwheat and even sugar cane. Fruits such as tangerines and even persimmons have also found their way into shochu vats.
Historical records show that shochu has at least a 700-year history. Single-distillation is the oldest method of making it, and shochu produced this way is known as honkaku. Because it is not put through the still time and time again, this shochu has a rather pungent smell and taste. The other form of shochu is known as korui. It is made by distilling the shochu many times. Not surprisingly, this produces a lighter, smoother flavor.
Some purists look down their noses at korui, but because this variety of shochu goes exceptionally well with different kinds of food, it, rather than honkaku shochu, is what you will often find in bars nationwide. Then there is imo-jochu, which is pure, sweet-potato shochu. It is quite strong, but some shochu fans will drink it and nothing else.
Despite a long heritage and proud tradition in Kagoshima, shochu has traditionally been viewed in other parts of Japan in the same light as Americans have traditionally viewed moonshine: that is to say, as the drink of rough, unrefined backwoodsmen. While the ancient aristocrats of Kyoto donned their finest kimono and wrote quiet tanka verses about the joys of sake, Japanese farmers and fishermen got loud and red-faced over glasses of shochu. That image began to change radically a few years ago, as more and more people, tired of the endless stream of so-so beers and whiskies churned out by big corporations, and looking for a healthy, lighter alternative, discovered shochu, which not only has fewer calories and less sugar than other alcoholic beverages, but is also said to improve blood circulation and reduce the chances of stroke.
Shochu bars were once all but off-limits to “respectable” women, but many new shochu fans are female, and this has led to older bars getting a makeover and new establishments being opened where cool jazz plays on the sound system instead of enka ballads. And in a move that must have truly shocked the old timers, some of these new shochu bars have even created no-smoking sections. In Kagoshima, of course, many traditional shochu establishments remain, but one of the best new places for sampling the beverage is Sasakura. Serving a variety of Japanese and Western foods to compliment the 400 different kinds of shochu to choose from, this bar draws a steady stream of both locals and foreign visitors.
Whether your preference is for an upscale shochu bar serving smoked salmon, canapes and Godiva chocolates as snack food, or a grotty hole-in-the-wall where the food choices are spam and peanuts, the shochu boom has meant that many of the best brands now go to major cities and are sold for premium prices. The consequence of this is that although Kagoshima is still the capital of shochu, it’s not as easy as it once was to find local favorites.
“Small batches and limited production runs mean that many of Kagoshima’s best shochu brands are difficult, sometimes impossible, to find. And the very best brands are in such high demand that the only way you can get them is through a lottery,” says Nomura.
Getting to know Kagoshima’s best shochu
Deciding which brands of shochu are best is purely a subjective endeavor. But at the risk of being attacked as a philistine by shochu fanatics, the following brands are well-known among serious shochu drinkers in Kagoshima and a great way to get started on your own vintage collection.
Kaido: This shochu comes in a red bottle and goes well with smoked salmon. Kaido has a slightly fruity taste that is just barely reminiscent of gin.
Takeyama: This one goes down quite smoothly and is light on the stomach. It’s the kind of shochu that will get you through the rainy season and humid summer without feeling bloated.
Sekitoba: A bit of a kick, and a bit sweet, with a strong, but not overpowering, aftertaste. Sekitoba goes well with sweet snacks, especially a fine chocolate. This writer’s personal favorite, it is in high demand and, although produced in Kagoshima, is only available for sale in Fukuoka (and difficult to find even there).
Mao (Magic King): Nectar of the gods, the shochu equivalent of 1963 Warre vintage port (in terms of prestige, not taste, of course). Mao is more reminiscent of a smooth sake and has an incredibly mellow aftertaste. It is in a class by itself, and it is among the hardest of the brands to get outside of Kagoshima. Some restaurant owners are not bothered by this fact, especially those in Osaka that have been caught putting low-grade shochu in Mao bottles and passing it off as the real thing to unknowing customers.
Moriizo: Moriizo has a bouquet that is best described as a cross between brandy and grappa. It goes down without burning and leaves a pleasant aftertaste. Many in Kagoshima who know their shochu rate Moriizo extremely highly and, in not a few cases, the absolute best of the best. Even more than Mao or Sekitoba, Moriizo is virtually impossible to find outside of Kagoshima, and extremely difficult to find even there, except in top-quality shochu bars.
Kojika: The poor-man’s version of Moriizo, Kojika is still an excellent shochu with a much lighter aftertaste. Kojika is more widely available than Moriizo, both in Kagoshima and over the Internet. If you are in search of a premium brand that will go down light and complements both sweet and salty foods, Kojika fits the bill.
Isami: For those who like their shochu very, very dry, Isami is well worth a taste.
Ran: Ran is exclusively made from sweet potatoes and smells just a bit like schnapps. It has an aftertaste somewhat reminiscent of a good single-malt scotch. As Ran has a bit of bite to it, it will not be to everyone’s taste. But those who have tried other brands and are looking for something unique will appreciate this drink.