From my seat on the second floor of Shochu Zanmai, a bar specializing in Japan’s indigenous distilled liquor, I can see directly into the building across the street. The bar is located down a narrow alley a 10-minute walk from Tokyo’s Ikebukuro Station, and the close proximity of the surrounding buildings gives me a clear view of the neighbors. Through the window, I make out a group of Japanese men sitting around a low table next door, their arms raised in a toast. This scene of quotidian conviviality mirrors the atmosphere inside Shochu Zanmai, and I imagine that — like us — the men are drinking shōchū.
This thought occurs to me partly because of the Showa Era (1926-89) ambience of the neighborhood — along with the bar’s interior, with its tatami-mat floors and precariously steep staircase — which recalls the days of the first shōchū boom, in the ’80s, when legions of salarymen favored the clear liquor for long-haul drinking sessions. Shōchū has also been the focus of all of my attention for the past 30 minutes.
At Shochu Zanmai, we are literally surrounded by the stuff: the bar boasts over 300 varieties of the spirit, and plastic crates filled with bottles are stacked high along three of the four walls in the room where we are seated. Faced with so many choices, I would be lost on my own, but shōchū expert Christopher Pellegrini, who has kindly agreed to play the Virgil to my Dante, leads me through a tasting that reveals the drink’s astonishing diversity.
Pellegrini first selects three brands of imo-jōchū, a type of shōchū made from sweet potato. Tenguzakura has a toasted-grain aroma and hits my palate with a sharp, astringent kick, while Sakurai has a more delicate character: soft and smooth with a touch of sweetness. Satsuma Ishin differs completely from the previous two, with its expressive floral bouquet that smells strongly of roses. Next, Pellegrini pours me two distinct versions of kokuto (brown cane sugar) shōchū. First, a rare whisky-like specimen produced by Mankoi, and then a bright and grassy distillate by Sato no Akebono.
The seemingly infinite array of shōchū is what first attracted Pellegrini to the drink, and studying it over the past 13 years has only intensified his enthusiasm. He developed a fascination for the craft of brewing at an early age and worked at small beer brewery in his home state of Vermont when he was 18 years old. After moving to Japan in 2002, he was disappointed to discover that the craft beer trend had yet to take off here. Dissatisfied with the brews from the country’s four major producers that dominated the beer scene — Asahi, Kirin, Sapporo and Suntory — he turned his attention to sake and began exploring the offerings at a sake-centric izakaya (traditional Japanese pub) in western Tokyo. Within a year, he had exhausted the sake menu there, so one night he ordered a barley shōchū for the first time. Intrigued by the unfamiliar spirit, he asked for a second glass, and the proprietor poured him a imo-jochu. And that was when he had an epiphany: “I was amazed that both were shōchū because they were so completely different,” he recalls.
Finding little information about the drink written in English, Pellegrini traveled to the Kyushu region of western Japan — the center of the country’s shōchū production — to gain firsthand knowledge. “It became my passion. I began knocking on distillery doors and asking if they would show me how it was made,” he says.
Pellegrini’s new interest coincided with a second shōchū boom in the early 2000s that brought countless opportunities to sample the liquor at bars in Tokyo and a renewed taste for honkaku shōchū, “authentic” or single distillation shōchū, which tends to have more character than its multiple-distillation counterparts. Touted as a healthy alternative to Western spirits, the drink’s popularity swelled when shōchū sales outpaced sake sales for the first time in 2003, before peaking in 2007. Since then, sales have declined at an average rate of around 2 percent annually, due in part to increased competition from other beverages and an overall decrease in alcohol consumption.
Over the years, Pellegrini has immersed himself ever deeper in the world of shōchū and is trying to revive its popularity by launching a meet-up group to share info with fellow fans and creating booze-themed videos on the Japan Eats website. In 2011, Pellegrini became a certified shōchū sommelier, and three years later published a comprehensive guide to the spirit called “The Shochu Handbook,” which delves into production methods, labeling practices and food pairing. He is currently working on a second volume.
When I suggest that the high alcohol content and strong flavor of shōchū might make it difficult to match with food, Pellegrini counters swiftly with a list of surprising but successful pairings, such as pizza and imo-jochu or cheese fondue and kokuto shōchū.
“You can find a drink for any part of the meal,” he says, pointing out that vacuum-distillation techniques create lighter styles that are suitable for aperitifs and a range of cuisines, while barrel aging produces weightier varieties great for heavier fare or after dinner.
Before leaving Shochu Zanmai, I ask if he has any last words of guidance for shōchū newbies.
“Mugi (barley) and kome (rice) varieties are the most accessible in terms of flavor profile and are the easiest to find globally,” he tells me, naming Tsukushi Shiro barley shōchū from Nishiyoshida Distillery and Ginka Torikai rice shōchū from Torikai Distillery as good starting points.
The moon is shining over Ikebukuro as we step out of the bar onto the street. When I look up, I notice that the men in the window next door are still drinking.
“Do you think those guys are drinking shōchū?” I ask Pellegrini. “I hope so,” he answers with a laugh.
Shochu Zanmai is located at 1-23-5 Higashi-Ikebukuro, Toshima-ku, Tokyo; 03-5956-0083; open Mon.-Sat. 4 p.m.-midnight, closed Sun. For more information about Christopher Pellegrini, visit www.shochu.pro.