How shochu got its groove back

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A young woman was seated at the counter, her long hair tumbling down to her shoulders and resting softly on her beige jacket. In a matching skirt and heels, her long slim legs were revealed. Classy and elegant, she looked like she was ready for a glass of Dom Perignon.

But then, when the bartender came to take her order, she leaned forward and asked for shochu — on the rocks.

Even just a few years ago, this would have been shocking. Shochu used to be a drink of choice for oyaji (old men) in loud izakaya pubs, where they would gulp down their liquor mixed with hot water and ume plums with their ties loosened and their sleeves rolled up. Now, though, drinking shochu has become chic — with a twist that’s neither lemon nor lime.

“What is unique about this shochu boom is that young women have become fans,” said Yoshitaka Inomata, managing director of Sho-chu Authority, a liquor shop in Caretta Shiodome whose shelves are stocked with around 3,200 different varieties garnered from all over Japan. “In fact, more than 60 percent of our customers are women in their late 20s and early 30s.”

Image makeover

Sho-chu Authority — which stocks the country’s biggest selection of shochu — opened in December 2002, before the boom took off. Then, Inomata said, everyone told him he would be out of business in six months, or a year at the most. Still, Inomata decided to take the risk, and now it’s paid off.

“I just got lucky,” he said, with a shrug.

“Shochu is a part of Japanese culture that not many people know much about,” he said. “People abroad know nihonshu [sake], but they don’t know anything about shochu. Ultimately, though, I hope it will become a common word worldwide, like sushi or tempura. But before that can happen, Japanese people must first know more about it.”

He lays out the two fundamental types of shochu: otsu-rui and ko-rui. For decades ko-rui, which is distilled several times and is virtually odorless, was the popular type, usually drunk mixed with juice, tea or — as chuhai — with soda. Otsu-rui, on the other hand, is the product of one distillation, and has a strong, distinctive smell derived from its source ingredient, which — just as for ko-rui — may be buckwheat, sweet potatoes, brown sugar or rice. Otsu-rui is normally drunk on the rocks or mixed with water.

“Otsu-rui has become extremely popular in the last couple of years,” said Tsugunori Tominaga, president of Goretsu Tominaga Brewery in Kuji-gun, Ibaraki Prefecture. “Until then, even manufacturers with a license to make it commercially either didn’t bother or just made small batches.”

License to distill

In Japan, there are many categories of licenses to brew or distill alcoholic beverages — whether for nihonshu, otsu-rui shochu, ko-rui shochu, whiskey, spirits, beer or whatever. According to Tominaga, most nihonshu manufacturers also possess an otsu-rui license so they can make shochu with their leftover rice bran. Until recently, though, most didn’t bother to make more than a little for local consumption, if even that.

“For years, many nihonshu brewers were trying to sell their shochu licenses,” Tominaga said. “But no one wanted to buy them because the drink was so unpopular. Shochu had a strong image of being a cheap drink for lower-class people and alcoholics.”

But the times have certainly changed.

Now, Tominaga’s company is selling more and more shochu, while their nihonshu business is heading steadily south.

It’s been a nationwide trend for the last couple of years. Then finally, last year’s shochu sales exceeded those of nihonshu for the first time in 53 years. According to National Tax Agency data, total shochu production reached 950,826 kl — 9.1 percent up on 2002; whereas nihonshu production fell 5.7 percent, to 856,376 kl. Even major beer brewers such as Suntory, Kirin and Asahi are cashing in, with new shochu brands of their own now vying for space on the nation’s liquor-store shelves.

Scent of success

Just as the image of shochu itself has undergone a transformation, the front-runner in the current vogue has seen the biggest image remake of all.

“Of all shochu, imo-jochu [sweet-potato shochu] has the strongest smell — and I personally can’t stand it,” said Tominaga with a laugh. “Actually, in the old days, that smell was enough to put almost everyone off it — but now, people are saying it smells good.”

In fact, sales of imo-jochu have skyrocketed to such an extent that sweet potatoes in Kagoshima, Kyushu’s southernmost prefecture, where almost all imo-jochu comes from, are now feared to be insufficient to meet demand this year.

Meanwhile, the popularity of more rare brands have elevated them to cult status nationwide. In particular, the Mao, Moriizo and Murao brands — nicknamed “Kagoshima no 3M” — have become so scarce that people have begun to call them “maboroshi no shochu (phantom shochu),” and many shops will only sell them by lottery when they do manage to get hold of a case.

As with any premium item, there are always those looking to make a fast buck. According to liquor-shop owner Tatsuo Tojo, whose Naito Shoten store is in Gotanda in Tokyo’s Shinagawa Ward, “I’ve seen some imo-jochu being sold for 10 times the regular price,” adding that that they have their our ways of trying to block resellers. “All we want is to make sure these shochu go into the hands of customers who really want to enjoy it themselves or with friends,” he said.

Handmade from the heart

As the shop’s second owner, following in the footsteps of his father-in-law, Tojo takes pride in his job as a liquor specialist. He is always studying to learn more about each and every brand. At Naito Shoten, almost all the 300 different brands can be sampled, and very few customers’ questions can stump Tojo — including what kind of person made a particular shochu, Tojo has visited most of the distilleries.

“In a way, this job is about connections between people,” Tojo explained. “If the shochu creator is a wonderful person, their shochu will be too. The sight of the distiller creating shochu itself lets you know that the final product will be delicious. You can’t get that from distilleries that use machines.”

Tojo compares shochu distilling to the small domains of Burgundy, where most wineries are family businesses that have been handed down from generation to generation. But unlike wine, which has a wide range of prices, one of the best things about shochu is its affordability. Most bottles sell for between 1,000 yen and 2,000 yen, and even premium brands rarely cost more than 3,000 yen.

To your health

It’s not only its price and taste that’s behind this trend.

“Shochu is actually good for your health,” said Tojo, “and it’s this health benefit that’s had the biggest influence on the boom.”

Sound familiar? About a decade ago, reports of the polyphenol in red wine reducing heart-attack risk sparked a wine boom. Now it is an enzyme called urokinase in shochu that is adding enormously to its appeal, since people heard about it being used medicinally to prevent blood clots.

“Blood clots are dangerous because they can lead to serious illnesses like myocardial and cerebral infarction,” said Hiroyuki Sumi, a medical-school graduate who is presently a professor of chemistry and bioscience at Kurashiki University of Science and the Arts in Okayama Prefecture. “And drinking shochu can help prevent them.”

In his research into the prevention of thrombosis, Sumi has been using students at Miyazaki Medical University as guinea pigs since 1987. At first he had them drinking water to see what effects it had on their blood. “But the students became bored,” Sumi said with a chuckle, “they said they wanted some kind of alcohol.”

Since beer was too expensive, Sumi chose shochu, because Miyazaki Prefecture is known for it. “I decided to give some students 30 ml of shochu mixed with water,” he recalled. “As it turned out, those who drank shochu had twice the amount of the enzyme urokinase that dissolves blood clots as those who did not drink any alcohol at all.”

Hangover hypothesis

This finding then led Sumi to discover that drinking a little bit of shochu is beneficial to health in many other ways. Although his hypotheses are not yet scientifically proven, he maintains that not only does the strong smell of otsu-rui stimulate the central nervous system, but it can also prevent thrombosis. Senile dementia is also related to blood clots, and Sumi believes that in the early stages, shochu can smooth the blood flow by keeping it thinner.

“It is also said that shochu does not give you a hangover,” Sumi said. “However, there is no scientific evidence to support this, but it may have to do with the fact that good shochu is very pure and has few adulterants.”

For the weight-conscious, shochu is also a big draw. Sumi said that, without mixers, the drink has hardly any calories at all. Unlike fermented liquor like nihonshu, shochu has no sugar content.

There are two caveats, though: “Although shochu is good for you, drinking too much will damage your body in other ways — starting with your liver,” Sumi said. “And just as with anything alcoholic, if you drink too much, you will naturally get a hangover.”

So let us raise a glass to shochu and drink — in moderation, of course.