While scrolling through Twitter a few weeks ago, I stumbled upon a discussion about the health benefits of shōchū, Japan’s indigenous distilled spirit — a topic that felt very of the moment given the connection between increased risk of dying from COVID-19 and obesity, or even just concerns about post-pandemic weight gain.
In the thread, Fukuoka-based shōchū expert Stephen Lyman, whose book, “The Complete Guide to Japanese Drinks,” was recently nominated for a James Beard Award, describes how replacing beer and wine with shōchū once helped him shed nearly seven kilograms over the course of seven months.
In the early 2000s, shōchū experienced a boom in Japan, with shipments outpacing those of sake for the first time in 2003. The liquor’s popularity was propelled in part by its supposed medical benefits — which ranged from preventing blood clots to curbing obesity — positioning it as a healthier alternative to other alcoholic beverages. While I’d heard the drink was low in calories, I’d never known anyone who had actually used it as a diet aid.
Lyman, a native of New York, discovered shōchū at an izakaya bar in Manhattan more than 12 years ago, and was instantly smitten.
“It drew me in because I was really into wine pairing and craft beer. Distilled drinks were a bit too strong for me, and I was always looking for a drink that could be paired with food,” he recalls, noting that shōchū is usually around 25 percent alcohol by volume.
By 2011, his interest in shōchū had become a passion, but he only began drinking it almost exclusively for several months when a sports injury caused him to gain weight.
“I’d known that shōchū was low in calories, so I decided to sub out wine and beer for shōchū six out of seven days a week,” he says.
Within a month, he lost two kilograms; after two months, he lost just under five.
It sounded almost too good to be true, but enticed by the idea of losing weight without altering my lifestyle in any major way, I made a beeline for my local liquor shop. Soon, however, I was confounded by a wall of unfamiliar labels. Once again, I turned to Lyman.
He points me to Iichiko Silhouette, an easy-to-find, “light and clean” blended barley spirit that he calls “the Johnnie Walker of shōchū.” Another go-to is Satsuma Shima Bijin, a fresh and “approachable” sweet potato shōchū produced by a group of five families who blend together multiple distillates to create the finished product. For a richer style of sweet potato shōchū, he recommends the offerings from Yamatozakura Distillery, where he’s been studying how to make the drink since 2013. One of his favorite varieties of rice shōchū is Mushagaeshi, hand-crafted by the boutique producer Jufuku Shuzo.
When it comes to pairing, Lyman notes that, with more than 50 possible base ingredients and countless variations in production methods, there are “literally millions of potentially different styles” of shōchū. Richer, more unctuous expressions work with heavier foods and, in particular, dishes made with miso. Barley shōchū made by vacuum distillation, which results in a lighter and more aromatic style, pairs with white fish, sashimi or delicately flavored, simmered nimono dishes. Generally speaking, sweet-potato shōchū, Lyman says, is a match for meats like pork, while rum-like kokutō (black sugar) shōchū harmonizes with hearty grilled meats. Full-flavored shōchū is a surprising accompaniment to dark chocolate.
Experimenting in my own kitchen, I mix Iichiko Silhouette, which tastes of ripe stone fruit, with soda water and serve it alongside chilled watermelon and mint soup. Yamatozakura stands up to the sweet and earthy spices of lu rou fan, Taiwanese braised pork spiked with anise and cinnamon. Instead of Satsuma Shima Bijin, I opt for Komaki Issho Bronze, an easy-drinking sweet potato shōchū, which complements a vegan stew of sweet potatoes, chickpeas and peanuts.
So far, my shōchū “diet” has yet to yield dramatic results. But this journey has opened my eyes to new possibilities for pairing, and I’ll definitely continue to explore. I may even make progress in my fitness goals.