Recent events in New York put the spotlight on shochu, a spirit that’s making New Yorkers realize there’s more to Japanese alcohol than sake. A restaurant tasting and consumer and trade events sponsored by the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO) and the Shochu and Awamori Tasting Contest from the organizer of Japan Block Fair promoted the beverage that is currently more popular than sake in Japan.
Although shochu may not be well known in the States, its history dates back five hundred years. Unlike sake, which is brewed, shochu is distilled alcohol from a variety of ingredients such as sweet potatoes, rice, barley, and soba.
On February 12 JETRO sponsored NY Shochu Night Out, which brought sixteen shochu producers to three Japanese restaurants: Sakagura, Robataya, and Inakaya. Each restaurant was filled to capacity, and diners were treated to free tastings of shochu.
The same sixteen makers spent the next day at Astor Center as part of JETRO’s Experience Shochu, the National Spirit of Japan. Shochu already has a presence in New York; the spirit is served at many Japanese restaurants, and it is sold at Landmark Wines and Astor Center. But for the sixteen companies that have at least one brand in the US, the event allowed them to showcase other flavors to representatives of restaurants and liquor stores.
Mixologist Junior Merino, the Liquid Chef, gave a presentation on the history and methods of producing shochu and awamori, a distilled beverage from Okinawa. Merino offered a tasting of different flavors of shochu and awamori served in a variety of ways: Straight, on the rocks, with hot water, and in cocktails he created.
“Shochu is more popular than sake in Japan right now,” says Jesse Falowitz, a Tokyo-based entrepreneur who attended the trade session. Falowitz is a partner in and director of marketing for a startup that’s endeavoring to bring more shochu to the States. During his two years in Japan, he has fallen in love with beverage and sees the role of his business as that of “cultural ambassador.”
Falowitz is an example of how non-Japanese are developing a fondness for shochu. Stephen Lyman, who writes about the beverage on his blog, Kampai!, has become somewhat of a celebrity in New York’s shochu circles. An NHK crew followed him around the city as he attended all of the shochu-related events, recording his interviews with shochu makers, shochu drinkers, and shochu contest participants. (Read his account of NY Shochu Night Out here.)
Lyman himself was a contestant in the Shochu and Awamori Tasting Contest, a lively, weeklong shochu pop quiz that bookended the JETRO events. Sixteen restaurants in Manhattan and Brooklyn hosted the qualifying rounds of the contest, which was organized by Todo Todoroki, the owner of the East Village Japanese eatery Uminoie and the organizer of Japan Block Fair. Participants tested their knowledge of Japanese alcohol by sampling five kinds of shochu and awamori and guessing three randomly chosen brands. The top scorers from each restaurant moved on to the finals, which were held at the Kitano Hotel on February 15.
JETRO didn’t sponsor the contest, but Todoroki wanted to promote shochu and lead up to the JETRO events. “Our main goal is we want to help the market here,” says Kiyoe Takada, one of the contest planners.
An architect by trade, Takada is well versed in the food and drink of her native Japan, which she puts to good use in Art of Food and Sake, her business as a tasting event planner and caterer. She assisted Todoroki with the contest because she shares his desire to educate New Yorkers about the joys of shochu.
Takada says there are several factors that make shochu attractive to prospective drinkers. “It’s low calorie . . . and it’s supposed to be healthy because there is no sugar added,” she says. “It’s also more flexible [than sake]. It’s very easy to mix it with other spirits or with juice.”
The contest, Takada says, was aimed at non-Japanese drinkers as a way of introducing them to shochu’s distinct flavor and flexibility. Several of the contestants were non-Japanese, including Lyman of Kampai! After earning a perfect score in the qualifying rounds, Lyman was eliminated during the finals. “I didn’t have water in between tastings, so I didn’t cleanse my palate,” he explains.
After 42 contestants were whittled down to five with three taste tests and a raucous final round where the five finalists sampled thirteen brands of shochu twice, Seikai Ishizuki of Fukuoka emerged as the Grand Prize winner, garnering $2,000 and two round-trip tickets to Japan. Yoshiko Okamura of Osaka was the 1st Runner-up, winning $500 and a round-trip ticket to her hometown. An American, Justin Keesey, confidently passed a tiebreaker to become the 2nd Runner-up, earning $250 and a one-week Japan Rail Pass.
The contest was a fantastic, if somewhat chaotic, end to more than a week of shochu-related education and outreach.
“It’s all about discovery and captivating the consumer in the right way,” Falowitz says of shochu’s chances of becoming more popular in the States.
But for Takada, there’s still some work to do. “I’m glad we have the opportunity to introduce shochu, but people are still hesitant [to try something different],” she says. “The challenge is to get people to change their habits.”
Which is what JETRO, Todoroki, Lyman, and a host of others are trying to do. Sake is generally the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of Japanese alcohol. (Or, perhaps, Asahi Super Dry.) Now it’s time to add a new beverage to the list: Shochu.