While attending JETRO’s trade event promoting 16 makers of shochu, Japan’s national distilled beverage, I met Jesse Falowitz, a Tokyo-based entrepreneur who started a company that will bring a new brand of shochu to the States. During my recent two-week trip to Tokyo, Falowitz once again helped me navigate the somewhat intimidating waters of the Japanese spirit.
We met at Tokyo Shochu Bar Gen, a tiny, dimly lit watering hole located in the basement of a building in Tokyo’s Shibuya ward. The shelves are lined with thousands of bottles of shochu, and the walls are covered with the labels from those bottles. (Coincidentally, the book Drinking Japan by Chris Bunting, which I’m going to review for JapanCulture•NYC, includes Bar Gen.)
Falowitz and I sampled several brands of shochu, including mugi (barley), shiso (a minty Japanese herb), and sesame. The shiso and sesame were quite flavorful and the best shochus I’ve tried thus far. Of the two mugi shochus I tried, I could see myself actually enjoying one, but the other was much too strong for me. I came to the realization – with Falowitz’s help, of course – that the black koji (a fungal spore crucial to the production of shochu and sake) used in that brand was what made it less appealing to me.
Stephen Lyman, a New York-based shochu fanatic and editor of the website Kampai!, explains in a recent post:
“The general rule is that if you want a smooth, mellow shochu you look for a shochu made with low pressure distillation and white koji. That combination is going to give you a very mellow shochu no matter what base grain [sweet potato, barley, sesame, etc.] is used. Conversely, a black koji and atmospheric distillation shochu is going to maximize flavors, create all sorts of complexity that many drinkers either love or hate.”
Well, I kind of hated the mugi shochu made from black koji. But now I know what to look for the next time I drink shochu.
And I’ll certainly look for Falowitz’s shochu, which is scheduled for release later this year. He and his business partners worked with a distiller to develop a brand of shochu that will be pleasant to the Western palate. I wonder if that means they’re using white koji?