The Shochu Must Go On

A distilled Japanese spirit is taking the Bay Area by storm.


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Robert Morita is VP of Nankai Shochu.

Photo courtesy Nankai Shochu

Most Americans know about sake. But few know about or have tasted, shochu — that other Japanese spirit which, despite immense popularity in Japan itself, remains a mystery to the rest of the world.

That’s about to change, as Japan’s shochu scene is now enjoying the same kind of renaissance that transformed America’s beer industry from exclusively corporate mass-production to a galaxy of innovative microbreweries crafting small-batch regional delicacies.

It’s never been entirely clear why sake, not shochu, achieved international prominence as the quintessentially Japanese drink. Sake is much harder for foreign palates to accept — closer to a funky rice beer than to wine — and remains an acquired taste for most Westerners. But shochu is distilled, which purifies the liquid and refines its flavors, as happens in whiskey-making, producing a liquor that’s approachable, pleasant — almost familiar.

“Sake and shochu have very similar roots,” said noted Napa sommelier, sake expert, and shochu marketing consultant Eduardo Dingler, “but sake is actually much more like beer; you ferment it and you’re done. Although both drinks start with the same components — rice and water — shochu gets another starch added and then goes through the distillation process, creating a pure spirit.”

Shochu originates from Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan’s four main islands, and production is still centered there.

“I love that in Japan everything’s so regional, so local — and that includes shochu,” marveled Dingler. “The different varieties of shochu are traditionally made with native pants that each come from a unique part of the island. Sweet potato (imo) shochu comes from Kagoshima, at the southern tip of Kyushu; buckwheat (soba) shochu comes from the eastern coast of Kyushu; and barley (mugi) shochu is made on the north side of the island around Fukuoka.”

Other styles include cane-sugar shochu and long-grain-rice shochu; both originate from the Kyushu region’s small offshore tropical islands.

Because, by law, shochu is only single-distilled and has no additives, each style retains its characteristic flavors to a much greater degree than do high-proof Western spirits. At a recent event showcasing up-and-coming and traditional shochu distilleries, sweet-potato-based Daiyame shochu from centuries-old Hamadasyuzou Co. was so naturally flavorful that it tasted almost like lychee liqueur, while cask-aged sugar-cane-based Nankai Gold (from Nankai Distillery) evoked Puerto Rican white rum. Barley-based Kase mugi shochu from startup importer Limestone is vacuum-distilled, then aged 15 years in sherry barrels to produce a uniquely nutty, smoky afterglow.

Literally hundreds of other brands, styles, and varieties of craft shochu offer their own subtleties, each a revelation in its own right.

We should count ourselves lucky: Because of the Bay Area’s longtime links with Japan, we’re catching the first wave of the shochu revolution. But a long road lies ahead.

“Once people taste our product, they love it,” explained Nankai Shochu’s vice president Robert Morita. 

“The difficulty is getting them to that first taste. Our goal now is to reach out and explain shochu to Americans, because it’s still such an unknown spirit in the West.”

Another problem is bureaucratic: Although most shochus are technically low-enough proof that they don’t count as “hard liquor,” California restaurants that possess only a beer-and-wine license are still prohibited from serving it, due to an oversight in the California liquor licensing laws. Ironically, the related Korean spirit soju — despite being just as strong as shochu — is allowed under a beer-and-wine license, so, in a strange tragicomic twist, some Kyushu distilleries purposely mislabel their high-end shochu as generic soju, simply so that it can be more easily sold in America. Hopefully, this glitch will be fixed soon.

To sample shochu in the East Bay, Umami Mart (4027 Broadway, Oakland, 510-250-9559, UmamiMart.com) sells a carefully curated but ever-growing selection of small-distillery handcrafted shochus in bottles; Kiraku Japanese Tapas (2566B Telegraph Ave., Berkeley, 510- 848-2758, KirakuBerkeley.com) has every varietal of shochu on its drinks menu and a three-glass shochu sampler flight; Kirala Restaurant (2100 Ward St., Berkeley, 510-549-3486, KiralaBerkeley.com) serves authentic small-batch shochus as well.

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