While sake has long been more familiar to American palates, shochu is finally ready for its moment in the sun. Unlike sake, which is a brewed rice wine, shochu is Japan’s native distilled spirit, with remarkable utility for consumption neat, on the rocks, in cocktails, and beyond.
And at a proof point normally hovering between 50 and 80, shochu is also suited to lengthier tastings across meals and social gatherings — at least compared to a category like cask-strength whiskeys.
Earlier this year, Drinkhacker had the chance to enjoy a remarkable pairing of shochu and food in one of New York City’s most revered Japanese eateries. Tucked away underground at the hidden yet capacious Sakagura restaurant, we experienced multiple expressions, preparations, and pairings that may very well preview a new wave of stateside drinking culture.
Who’s Behind a Potential Shochu Wave?
Shochu is the type of drink that could very well follow in the footsteps of mezcal, with demand powered by both novelty-hungry consumers and a burgeoning craft cocktail scene. It just needs the right marketing plan.
Spearheading one such plan is a collaboration between Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association (which represents over 270 shochu distillers) and the NY Japanese Restaurant Association. By focusing on America’s largest restaurant and bar market, the two organizations are hoping to build awareness of and demand for shochu, one partner establishment at a time. To that end, they’ve designated February as Shochu Month, with 2023’s launch focusing on 24 NYC bars and restaurants to pair bespoke food courses with shochu tastings.
One partner restaurant is East Midtown’s Sakagura. Nearly unmarked, and accessible only through the lobby of an office building, Sakagura serves food izakaya style and has been one of NYC’s top destinations for sake lovers since 1996. But they’ve also been a proponent of shochu’s adaptability and remarkable flavor variety.
Masatoshi Omichi, Sakagura’s longtime manager, thinks shochu is well-primed for popularity among a younger generation of drinkers. And the best vector for that new wave of growth, he believes, is the very traditional highball.
Taking Highball Culture Mainstream
The classic shochu highball is remarkably simple: shochu, seltzer water, ice, and a garnish (often citrus) added or squeezed in for flavor. Palate-cleansing and refreshing, Omichi says the highball is an ideal way to start a meal, often in place of beer or wine. To Omichi, a new generation of diners is a little more conscious of their consumption, with booze less integral to the meal; as such, he targets dilution to between 8 and 12% abv.
At Sakagura, Omichi and his staff use imported Japanese water — renowned for its soft qualities — to make highball ice.
And since the garnishes in highballs are adaptable, he says, cooks and bartenders can collaborate to match highballs with flavor components of the food. (For example, pairing lemon in a highball paired with a dish heavy on citrus components.)
After introducing customers to shochu via a highball, Omichi has a few general guidelines for getting the most out of the spirit in its base form. When pre-chilled, shochu is best served neat; later on in a meal, certain expressions can also be served over a rock, which helps unlock aromas as one might find with a fine whiskey. Both neat and rocks preparations, Omichi says, are useful when paired with heavier or fried dishes to temper fattiness and cleanse the palate between bites.
A Shochu for Every Course
As with any spirit, the base for the shochu’s mash has a big impact on flavor: rice, barley, buckwheat, sweet potato, and potato can all impart different flavors, as can distillation styles and yeast. Omichi specifically points to both potato and sweet potato shochu as trendy profiles, increasingly popular both neat and in highballs.
Over the course of our dinner at Sakagura, we sampled nearly a dozen labels and preparations of shochu, each paired with specific menu items.
A first highlight was a shochu highball paired with shishito peppers and white fish. Made with Daiyame 40, it carried remarkable lychee notes, indicative of current flavor trends.
Another sweet potato shochu, this time Komaki Jozo, was served neat and paired with fried lotus root and shrimp. Fermented in a more traditional style, it had what Omichi says is a characteristic funkiness while cutting through any fatty aftertaste.
Hyakunen no Kodoku — or “100 Years of Solitude” — was an aged expression served with the main protein courses. At around 6-7 months of age, it carried an earthy, mushroom-like note that paired well with heavy umami flavors in the dish, in this case salmon marinated in sake leaves.
Our post-meal pour was Tenshi no Yuwaku Sweet Potato Shochu, aged up to 10 years in used sherry barrels and ideal to taper off a dessert course.
With new imports coming online in the next year, it’s easy to see shochu’s U.S. expansion making its way beyond the country’s biggest markets. In our mind, the sooner, the better.