SHOCHU: MY JOURNEY WITH JAPAN’S SPIRIT

Christopher Pellegrini is a dual-certified shochu expert residing in Tokyo, Japan. He is the author of “The Shochu Handbook” and a contributor to the forthcoming “Oxford Companion to Spirits and Cocktails.” In addition to consulting restaurants and bars on incorporating shochu and awamori in their beverage programs, Christopher also conducts tastings and seminars both in Japan and abroad. Here he describes how he started as a teenage brewing apprentice and ended becoming one of the foremost experts on Japan’s national spirit.

I never intended to be in Japan for longer than 12 months. To be perfectly honest, moving to Japan wasn’t even my idea. I followed my partner here for a one year reprieve from the grind of her daily work life, hoping to learn something new about the world and myself in the process. Fast forward 15 years, and we’re still here. There are many reasons why I now choose to call Japan home, and it won’t shock anyone that one of the main draws is shochu. It still makes me chuckle when I think how oblivious I was to this spirit before I moved here. Like most people outside Japan today, I’d not heard of it. Little did I know that it would wind up being the meeting point for three of my greatest passions: craft brew, education, and theater.

From homebrewer to shochu nerd

I started home brewing in high school, much to everyone’s confusion. I still remember my father’s befuddled“You can do that?!” when he came home early from church and caught me boiling wort in the kitchen. Needless to say, he immediately shuttered my bedroom closet operation. Deflated but not deterred, I applied for an apprenticeship at Otter Creek Brewing, a small outfit in Middlebury, Vermont, and worked there off and on for four years. A little less than halfway through my time there a crazy thing happened. Our first brewer suffered a bad back injury and was out of commission for a couple of months, and around the same time our second brewer left the state to join the circus. I’m not joking.

In a pinch, the company’s founder surveyed the rest of the team and asked if anyone had brewing experience. I raised my hand even though I was the only one in the brewery that was too young to drink, and soon I was working the night brewing shift five days a week. While I didn’t care much for being the only person in a hulking, creaking, and mostly dark brewery during the wee hours of the morning, I developed an intense respect for the brewing process and anyone who endeavored to make quality, small-batch beverages.

There’s still a part of me that wants to open a brewpub at some point in my life, but when I first met shochu in early 2003, I realized that I was dealing with something extremely well made and largely unknown. Small batch shochu production reminded so much of the work that I did at Otter Creek, that I immediately connected with the people making it. Even though I couldn’t read Japanese kanji, I bought every book about honkaku shochu that I could find. After years of learning about the hundreds of distilleries that make shochu in Kyushu, I began to understand that the island is synonymous with the ubiquitous drink. This Shochu Island is now my home away from Tokyo.

Birth of a shochu educator

Years of Kyushu pilgrimages later, my two other passions started to find their way into the mix. I started writing about shochu and awamori and found a receptive audience for the information. This educational role eventually led to seminars and tastings both in Japan and overseas, and I published “The Shochu Handbook” somewhere in between. Honestly, I have never felt more at home or effective than when I am in front of a group talking about Japan’s indigenous spirit. Interacting with an audience, feeding off their energy and curiosity, that is my little slice of theatrical heaven. I now feel that the most worthwhile thing I can do with my life is to bring shochu to an international audience.

Which begs the question, “Why do you like shochu so much?” It’s actually a difficult question to answer simply because Japanese Shochu as an alcoholic beverage category is perhaps one of the most diverse on the planet. The variety of ingredients allowed in the creation of honkaku (premium) shochu is nearly as diverse as beer, and the resulting spectrum of aromas and flavors is arguably as vast. Depending on how you count, there are 53 approved starch sources for making honkaku shochu, and they run the gamut from sweet potatoes to chestnuts to tea.

I still fondly remember my early trips around Kyushu with my infantile Japanese ability, making friends over cups of oyuwari, all the while fascinated by how all these regional drinks could be called the same thing. And that’s how the shochu industry largely works. It’s hundreds of mostly family-owned distilleries using locally sourced flora to make shochu all across Japan. And that’s one of my favorite things about shochu, the sheer variety of flavors and aromas. Everywhere you travel in Japan has a regional specialty, but the seven prefectures of Kyushu Island are the drink’s undisputable homeland.

Variety and quality

Here’s what each prefecture does best. Fukuoka Prefecture in the north makes a lot of kasutori (sake lees) and barley shochu. Oita and Nagasaki Prefectures are known for barley shochu while Saga and Kumamoto are famous for shochu made from rice. Miyazaki Prefecture excels at both sweet potato and soba (buckwheat) product. Kagoshima Prefecture is perhaps best known for sweet potato product but also gets to claim brown sugar shochu because the Amami Islands are under the prefecture’s administration.

Another thing that I love is the level of craftsmanship that has been developed over generations. Some of Kyushu’s distilling traditions are hundreds of years old and have been granted WTO appellation of origin protection just like Champagne or Camembert cheese. The first is Iki Shochu, a traditional barley shochu made by just seven distilleries on Nagasaki Prefecture’s diminutive Iki Island. Kuma Shochu is the rice product made by the more than two dozen distilleries hugging the Kuma River in Hitoyoshi, Kumamoto Prefecture. Finally, Satsuma Shochu is the sweet potato shochu made in Kagoshima Prefecture with locally harvested spuds.

It still boggles the mind that one region of Japan can have three internationally protected brands and yet the world knows so little about them. (Four, actually, if you include Okinawa’s Ryukyu Awamori tradition as some do.) Kyushu is less than half the size of Kentucky, yet it has more active distilleries than Jim Beam’s home state, Tennessee, and Scotland combined. The breadth of the industry in Kyushu means that there is considerable tank space available for capturing a 1-2% slice of the North American or European spirits market.

How the world misinterprets and underestimates shochu

Unfortunately, international knowledge about what shochu is and how to enjoy it is scant and often false. One of the preferred ways to generalize shochu in English is to label it “Japanese vodka,” a reduction that I encourage people to avoid at all costs. First of all, honkaku shochu is always single distilled while mass-produced vodka is not. The point of single distillation is to capture many of the flavor and aroma compounds in the mash and transport them to the finished product. In contrast, spirits like vodka and Korean Soju are multiply-distilled, a process that intentionally strips away esters and creates a neutral spirit with as high an alcohol content as possible (usually around 96% ABV). While there are dozens of low pressure distilled barley and rice shochu brands that are incredibly mild and easy to drink, most honkaku shochu has far more character than what we have come to expect from vodka. Plus, honkaku shochu is generally bottled at 25% ABV, compared to vodka’s 40%.

Many estimates put the total number of honkaku shochu brands at over 5,000, which further calls the “Japanese vodka” simplification into question. There’s no way that 5,000 brands of neutral spirit could survive at the same time without a heretofore unseen marketing effort. Naturally, I make several new discoveries every time I travel around Kyushu Island, and that’s why I’m averaging about four flights there per year. Innovation is on everyone’s mind right now as distilleries try to add value and fight for tightening shelf space nationwide. There is now more experimentation with ingredients, cask aging, and blending than ever before, and the last decade has seen the number of quality labels reaching the market skyrocket. Once people learn more about shochu’s diversity and quality, I’m confident that these hasty generalizations will start to disappear.

Prospects for international expansion

While shochu’s international potential is palpable, so too are the obstacles. The recent flourish of izakaya-esque gastropubs in metro areas worldwide are nothing like their sushi bar forebears of the 1970s and 80s. The big difference is that the owners and managers of many of the newer establishments are either not Japanese or have never traveled to Japan. In other words, they usually fill their beverage menus with kneejerk choices like Asahi Super Dry and Hakkaisan nihonshu. I’m not in any way implying that they can’t make great food or create a memorable experience for their customers, but I’m comfortable alleging that they have limited bandwidth for offering something more authentic.

Authenticity in this case would be adding bottles of sweet potato and barley shochu to the menu, as is the norm in most bars and restaurants in Japan. But that transformation is going to take time. Indeed, while doing tastings and seminars in large cities like Vancouver and Los Angeles over the past few years, several bar managers at “Japanese” restaurants had never heard of shochu before. Or if they had, then they assumed I was somehow mispronouncing “soju.”

Kyushu’s gift to the world

What that means for the shochu industry is that they don’t have the automatic point of sale network that Japanese-owned sushi bars offered the nihonshu industry 30 to 40 years ago. The shochu industry needs to pool its resources, target large metro markets in concert, and start telling the story of how honkaku shochu is made by craft distilleries using locally-sourced ingredients in Kyushu. Tune those anecdotes to effectively hit targeted market segments, and international recognition and appreciation of shochu will improve dramatically ahead of the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.

That’s where I fit in, obviously, and I have my work cut out for me. To wit, few people in Japan are aware that shochu has outsold nihonshu domestically every year since 2003; the drink’s place at the dinner table and contribution to tax revenues is largely taken for granted. At the same time, it’s important to recognize that Kyushu is integral to Japan’s future, especially where exports are concerned. Shochu is still Japan’s best-kept culinary secret, but I’m looking forward to the day when vodka distilleries steal a page out of Kyushu’s playbook, producing vodka with more character, and displaying “singledistilled” prominently on the label. To that end, it is my mission to help show the world that Kyushu, Japan’s Shochu Island, is the Scotland of Japan.