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Rising shochu

Drinking Japanese-style isn't just about sake.

August 18, 2011|Linda Burum

Scoring a table at 9 p.m. on a Friday at Wakasan is a little like winning the lottery's Hot Spot. The crowded Westwood pub, whose rustic furnishings give it the nostalgic feel of a family-run countryside tavern, is a haven for Japanese expats who love to while away the evening drinking with friends and nibbling on chef Hiro Wakasan's multicourse omakase.

And those bottles on the table? Most aren't sake. "The drink of choice for about 80% of our Japanese customers is honkaku shochu," says owner Wakasan, referring to specialty and regional shochu, sought after for their subtly-layered flavors.

As with wine, shochu -- which can be made from various raw ingredients and unlike sake is distilled, not brewed -- runs the gamut from Two Buck Chuck-equivalents to grand cru levels. The most meticulously crafted are honkaku shochu and rely on a specific ingredient grown within a designated microclimate. Many have been granted "special geographic origin" status by the World Trade Organization in the manner of Roquefort or Champagne. Some may be aged like a fine Cognac and are so coveted they're sold by lottery at certain shochu specialty shops in Japan.

As any Wakasan regular can tell you, Japan's recent honkaku renaissance has revolutionized the country's modern social drinking culture. Centuries-old distillers, whose honkaku were once consumed only locally and dismissed by Japanese sophisticates as country-style moonshine, found themselves cult heroes. Soon, niche shochu bars specializing in honkaku from a particular region or with a focus on honkaku made from a specific ingredient catered to passionate devotees. And sommelier-style "certified shochu advisors" in restaurants and department stores offered food pairing tips.

Southern California is probably the best place in the U.S. to discover and taste honkaku. Of more than 1,000 area Japanese restaurants, bars and pubs, many stock at least a few varieties to cater to a clientele that frequently traverses the Pacific and keep up on drinking trends.

L.A. cocktail buffs are probably more familiar with the bland ko-rui shochu (dubbed Asian vodka) and its Korean counterpart soju, so popular in fruity libations. Their prized "neutral" taste is achieved with multiple distillations. But honkaku, being all about flavor, are distilled just once, preserving the nuances and complexities of their ingredients, which traditionally are grains or sweet potatoes -- although today's adventurous distillers have come up with a wild array of styles including date, chestnut and even tomato or carrot.

At Nobu Beverly Hills, mixologist Marcus Voglrieder pours a pure rice honkaku that exemplifies the genre's flavorful character. Produced on Sado Island by a small distillery exclusively for his company's restaurants, it's usually drunk neat or over ice like a single-malt whiskey. Still, "fine shochu is a mystery to most Americans," Voglrieder says. "It's mainly Japanese guests who order it."

A change underway

But that's starting to change as many food lovers patronize Japanese places that make a point of keeping tradition alive.

At Otafuku in Gardena, an entire wall in the dining area is covered with shelving stacked with scores of numbered shochu bottles belonging to returning customers. Traditionalists at the heavy wood tables drink their sweet potato shochu oyuwari-style: poured into a cup of warm water (not the other way around), which allows the flavors to blossom. For barley shochu, cool water teases out the subtlest sweet nuances. Some use a squeeze of lemon to brighten the flavor.

Others prefer an oolong- hai, a blend of cold oolong tea and shochu. (Some drinkers -- especially young Japanese women -- love shochu's generally low alcohol content of about 24% and its correspondingly modest calorie count of 35 for a 2-ounce pour.)

Owner Seiji Akutsu keeps on hand more than a dozen honkaku, including two from Kyushu: the barley Kakushigura, aged several years in French oak barrels, and the sesame- and barley-based Beniotome with a nutty aroma that hints of peanut butter. Interesting though it may be, his collection represents a fraction of shochu from about 500 traditional distilleries scattered across Japan. The oldest are concentrated in the south on Kyushu Island -- a sort of Bordeaux of shochu regions where the hot, humid climate makes it difficult to brew sake.

Fruity mixed cocktails? You won't see any here.

At Yuzu izakaya (or pub) in Torrance, manager Yoko Saito presides over maewari, a formal shochu service that's as stately as a tea ceremony. A large inverted ceramic bottle comes to the table cradled in a stand. It holds Hama no Imota, a profoundly aromatic sweet potato honkaku that's been blended with Japanese spring water and "cured" under refrigeration for several days to knit the flavors.

Among the barley shochu that Yuzu stocks, Ginza no Suzume Kohaku from Oita, in Kyushu, aged in repurposed whiskey barrels, gets its gentle flavor from a low-temperature distilling method.

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