By Scott Coscia
I’ll never claim to have the same wine knowledge as Chef Mateo. The man just knows way too much about fermented grapes. Then again, Chef Mateo could never tell you the day Felix Unger was asked to leave his place of residence. It was November 13th just in case you were wondering. Mateo and I have different skill sets. One thing we both do share is a passion for the fermented grain and fruit concoction known as shochu.
Neither of us had really heard of the liquor before until one night when we were out at a favorite little spot of ours, a small, below street level Japanese bar that until recently had been quite underground. That was until a certain critic from a major metropolitan daily blew up our spot, as the kids say nowadays.
The place was a bit of an oasis where if you didn’t have the money or the time to seek out a sports bar in Tokyo or Hokkaido, you could travel to midtown for the same experience. One night we were sitting there enjoying a couple of Sapporo drafts and eating enoki mushrooms wrapped in bacon (I will pose the argument that anything tastes better when wrapped in bacon,) when the only other non-Asian person at the bar sat next to us. We were watching the Yankee game and had switched to sake.
The mysterious stranger, (well OK he wasn’t that mysterious, but I want to enhance the mood,) sat down next to me and had a tall frosted bottle put in front of him. He poured the clear liquid over ice and then put something that resembled a cherry into it. I was intrigued by what he was drinking, so I inquired as to his glass’ content.
Normally strangers in a bar in New York City don’t typically converse, but the only geijin at an underground Japanese isakaya breaks all rules. It was almost as if we were three expats in the land of the rising sun. He not only told me what the elixir was, but offered Mateo and myself a glass. The mystery drink was shochu, a Japanese rice based vodka. I was leery at first to drink vodka just on the rocks with some sort of red thing in it. I’m not much of a hard liquor drinker when it’s straight up. I like it mixed with other things that will bring out the flavor.
The man insisted that Mateo and I join him for a glass. I’m by no means an expert on Japanese culture and traditions, but one thing I do know is that it is rude to turn down a drink. I took the man up on his offer and had my drink the same way he consumed it, on the rocks with the quarter sized red fruit, which I later found out was something called ume, a Japanese pickled plum. I figured I could swirl the ice around enough to dilute the impending burning sensation in my throat that would accompany the liquor.
My first sip of the liquid was quite surprising. It was crisp and clean and did not have the same bite that I was expecting. I thought maybe I had over prepared my body for something and had found a way to turn off the pain receptors in my throat. In an effort to confirm my mild delusion, I took another sip. The next sip was very revealing. It did not confirm that I had found a way to conquer the whole mind over body equation; it revealed that what I was drinking was very smooth and did not have the slightest hint of harshness to it. I then asked the man if I could look at the bottle. He obliged.
I studied the bottle carefully and tried to gain some insight into the liquid set in front of me. I figured maybe it was very watered down and did not carry a high alcohol content. The label read, “Tori Kai,” a vodka made from rice The surprising thing about this liquor was the alcohol content. It was forty proof, which meant that it was twenty percent alcohol. I’ve tasted hotter California cabernets that were only thirteen percent.
Shochu tastes like somebody had created a liqueur that was based on the taste of water. This was good stuff. The ume gave it accents of cherries. I wondered if all shochus were like this. For me the only way to find out is experimentation. The next time I was out, I ordered a shochu called Ichiko. It was made from buckwheat and I found that I enjoyed it more than the Tori Kai. I felt it had more body to it, and it was still smooth, yet a little rougher than the rice based versions. It was also earthier and just a bit nuttier.
If you are at all intrigued by the stuff, then good; but please be forewarned that it’s not the easiest to find. I have found only one place that has any kind of selection, and that is Landmark Wines on 23rd Street in Chelsea. The proprietor Ken will be happy to answer and questions that you have on the subject and is always pleasant to talk to. I am fortunate enough to be dating somebody who lives right across the street, so it’s not a far stumble when Ken opens a bottle to let me sample something. I use the word sample loosely.
If you want to order it out in a restaurant, then don’t look to your neighborhood sushi joint for the stuff. Sadly I have found that most places don’t carry it, or its Korean counterpart soju, which only differs in country of manufacture and the spelling. If you can find a place that carries it, then you’re in luck. You can get it many different ways, such as with your choice of fresh squeezed citrus, (one place I know of gives you the strainer and allows you to squeeze the fruit yourself,) or with green tea. Normally places that carry shochu also carry a variety of it. In addition to rice or barley, I have seen it made with sugar cane, sweet potatoes, limes, and even tapioca.
Whenever I see it on the menu, I make sure that I order it. The best part is that it’s a very friendly drink. It’s very difficult to replicate the mood that tequila induces in me when consuming shochu. The best part of the stuff as far as I am concerned is that with its low sugar content, I don’t feel hung over the next day from partying with a few glasses.
In an interview, Japan’s Shigechiyo Izumi credited shochu as his secret to a long life. He lived to 120, so I guess he did something right. If the beverage native to Japan’s southernmost island, Kyushu, was good enough for Mr. Izumi, then it’s good enough for me. Kampei!