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Friday, May 11, 2012

KANPAI CULTURE

How I learned to stop worrying and love the shōchū


Nearly 10 years ago, shōchū was all the rage in Japan. In 2004, shipments reached an all-time high, and producers were struggling to keep up with the exploding market. Everyone was drinking it — everyone, it seems, but me.

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Distill my beating heart: The key to falling in love with shōchū is to take greater care over how it is served. MELINDA JOE

I vaguely recall my first experience with shōchū, in 2007. Shōchū had a reputation as a "healthy" drink, one that wouldn't make you fat or result in a debilitating hangover. My shōchū-loving friends — many of them women — assured me that I'd quickly develop a taste for imojōchū made from sweet potatoes, and advised me to have it on the rocks.

After two glasses, I remained skeptical. In the years that followed, I tried shōchū again in various guises: straight (too strong), sōda-wari with club soda (nose-tingling), and oyu-wari, diluted with hot water, which was supposed to be the best way to have it. Rather than giving the shōchū a mellow flavor, though, the addition of hot water seemed to make the alcohol more prominent.

Perhaps, as Shigeki Yonemura of shōchū distributor Kosedo suggested to me recently, the oyu-wari hadn't been prepared properly. Technically, the hot water should be added to the vessel first and allowed to cool to about 70 degrees before slowly drizzling in the shōchū from the rim of the glass. Alternatively, mixing the water and the shōchū beforehand and then gently warming it can yield similar results. Many restaurants and bars, however, heat shōchū by simply adding boiling water to it.

"If you pour boiling water directly into the shōchū, it causes the alcohol to come forward, throwing the flavor off balance and resulting in a disappointing oyu-wari," he explained.

I decided to test this theory at Torichu, a shōchū specialist in Akasaka that stocks over 100 varieties and takes extra care in serving the spirit. Owner Yutaka Tanaka suggested that I first try some imojōchū served mae-wari, mixed with water and allowed to rest.

The imojōchū had been diluted at a ratio of one-to-one in a large, brown jug and stored in the refrigerator. This process brought the alcohol percentage down from 34 to around 27, and gave the drink a soft, almost winelike quality. The sweet, floral and spicy notes that are characteristic of imojōchū but can sometimes be obscured by the high alcohol content became pleasantly apparent.

I also tasted the same variety of shōchū undiluted and served on the rocks in a pewter cup, but found it a little too harsh for my taste.

My favorite way of drinking the shōchū was oyu-wari, which made it rounder, smoother and nuttier in the finish. At Torichu, they heat the previously diluted mae-wari in a small device that resembles a kanzuke (sake heater) gradually until the temperature reaches around 45 degrees.

"This is how people enjoy shōchū in Kyushu," Tanaka remarked. "It's easy to drink this way."

It was, in fact, a little too easy to drink. But if you think that shōchū doesn't cause hangovers, think again.

Melinda Joe is an American journalist in Tokyo and a certified wine and sake professional. She blogs at tokyodrinkingglass.blogspot.com. Follow her on Twitter @MelindaJoe.


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