“It has never, ever, happened in this city before,” says Chizuko Niikawa excitedly while sipping nutty green tea at Robataya in the East Village. I had joined her—a certified sake sommelier—and shochu blogger Stephen Lyman to talk about Japanese shochu, which is readying for its New York City close-up next week with two major events organized by Niikawa: New York Shochu Night Out (Feb. 12) and Experience Shochu NYC (Feb. 13).
Sixteen master shochu makers are flying in from Japan to host tastings and talk to consumers about honkaku (trans. “authentic”), a style of single-distilled shochu that maintains complexity and character similar in fashion to a single malt whisky. This is in contrast to the more sugary Korean soju you might have imbibed before stumbling out of a 32nd Street karaoke lounge.
The Japanese say that shochu gives you less of a hangover. Really? I thought I’d consult Lyman, who is also a professor of medicine.
“I’m skeptical about any alcohol that claims less hangover,” he says, “but in my experience if you stay on the same shochu the whole evening, you can drink pretty well without getting a hangover because your body isn’t trying to process lots of different toxins at once.” He adds that it is completely speculative and that you also need – as with any alcohol – to drink lots and lots of water.
Though not widely known in the States, Japanese shochu is some interesting stuff.
Unlike sake, honkaku can be distilled from not only rice, but barley, sweet potato and brown sugar, adding a deep flavor that can hold up to mixers like soda and juice. It can also be sipped on the rocks. Unlike sake, which is typically more expensive and contains less alcohol, shochu is sometimes infused with a number of zippy flavors like yuzu, green tea and tomato. Cheaper? Gets you drunk quicker? Fun flavors? It’s no wonder that, currently, shochu outsells sake in Japan.
“So many Irish people like honkaku shochu,” explains Niikawa when asked why America is poised for a shochu revolution. “Plus, it is much lower in calories than any other spirit.” So we might just see a Kardashian with a bottle of Kuro Kirishima tucked under her arm. Pairs with Coke Zero just right. Or with a cube. Or just drink it neat.