I’d like to introduce myself. My name is Chuck Malone. I am now the 3rd contributing writer to Kampai.US.
I just spent 2 months in Amami-o-shima, an island off the coast of Kagoshima Prefecture in southern Japan. I went there to learn how to make kokuto, or black sugar, shochu. How did I get there? Well, that’s kind of a long story. Let me start at the beginning. In fact, before that.
From 2005 to 2011, I was a touring piano player and jazz composer based in Chicago and working a variety of part-time jobs to make ends meet. In 2011 I felt stuck as a struggling musician. I needed a change. So, I did what most people do. I joined the Navy … the Navy band that is. For four years I played keyboards and marched the bass drum and cymbals in the United States Navy Band. In 2013, I was stationed at Fleet Activities Yokosuka, a US Naval Base at the mouth of Tokyo Bay in Kanagawa Prefecture. When not deployed, I lived in an apartment across the street from an Okinawan bar. There was the first place I tasted the sweet nectar of shochu. Well it might have been Awamori, but I was fascinated by this new drink, and its many different varieties. I soon discovered chu-hai (shoCHU HIGHballs), which is shochu mixed with fruit juices, which are so light and refreshing. What is this? How had I missed this my whole adult life? After being honorably discharged in 2015, I moved to New York City, mainly because it is the music capital of the world, but also the GI Bill covered 100% of my tuition at The New School.
When I arrived in New York I was surprised by that lack of shochu. Where was this amazing drink that’s found in every restaurant, izakaya, liquor shop, super market, and convenience store in Japan? As I’m sure many of you know from Kampai.US itself, you can find shochu in NYC if you are looking, but why was there so little of it? Why was is it labeled soju sometimes? I didn’t get it. I would be out at a bar with friends and miss ordering a glass of mizuwari shochu or a chu-hai. I wanted all my friends to try the many varieties and taste the diversity of this hidden Japanese drink. I became obsessed with the idea of bringing shochu awareness to America. Before I knew it, my full-time job was no longer being a musician. I was now on a mission to learn as much as I possibly could about shochu and spread the word.
A quick google search led me to Stephen Lyman. I messaged him on Facebook and he invited me to a Shochu’sday. I was immediately impressed by his vast knowledge on the subject, and all the work he had already done to promote shochu in the States. In the spring of last year, with the mindset of working at a shochu distillery, I won a scholarship to intern at an overseas company. I contacted Stephen, who then worked his magic. In less than a month Stephen had arranged not one, but two shochu companies for me to intern with.
Stephen also connected me with a shochu lover and jazz singer friend of his, Tomoko Miyata. As an introduction Tomoko and I talked for over an hour on the phone. She was curious about who this random American guy was and why he wanted to learn so much about shochu. She was also concerned about who I was and if I had the character to warrant her recommendation. Thankfully I passed the test. Tomoko reached out to the Nishihira Shochu Company in Amami-o-shima, which needed an extra hand. The Nishihira family is full of musicians who love making kokuto (black sugar) shochu. It was a perfect fit for me! Stephen connected my love of music and shochu with Tomoko, then Tomoko did the same with the Nishihira family. In October of last year, I left New York to make kokuto shochu by day and jazz by night. It was an incredible journey that I look forward to sharing with you over the next few weeks.
I am thrilled to be a part of the Kampai writing crew and let’s explore this wonderful drink together!