Over the past several years exploring Japanese cuisine I’ve come to realize that the Japanese people may be the most quality focused society on earth. Sure, Honda, Toyota, Sony, Canon, and Nikon have long been synonymous with quality manufacturing, but I’ve discovered this focus goes much deeper. A recent Wall Street Journal article profiled several Japanese small business owners in Tokyo who took it upon themselves to become the best at what they chose to do. A vintage denim importer realized the quality of American Levi’s had deteriorated over the years so he took it upon himself to start a denim company. His jeans are now some of the most sought after in the world. Another gentleman returned from several years in Europe where he learned to make espresso drinks. When he opened his own espresso bar in Tokyo he refused to allow his employees to make cappuccinos or lattes until they had acquired the skills necessary to make a perfect cup of coffee. As of the writing of the piece his coffee shop still did not serve those drinks. Jiro Dreams of Sushi beautifully captures this focus on quality in Japanese cuisine.
I’ve seen this in my own exploration of Japanese spirits and food. Tori Shin on the Upper East Side of Manhattan ranks as my favorite restaurant in the city in no small part because of the complete dedication of the entire team of chefs who work there. Watching them prepare the chicken for that night’s customers is a wonder. Watching them serve those customers in the evening is remarkable – as if they’re all extensions of the same body doing the tasks required to make the business run perfectly. This same dedication can be seen at Jewel Bako or any number of other Japanese owned restaurants in New York or Los Angeles or San Francisco (Berkeley’s Ippuku comes to mind).
This holds true in the sake and shochu worlds as well. Japanese people interested in becoming a sake or shochu sommelier can take a certification course that teaches them everything they need to know about the drinks. These “advisors” as they’re officially known are a wealth of knowledge for someone like me. They can be found at high end sushi restaurants such as Nobu. They basically run Sakagura in Midtown, a temple to sake. They can be found at tiny bars like Shochu Bar Hatchan a couple blocks away. Or hidden bars like Sake Bar Kirakuya on the 2nd floor in Koreatown. They can be found teaching classes or organizing tastings around the city. They have an encyclopedic knowledge of the products they’re recommending, but only because they have an extraordinary dedication to their jobs and a love for these tipples.
It’s true on the manufacturing side as well. A sake manufacturer will spare no expense in attempting to find the perfect sake recipe. A shochu manufacturer will continue to use wooden equipment even though it’s tediously unreliable and new steel distillation systems can increase capacity and efficiency. A producer will have custom bottles designed that fit the character of the spirit rather than the economies of scale. Labels made of rice paper will be chosen in favor of cheaper, but less attractive tree pulp paper labels. All of these choices drive up production costs and make competition in international markets more difficult. A 25% ABV honkaku shochu can easily run north of $30 for a 720 ml bottle and often will push $40 or even $50 a bottle. That’s not “value” for your booze dollar when placed alongside a 46% bottle of whiskey or gin or vodka. However, the quality of the ingredients and the craftsmanship that goes into the final product makes it worth the cost for those who are interested in consuming quality rather than quantity.
All of this has been extremely humbling for me. When I began my shochu blog, which has morphed into this website, last year, I had no idea where it would take me. But one thing I quickly realized is that as much as I know about shochu compared to the average Westerner, there’s an entirely different level of knowledge and experience that’s required for me to actually be an expert. Therefore, I decided to take a pilgrimage. This isn’t easy for me since I don’t speak much Japanese outside of restaurants and my “real” career is busier than ever, but I booked a trip to Japan this summer. In fact, I’m on Japan Airlines (JAL) flight #5 from JFK to Tokyo Narita as I write this. Planning this trip has been so daunting, I’ve only been able to tweet about it. I realized on my way to the airport that many of my friends didn’t even realize I was going. A text from our graphic designer read, “Hey man, plans today?” I replied, “Heading to Japan.” He replied, “Hot damn. When you back?”
Beginning July 10th I will tour 6 or more distilleries over 8 days to learn everything I can about shochu & Awamori production. Fortunately, the first ever Shochu Tasting Contest Champion, Seikai Ishizuka, will serve as my guide and interpreter while I travel in Kyushu, where about 90% of shochu is made. We’ll start in Fukuoka, Seikai’s home town, and also the home of both Kitaya Shuzo & Nishi Yoshida Shuzo, two of the most famous shochu producers in the prefecture. Kitaya produces shochu for JAL business class passengers (a coach class stewardess snuck me a couple single serve bottles of Jinkoo after I told her about the reason for my trip, for which I am eternally grateful [update: the bottles were Gookoo, not that I’m complaining, though I suppose even JAL stewardesses have a thing or two to learn about shochu]). Nishi Yoshida recently entered the U.S. market with Tsukushi Shiro & Kuro, premium barley shochus. After those tours we’ll take the shinkansen (bullet train) to Kagoshima prefecture, the traditional home of imo (sweet potato) shochu. We’ll visit Satsuma Shuzo, the second largest shochu producer in Japan. We’ll finish our Kyushu tour at Komasa Jyozu, which just entered the U.S. market with their own lines of both barley and sweet potato shochus including the delicious Kura No Shikon. I anticipate we will visit other distilleries as well if we’re fortunate enough to stumble upon them.
I’ll then bid Seikai adieu and travel to Okinawa. While there I’ll tour Ryukyu Ohcho Distillery on the island of Miyako and Zuisen Distillery on the main island of Naha. That will conclude my distillery tour, but not my education. I’ll spend the rest of my time in Okinawa sightseeing and learning the unique way that Awamori blends into the Okinawan culinary experience. I’m also bound and determined to find and try the pit viper infused Awamori even if it’s largely a tourist attraction these days and by all accounts, a vile, vile spirit.
Throughout these adventures I anticipate spending my evenings with Seikai and his friends, new friends, and people I’ve just met exploring how local foods pair with the local spirits. Until very recently shochu was a local or regional product without national and certainly not international distribution. Under those conditions, the shochu toji (master distillers) tailored their products to the tastes of their town’s menus. As such there’s likely no better place to try them than in the areas where they’re made. Getting back to that quality thing, this is where I expect the shochus to truly shine.
I’ll finish my tour with two days in Tokyo. While shochu production is essentially non-existent in the megalopolis, there are thousands upon thousands of amazing restaurants and bars to visit. The Zen claims over 350 shochus. I’ll also attempt to visit Jiro if I can get a seat at the 10 seat counter. If I can’t get in there, I hope his son has availability. I also may look for a pair of blue jeans and perhaps an espresso – if nothing else then to see if they’re serving cappuccinos yet.