First there was sake. Then sushi. Udon. Yuzu. The flow of Japanese foodstuffs has been constant, surging straight from our palates into our culture. Now, it’s high tide for another. Ahoy, shochu.
A clear, distilled liquor commonly made from starches like barley, rice, and sweet potato, shochu is all the rage in Japan’s izakayas, or pubs. In 2004, it surpassed sake (a wine, not a distilled spirit) as the Japanese libation of choice. Think of it as a kinder, gentler vodka: less alcoholic (25 percent to vodka’s 40), less caloric (35 per two ounces to vodka’s 120), more smooth, more flavorful.
Shochu’s pedigree is as transparent as its color: made from rice, it will be smooth and light; from sweet potato, earthy and robust. Traditionally, it’s drunk straight, with warm water or over ice.
At Haiku (149 Mamaroneck Ave, 914-644-8887), shochu is paired with oolong tea and peach liqueur in an Oolong Hai cocktail. At Fujinoya (26 Central Ave, Hartsdale 914-428-1203), it’s served either straight, on the rocks, or mixed with cold or warm water. But for shochu central, head over to Ardsley, where Sazan (729 Saw Mill River Rd 914-674-6015) offers five or six types in more than 60 bottles.
“We’re number one in New York for shochu,” boasts owner Mitsuo Murayama. “Right now, we have it from rice, buckwheat, sweet potato, brown sugar, and green tea.” His large Japanese clientele orders it on the rocks or straight, sometimes with a squeeze of citrus or poured over a ripe plum. But when the customers leave and the shochu pours, battles rage. “I argue all the time with my head waiter,” Murayama says. “I’m from Tokyo, where we drink mild, smooth buckwheat shochu. He’s from the south, where they drink the sweet-potato type. He says the buckwheat has no taste; I say the sweet potato is too strong.”
Come to Sazan, and you can reach your own conclusion. Or to hold your own tasting, New Jersey’s Mitsuwa Marketplace (595 River Rd, Edgewater 201-941-9113), just over the GW, has a platoon of bottles. You’ll want to keep the arguing low, the glasses high.