Sunday, November 24, 2013

Drink in Tokyo

In Tokyo, you can buy the best potables the world has to offer: the finest vintage French wines, lusty German and Czech beers, complex Scotch whiskies--but they will be a lot more expensive than if bought on their home ground. More sensible, as well as perhaps more adventurous, would be to drink Japanese. Realize, though, that most Japanese beer is made in the American light-lager style (that is to say, dull) - the products of Japan's many small craft brewers being an exception - and that Japanese wine still has a way to go, although on its own terms it may be coming along. We'll see.

First thing to know is that in Japan "sake" means simply alcoholic beverage.  What you may be thinking of as "sake" is in Japan called Nihonshu. Nihonshu, which of course can be a beautiful, delicate drink, is made of rice and is brewed, like beer. Think of it as rice wine, although Nihonshu doesn't improve with age.

But Nihonshu is not the most popular drink other than beer in Japan: shochu is. Shochu, of which there are hundreds of makers (there are thousands of makers of Nihonshu) is distilled from about anything you can think of--barley, mostly, and sweet potatoes (imo) for the shochu favored by connoisseurs, but also pumpkins, acorns, green tea, cactus, and seaweed. Shochu has a somewhat lighter feel to it than Nihonshu and is usually somewhat more alcoholic. Although shochu is by tradition the drink of  southern Japan, Kyushu in particular, it is now distilled all over the country, but it still has the reputation in self-conscious urban drinking spots of being a less sophisticated drink than Nihonshu. A bit of snobbery there, perhaps, but of course you'll pay no attention to that.

Shochu on the sideboard

Shochu will be difficult to find outside Japan but in cities that appreciate the finer things in life, the city's best liquor dealers should be able to find some for you. It is gaining popularity in New York and San Francisco, they say.

Suntory began distilling whisky in 1923, which at the time baffled everybody, but now Japanese whisky is well established in Japan and is cultivating a market among whisky drinkers abroad. Japanese whisky makers offer a range of styles: peat-smoky, with a delicate flowery bouquet, and well-matured in imported sherry barrels, for instance.  For several years a Japanese whisky has taken top honors at the annual whisky blind-tasting in Scotland.

The lesson to be taken away from this quick rundown of the drinking scene in Japan is: try some shochu if you can. At the very least, you will find it interesting.

--Zeke S.

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