Up until the last decade or so, shochu—a distilled Japanese spirit commonly made with barley, rice, or sweet potato—was considered an old or working man’s drink. Relative to nihonshu, what we call “sake,” it’s not only strong (average 50 proof) but also cheap and straightforward (brewing and a lead time of about 1,200 years assures sake’s greater complexity).
At the tiny nomiya where I moonlighted in Shibuya’s pocket of underground bars (well, it was still underground back then), the shelves are loaded with sideways-stacked bottles of the stuff (pictured at left)—each identical but for the names of regulars written in black marker across their tops and bottoms to keep track of which is whose. The proprietress (whom you can see along with the rest of the bar in the video below) is known for her discerning taste—she cooks with the freshest, regional ingredients, stocks a small, studied selection of wines, keeps an exclusive yet eclectic clientele—but she serves only one shochu, to be drunk out of a ceramic cup with hand-chipped ice or cut with hot water, occasionally flavored with a fresh green shiso leaf or fleshy ume plum. Like everything else she serves, it’s quality stuff; but shochu just isn’t the stuff of connoisseurs. Or, at least, it wasn’t.
In 2003 shochu sales trumped those of sake for the first time. The precise reasons for the “shochu boom,” as it’s called, are still somewhat mysterious–some say calorie-counting women are to thank–but as more people embraced shochu’s easy pleasures (on me, the effect is like champagne without the headache), rarer varieties (date, brown sugar, sesame) and premium brands (Mao, Moriizo) grew exponentially in value, at least in terms of the brag factor. After 500 years of a lowly existence, it was but a few easy steps from popular to hip to international to … Lakeview.
Now all we need is for someone to import canned chu-hai. And, next, happoshu! (Shameless, but I spent my formative drinking years in Japan.)
[A few notes about the video: It was shot pre-hours by friends of the owner. The opening shot is of the men’s john; located at the end of the alley, it allows privacy only where it counts. The baby was not a regular.]