Scoring a table at 9 p.m. on a Friday at Wakasan is a little like winning the lottery's Hot Spot. The crowded Westwood pub, whose rustic furnishings give it the nostalgic feel of a family-run countryside tavern, is a haven for Japanese expats who love to while away the evening drinking with friends and nibbling on chef Hiro Wakasan's multicourse omakase.
And those bottles on the table? Most aren't sake. "The drink of choice for about 80% of our Japanese customers is honkaku shochu," says owner Wakasan, referring to specialty and regional shochu, sought after for their subtly layered flavors.
As with wine, shochu — which can be made from various raw ingredients and unlike sake is distilled, not brewed — runs the gamut from Two Buck Chuck-equivalents to grand cru levels. The most meticulously crafted are honkaku shochu and rely on a specific ingredient grown within a designated microclimate. Many have been granted "special geographic origin" status by the World Trade Organization in the manner of Roquefort or Champagne. Some may be aged like a fine Cognac and are so coveted they're sold by lottery at certain shochu specialty shops in Japan.
As any Wakasan regular can tell you, Japan's recent honkaku renaissance has revolutionized the country's modern social drinking culture. Centuries-old distillers, whose honkaku were once consumed only locally and dismissed by Japanese sophisticates as country-style moonshine, found themselves cult heroes. Soon, niche shochu bars specializing in honkaku from a particular region or with a focus on honkaku made from a specific ingredient catered to passionate devotees. And sommelier-style "certified shochu advisors" in restaurants and department stores offered food pairing tips.
Southern California is probably the best place in the U.S. to discover and taste honkaku. Of more than 1,000 area Japanese restaurants, bars and pubs, many stock at least a few varieties to cater to a clientele that frequently traverses the Pacific and keep up on drinking trends.
L.A. cocktail buffs are probably more familiar with the bland ko-rui shochu (dubbed Asian vodka) and its Korean counterpart soju, so popular in fruity libations. Their prized "neutral" taste is achieved with multiple distillations. But honkaku, being all about flavor, are distilled just once, preserving the nuances and complexities of their ingredients, which traditionally are grains or sweet potatoes — although today's adventurous distillers have come up with a wild array of styles including date, chestnut and even tomato or carrot.
At Nobu Beverly Hills, mixologist Marcus Voglrieder pours a pure rice honkaku that exemplifies the genre's flavorful character. Produced on Sado Island by a small distillery exclusively for his company's restaurants, it's usually drunk neat or over ice like a single-malt whiskey. Still, "fine shochu is a mystery to most Americans," Voglrieder says. "It's mainly Japanese guests who order it."
But that's starting to change as many food lovers patronize Japanese places that make a point of keeping tradition alive.
At Otafuku in Gardena, an entire wall in the dining area is covered with shelving stacked with scores of numbered shochu bottles belonging to returning customers. Traditionalists at the heavy wood tables drink their sweet potato shochu oyuwari-style: poured into a cup of warm water (not the other way around), which allows the flavors to blossom. For barley shochu, cool water teases out the subtlest sweet nuances. Some use a squeeze of lemon to brighten the flavor. Others prefer an oolong-hai, a blend of cold oolong tea and shochu. (Some drinkers — especially young Japanese women — love shochu's generally low alcohol content of about 24% and its correspondingly modest calorie count of 35 for a 2-ounce pour.)
Owner Seiji Akutsu keeps on hand more than a dozen honkaku, including two from Kyushu: the barley Kakushigura, aged several years in French oak barrels, and the sesame- and barley-based Beniotome with a nutty aroma that hints of peanut butter. Interesting though it may be, his collection represents a fraction of shochu from about 500 traditional distilleries scattered across Japan. The oldest are concentrated in the south on Kyushu Island — a sort of Bordeaux of shochu regions where the hot, humid climate makes it difficult to brew sake.
Fruity mixed cocktails? You won't see any here.
At Yuzu izakaya (or pub) in Torrance, manager Yoko Saito presides over maewari, a formal shochu service that's as stately as a tea ceremony. A large inverted ceramic bottle comes to the table cradled in a stand. It holds Hama no Imota, a profoundly aromatic sweet potato honkaku that's been blended with imported Japanese spring water and "cured" under refrigeration for several days to knit the flavors.
Among the barley shochu that Yuzu stocks, Ginza no Suzume Kohaku from Oita, in Kyushu, aged in repurposed whiskey barrels, gets its gentle flavor from a low-temperature distilling method.
In West Los Angeles, Sa Sa Ya takes the prize for the largest honkaku collection — 29 in all. With its hard liquor license, this small izakaya can serve shochu that exceeds the 24% alcohol limit imposed on restaurants without one.
Sa Sa Ya's menu groups shochu by basic ingredient, noting their alcohol content, their region or prefecture and providing tips on drinking customs. It's a great place to compare shochu made from various ingredients.
The dry and delicate barley-based Ginza no Susume, for example, is a world apart from the powerful aged Tenshi no Yuwaku, a 40% amber-colored sweet potato shochu that rivals old brandy with its mellow, slightly sweet, chocolaty aromas.
Taste three sweet potato shochu from the same region and maker and you'll see firsthand how several other variables in its production shape shochu's flavor.
Key among them is the distiller's choice of koji — types of mold also used in sake making that convert starch into the sugar that will ferment with yeast and turn into alcohol. Shochu distillers rely on three major kinds: white, black and yellow koji.
Satsuma Hozan, made with white koji, is light with slight notes of sweetness. Kiccho Hozan, produced with black koji, is much bolder and sweeter. Finally, Tomino Hozan, made with the slow-acting yellow koji, is the most mellow of all with fruitier notes.
To make Ikkomon, an even drier sweet potato shochu, its distillers broke with tradition, propagating the koji mold directly on the potatoes, resulting in liquor with no intervening rice flavors.
The method is common now, and most labels indicate whether a shochu contains rice. Iichiko Kurobin, for example, a barley shochu whose koji is propagated directly onto the grain to achieve a dry, even finish, is labeled "distilled from 100% barley."
The refined shochu made today likely evolved from awamori, shochu's older relative produced in Okinawa, southern Japan's subtropical island chain. It's distilled and made with methods similar to those of shochu. Based on Thai Indica rice, the smooth drink takes the place of sake for Okinawans.
At Aburiya Toranoko, the recently opened izakaya and cocktail bar next door to the Lazy Ox Canteen in Little Tokyo, owner Michael Cardenas and shochu-loving general manager Tommy Tomika have put two awamori on their brief but well-edited shochu list.
Cardenas pours a stoneware cup of Mizuho awamori, a low, 20%-alcohol quaff fermented with black koji and aged five years. He speculates, as have historians, that Okinawa could have been where awamori took root, brought by Thai traders. No one is really sure. But the shochu that evolved from it is delicious.