Can spirits ever successfully pair with food? In recent years, restaurants and liquor brands alike have started to tout spirit pairings, different pours matched with each dish within a meal—a practice we once saw primarily with wine and sometimes beer. But while interesting conceptually, other booze-based pairings often fail. Liquor at 80 proof, or 40 percent ABV—the standard proof for most spirits—is sufficiently alcoholic to wipe out your palate. There is abundant nuance in whiskey, say, or brandy, but with the spirit itself so dominant, it can be hard to taste food at all. With some very specific exceptions (particularly aggressive cheeses, sweet desserts or brawny meats) most spirits just aren’t the logical partner for a meal.
That’s why the Japanese spirit shochu is so fascinating. Though similar to Korean soju, shochu has a distinct and proud lineage in Japan, where the popularity of the traditional spirit is booming. And shochu is nearly always drunk with food.
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“In Japan, food and drink are so perfectly linked that when people here invite each other out for drinks, they often say ‘Let's eat’—meaning, ‘Let's drink with some otsumami [drinking snacks] to keep us from getting too drunk,’” says Stephen Lyman, certified shochu adviser and editor of Kampai! “The concept of a ‘food pairing’ is largely foreign. The thinking is, of course, alcohol goes with food. Why wouldn't it?”