In the world of Japanese drinking, sake tends to get all the attention—love ‘em or hate ‘em, sake bombs did wonders for its name recognition. But often in Japan, particularly in Kyushu, the country’s southernmost island, the drink of choice is shochu.
This distilled spirit, with centuries of history behind it, can be made from sweet potato, rice, barley, or dozens of other ingredients. Generally it’s an easy-drinking clear spirit, around 20-25% alcohol — much less than most other liquors, which tend to be 40%. As a result, it’s smooth and likable even when you sip it straight, and pairs nicely with food.
But lest you imagine Japanese folks quietly sipping little cups of shochu in sedate, hushed sushi bars — think again. Drinking in Japan is about having a good time. Izakayas, popular joints that serve booze and bar snacks to go with it, are high-energy places where beer and shochu flow freely. In fact, some izakayas even operate on an all-you-can-drink basis: often a two-hour period where you and your friends put back all the shochu and accompanying edibles you can handle.
Whether you’re buying by the bottle, the cup, or the hour, there are tons of ways that Japanese drinkers love their shochu. Here are just a few of my favorites from a recent trip through Kyushu.
As a Drinking Game
My first night in the city of Kagoshima was spent with several shochu enthusiasts, playing round after round of a simple drinking game. Each party holds one, two, or three of these little sticks behind his back, and takes turns guessing what the total number is. The loser, of course, takes a shot. A fast-paced mind game with simple rules — in other words, an ideal drinking game.
In A Shot Glass You Can’t Put Down
Sure, these conical shot glasses are good-looking… but with no flat bottom, they’re also impossible to set down, so you’ll be drinking everything in there immediately. No abandoning half a shot here.
In A Shot Glass With a Hole In It
One step further: A shot glass with a hole in it, so you’ve got to plug it up with your finger when it’s full. Again, this isn’t a shot you’ll sip on. Just throw it back.
In the World’s Tiniest Cup
How many dozen of these itsy-bitsy shochu shots could you take in a sitting?
With Hot Water
With the exception of a hot toddy it’s pretty rare to serve warm booze in the States, but in Kyushu, oyuwari — a mix of shochu and hot water — is common. Brings the proof down, brings out some of the flavors, and slows down your drinking just a tad. Particularly good with sweet potato shochu.
… And A Fish
Yes, really. Yudofu Gonbe, a small drinking tavern in Kagoshima, serves only one kind of shochu: a sweet potato maewari preparation, which is a mix of water and shochu that’s left to mellow for a day or more, then heated. You can order it as is…or have it served with a dried grilled flying fish right in the glass, if you’re game. For the adventurous only.
On an Honor System
My favorite bar in Kagoshima had three shochu bottles hung upside down in a dispenser, and again and again I refilled my bottomless shot glass. (It was bottomless in two senses; there was a hole in the bottom, don’t forget.) Free to drink as much I liked, just tallying up the total at the end and paying accordingly. Who, exactly, did the tallying — or for that matter, paying — is lost to the fog of a shochu-soaked night.
… Until You Fall Down
“In Okinawa they have a drinking party tradition in which everyone goes around the circle and tells a story,” says Stephen Lyman, certified shochu adviser and editor of Kampai! “At the end of each story, everyone takes a shot. The party is over when everyone is passed out drunk.” Sounds like one hell of a party.