Shochuary is the New Drynuary (Or at Least it Should Be)
Drynuary—January with no booze—is a bad idea. January is bad enough with alcohol. And why kid yourself that you're detoxing when you know very well you're going to greet February 1 with a stiff drink, followed by more. If you make it that long.
I propose a new New Year's regime. I propose Shochuary: one month where your only alcoholic drink is the low-alcohol Japanese spirit called shochu.
It's reason enough that Shochuary sounds cool and Drynuary sounds silly, but here are five more:
1. Why usher in 2017 with a spirit of self-abnegation when your drinking month could so easily be a meditation on horizon-expansion and healthy moderation?
Shochu primarily comes from the island of Kyushu, in southwestern Japan, whose climate, prior to the invention of refrigeration, was too hot for fermenting sake. The people of Kyushu were also, generally speaking, too poor to waste rice on booze production. But human beings always find a way to tie one on—and the people of Kyushu were no exception: They figured out a way to make liquor out of barley and sweet potatoes. (It can also be made from other things, but these are the most common.)
Clean tasting but aromatic, shochu is only distilled once—other liquors are distilled at least two and as many as four times—and it is for this reason that it retains more delicate aromas than most spirits. "Shochu is a beautiful thing because it can only can undergo one distillation, and cannot be adulterated in any way after distillation," says Frank Cisneros, a bartender at Karasu in Brooklyn. "There is no other spirit in the world that's as expressive of what it's made of and where it's made than shochu."
Stephen Lyman, a consultant to Japan's Shochu Maker's Association, provides some training wheels for the curious but overwhelmed. Drinkers of brown spirits might start with a barrel-aged barley variety, like Ginza no Suzume Kohaku. Beer drinkers might like a regular barley sort, like iichiko silhouette. Another great non-barrel-aged shochu that's a little heavier and richer is Tsukushi Black. If this all goes well and you're feeling adventurous, try a sweet potato shochu like Kappa No Sasoi Mizu.
2. Shochu is good for you in some of the ways that red wine is good for you (and maybe better).
I mentioned above that shochu is distilled only once while other liquors are distilled several times. This is beneficial not only for retaining flavor, but also for retaining some physically beneficial enzymes. One such enzyme is urokinase, which prevents blood clots. Other alcoholic drinks contain urokinase as well, but shochu packs about 1.5 times more urokinase punch than wine or beer.
If you're thinking to yourself right now, "ha, when am I going to get a blood clot??" Well, blood clots are the things that cause heart disease and strokes, otherwise known as what most people die of.
3. You may lose weight.
Earlier this year I went to Kyushu to explore shochu. For one week, all I did was sit on a bus, amble about at a touristy pace, and consume soft-serve, yakisoba, and, naturally, shochu. But I lost weight. I mentioned this to Lyman, our trip leader, who, in addition to his shochu duties, is an associate professor of health policy at Weill Cornell Medical College in Manhattan. He told me about a study showing that blood glucose levels in subjects who have recently drunk shochu are not only lower than those in subjects who have recently drunk beer but, indeed, lower than in subjects who recently drank water. Lower blood glucose levels are associated with weight loss, decreased diabetes risk, and having a reduced appetite.
In 2011, Lyman switched his alcohol consumption from beer, wine and high-proof spirits and lost 15 pounds in 30 weeks. Intrigued, about a month after getting back from Japan I tried drinking only shochu—no other alcohol—for three weeks. I lost six pounds. I was not dieting or exercising. Then the holidays arrived. Still, amidst the cookies and egg nog and mashed potatoes, about half of my drinks have been shochu, and I am still down four pounds.
Is shochu a scientifically proven weight loss magic bullet? Not yet. Should you chug shochu during SoulCycle? Perhaps not. But if you were thinking of doing Drynuary to lose weight, isn't Shochuary worth a try?
4. You can drink a fair amount of shochu and not get a hangover.
Most spirits—vodka, whiskey, tequila—are 80 proof and 40 percent alcohol. Shochu is about 40-45 proof, or 20-25 percent alcohol. (Shochus that are higher in alcohol and calorie content do exist, however.) Now, if you drink an entire giant bottle of shochu, will you get a hangover? Probably. But the way that shochu is drunk does not make likely such an event. A typical drink is two parts shochu to one part water, on the rocks. There's a lot of wonderfully diluting, anti-hangover water in your glass. And it just takes longer to drink a shochu mizuari (shochu with cold water) than a miniscule Scotch on the rocks. Also, it doesn't have the chug-me sweetness of a margarita. I have never gotten a hangover drinking shochu—even that time I drank like seven of them.
5. If you wish to engage in day drinking, sweet potato shochu with hot water is your new best friend.
The first sweet potato shochu I ever had was Kiiroi Tsubaki, at Izakaya High Spirits, a restaurant near Mt. Fuji. I drank it mizuari with chef/owner's Tsuyoshi Natori's rich, comforting sweet potato with miso butter. The potato was directly sweet, the shochu indirectly. Does that make sense? It was great.
Back in the states, I ordered a sweet potato shochu mizuari at Ippuku in Berkeley and the bartender suggested I try it oyuwari – with hot water. This is probably my favorite incarnation of shochu. The vapor coming off the drink was heavenly, the effect calming but not soporific.
Then Christmas arrived, with its daytime revelry. I think day drinking is hard—fun while it's happening and to be regretted later. But sweet potato shochu oyuari made day drinking good. It is warm and mood-elevating. It provides just enough stimulation to animate conversation without making you stupid. And if you want to stop at five p.m. because it's time to go home, you don't feel depressed or dehydrated. You feel like you were drinking tea all day, except that you had more fun.
For those who don't relish the idea of shochu in hot water by itself, Kat Odell, food writer, shochu drinker and author of the upcoming book Day Drinking, has created this cocktail:
The Green Rider
1 tsp. matcha tea
1/2 cup hot water
1 tsp. coconut nectar or other sweetener of choice to taste
1/4 oz. fresh lemon juice
3/4 oz. shochu
Add all ingredients to a blender and process until combined, about 15 seconds. Pour cocktail into small heat resistant glass. Garnish with a lemon wheel if desired.
Every time I drink shochu, I am impressed at how it manages to bring to mind all at once the abundant rainfall, amazing food and general attention to fine detail for which Japan is famous. I daydream about going back there, all the while congratulating myself on reducing my risk of having a stroke. Drynuary is an invitation to failure; Shochuary, to sustainable health and an enjoyable life. Kampai! (Cheers.)