Kampai Samurai: Stephen Lyman, shochu

The Kampai Samurai interview series brings together experts in Japanese whisky, sake, shochu, beer, gin, and other categories to explore the breadth and depth of Japan's drinking culture. Click here to see other entries in the series.

Kampai Samurai Stephen Lyman is America's leading expert on Japan's national distilled spirit: shochu. He was the first graduate of the Sake School of America's Certified Shochu Adviser's Course, and Japan's Cabinet Office named him the official Cool Japan Ambassador for Honkaku Shochu in 2016. The Japan Sake and Shochu Maker's Association has also named him as their shochu consultant in NYC. He also gets plenty of first-hand experience: since 2013, he comes every autumn to the Yamatozakura distillery in Kagoshima to work as a production assistant.

Kampai.us, which Stephen founded, is the largest English-language resource for shochu online. I found The Shochu Diet particularly intriguing! On social media you can follow Stephen on Twitter, Instagram, and join the Kampai! 乾杯! shochu group on Facebook.

His upcoming book The Complete Guide to Japanese Drinks: Sake, Shochu, Japanese Whisky, Beer, Wine, Cocktails and Other Beverages, co-authored with Chris Bunting, will be available from Tuttle Publishing this October. You may even be able to catch Stephen in person at the new Yokaban shochu standing bar in Fukuoka (Twitter/IG).


WR: Can you tell us how you became specifically interested in shochu? Do you also like sake?

SL: I became a full on foodie (gourmet?) shortly after moving to New York City in 2002. I’d been told by friends who had visited that the NY food scene was not very good and that couldn’t have been further from the truth! Not knowing where to start, I started in my neighborhood, the Upper East Side, which was full of French and Italian restaurants. Through that exposure I developed a strong preference for Italian red wines in my food pairings. However, a few glasses of red wine with a heavy meal and all I wanted to do was nap. I had developed a taste for gin and whisky, but neither went well with food. What I really wanted was a food friendly spirit.

About 4 years after moving to NYC I got my first izakaya experience, although I wouldn’t learn that it was called an izakaya for a couple more years. I just thought it was a Japanese restaurant that served more than sushi. It was late one Tuesday evening after a very satisfying Spanish tapas meal at a place called Tia Pol in the Chelsea neighborhood that I discovered shochu. Next door to Tia Pol there was a Japanese “bar” called Izakaya Ten (it’s now been renamed Juban, but the spirit of the original remains). One of our guests at dinner that night was a German with a voracious appetite for drink. He suggested we grab a nightcap nearby and since none of us knew the neighborhood we decided to try the Japanese place. Turns out on Tuesday nights they offered $20 off a bottle of shochu, which seemed like a good deal so we ordered a bottle of iichiko, which is many people’s gateway shochu both in Japan and abroad.

I found it so easy drinking and food friendly (we ordered some otsumami, or drinking snacks, though I didn’t know it was called that at the time) that I was hooked. We probably went back 35 out of 52 Tuesdays that first year. At first I was content to drink it, but eventually, as a scientist, I wanted to learn more and that’s when I lifted the lid to the rabbit hole.

As for sake, I do enjoy it as a consumer quite a bit, but don’t feel the need to evangelize. There are plenty of folks already doing that worldwide.

WR: Even here in Japan, for many people, shochu is difficult to approach. Compared to other spirits, honkaku shochus especially can be quite pungent. I generally suggest people begin with barley shochu, and if that works for them, then move into potato and rice shochus. How would you suggest someone begin appreciating shochu?

SL: You’re spot on. I nearly always recommend barley shochu as a gateway with something like iichiko as a great first try. It’s light, clean, refreshing, and mixed with sparkling water and perhaps a little citrus, it’s the perfect summer cooler. However, through my promotional activities and frequent guest happy hours in NY and other parts of the US, I learned to ask what someone was used to drinking … beer drinkers get barley shochu, rum drinkers get kokuto (black sugar from Amami Island in Kagoshima Prefecture), sake drinkers get rice shochu, tequila drinkers get sweet potato shochu, and wine drinkers get red or purple sweet potato shochu, which often retains almost a tannic like quality despite distillation.

WR: Are there any rules of thumb we can follow when drinking shochu alongside a meal?

SL: Here’s my rule to live by on this front: drink a shochu that compliments the food in a service style that compliments the shochu.

Let’s tackle that in reverse.

Shochu is not typically consumed straight even though it’s usually diluted to 20% to 25% alcohol before bottling. Most Japanese currently consume shochu either on the rocks or mixed with ice and cold water (mizuwari). These are pretty approachable for westerners, but the truth is many shochu don’t shine when served this way. The more traditional service is with hot water (oyuwari), which is an acquired taste for most westerners, but really lets the shochu open up aromatically. Finally, a very common way to drink it these days is mixed with ice and sparkling water (sodawari). I really like this for food pairings, because the effervescence opens up aromas that you’d otherwise miss, and I preferentially drink sparkling water with a meal anyway as a palate cleanser.

I very much want to drink a shochu that compliments my meal. So if I’m eating rich flavored foods I will gravitate toward atmospheric distilled shochu, which are made in traditional pot stills. These shochu have a deep, rich almost umami-like flavor and aroma and go great with foods such as grilled meats, fried foods, or things drenched in miso. If I’m eating lightly flavored seafood or vegetables, I’ll gravitate toward vacuum distilled shochu, which is distilled in a pot still that has been built like a pressure cooker. The ferment boils at a lower temperature so less of the volatile aromatics that come through in a traditional atmospheric distillation come through in the final product. These shochu tend to have lighter, almost floral or herbaceous notes, which makes sense since vacuum stills have been used for a long time to make perfumes.

Finally, I try to pair local shochu with local foods – a simmered pork belly is likely going to get paired with an Okinawan awamori (not technically shochu, but its older cousin) or sweet potato shochu from Kagoshima since both Okinawa and Kagoshima are famous for their pork belly. Meanwhile, karashi renkon (mustard stuffed fried lotus root) or basashi (trigger warning: horse sashimi) is going to go well with a rice shochu from Kumamoto. I could go on and on, but ultimately an interesting thing to do is to drink shochu that’s grown up alongside local cuisine for centuries. Of course, this is easiest to do in Japan.

WR: One of the things many people don't know about shochu is how monstrous the industry is, dwarfing Japanese whisky and sake in terms of volume consumed. That said, it's been trending downwards since 2006. If there is to be a turnaround, do you think it would come from domestic consumption, or is there an opportunity to grow the industry via exports?

SL: Drinking generally in Japan has been on a downward trend as the population ages so I don’t think the declining sales of shochu (and sake, etc.) are going to be arrested domestically unless young people suddenly decide it’s cool to drink again. That leaves foreign markets to do the heavy lifting to save the industry. The upside to this is that shochu is currently virtually unknown in the west and only about 10% of shochu is currently exported (mostly to China). A couple years ago I did the math and shochu could capture just 1% of the US spirits market, its North American exports would increase 40 fold. I don’t think 1% is an unreasonable target for such an interesting drink.

WR: One of the keys to drive that export growth is supposed to be using shochu in cocktails. On the other hand, it can be difficult to use a lower-abv spirit as a cocktail base, and honkaku shochu can be too overbearing to use as an accent. Do you think that cocktails are the way forward, or should the rest of the world adapt the Japanese way of consuming shochu, i.e. standing on its own alongside izakaya fare?

SL: It’s not an either/or proposition. Shochu can be introduced to foodies like me via its food pairing potential while shochu can be introduced to boozehounds through cocktails and bars. There are some early movers in bringing over higher proof shochu. Mizu Shochu has been in the US market for several years with a 35% barley shochu and they’ve recently added a lemongrass and a green tea to their lineup.

As an aside, shochu can be made from about 50 different approved ingredients including plants, which don’t have adequate starches or sugars to make alcohol. These can be legally added to barley or rice fermentations prior to distillation and still be considered authentic shochu –to my knowledge lemongrass has not yet been approved, although it likely would be if official approval were sought. Since Mizu shochu is an export brand they don’t need to comply with Japanese authenticity regulations.

Iichiko, one of the largest producers in Japan, saw the success of Mizu and decided to enter this cocktail base market as well. They’ve now released Saiten, which is a 43% barley shochu that’s expressly designed for bar service. I suspect these are just the first of many, many higher proof shochu that will end up in overseas markets where the category is still virtually unknown.

My disappointment with shochu cocktails to date isn’t that the spirit doesn’t work as a cocktail based or accent, but that whenever I’ve challenged a bartender to create an iconic sweet potato shochu cocktail, I have been delivered a cocktail that completely masks the sweet potato itself. I want to taste the tequila in a margarita, the whisky in a Manhattan, or the rum in a daiquiri. Why would a shochu cocktail be any different? Fortunately, Mizu, iichiko, and others are starting to push bartenders to create iconic shochu cocktails through competitions and other incentive plans.

WR: We've seen some of the explosive growth of other Japanese spirits impact the shochu world as well. Some shochu distilleries like Komasa Jyozo are entering the Japanese whisky market, and Kagoshima is now home to several new gin and whisky distilleries. We've also seen some "whisk-ification" of shochu, for example oak cask aged shochus and blends of shochus from multiple distilleries. In other words, more experimentation and pushing the boundaries of the definition of shochu. Do you think this is a trend that will continue?

SL: I really admire Mr. Komasa and everything he’s doing. I can’t help but think he’s going to be one of the key people who leads the shochu industry into the future. And such a nice guy as well. He’s doing things right by building a whisky distillery to make whisky – not barrel aging shochu and calling it whisky in overseas markets. I also really like how Japanese gins are embracing Japanese ingredients. So much bright native citrus and other interesting things like tea leaves, bamboo fronds, and my personal favorites, shiso and sansho pepper. Really interesting stuff. Not all of them are great, but I appreciate the experimentation.

As for the current whiskification of shochu, I’m less enthusiastic. It’s not that I don’t think it should be happening, but that the way it’s being approached is all wrong. A barrel aged distillate that tastes and smells like a whisky, but is made without corn or malted barley is a fascinating product. However, several of these barrel aged shochu that have reached the US market as whisky so far are packaged in brown or black bottles. The entire allure of a fine whisky is that golden or amber color staring at you from across the bar! What a wasted opportunity.

A further concern, of course, is that if these are conflated with Japanese whisky, it stands to harm that market. The truth is Suntory, Nikka, Ichiro’s Malt, and other established Japanese malt whisky makers are producing world class products. These barrel aged shochu really don’t stand up to those sublime drinks for the most part, although they can be very interesting in their own right. As a shochu ambassador, I would like nothing better than for these barrel-aged-shochu-as-whisky to serve as a gateway to shochu, which I personally think is a much deeper and broader category than Japanese whisky.

WR: We are also seeing some rice shochus distilled and matured in Japan, then sold in the US and other countries as "Japanese whisky." Not many people expect whisky to be made from rice, but at the end of the day, rice is indeed a grain. In fact, since actual Japanese whisky still uses imported barley, one could argue that the aged shochu is actually more Japanese. If you were in a position to change the laws that allow this situation, would you?

SL: Absolutely, yes. There are some fantastic whiskies being made throughout the world without malted barley as a required ingredient, which is how I understand the definition of whisky in Japan. In the US whiskey has to be made from grain, but the word “malt” doesn’t appear in the regulations. You can use whatever method you like to extract sugars from the grains – if that happens to be koji as is used in shochu production, then why not? I know of at least one koji fermented barrel aged whiskey being made by a craft distiller in Brooklyn and I’m guessing if there’s one in America, there are actually dozens.

WR: I understand you're heavily involved in healthcare, so I must ask. Many Japanese people have the impression that shochu--while not healthy--is, at least, significantly healthier than other kinds of drinks. Is there any truth to this?

SL: There is absolutely truth to this. There have been several high quality clinical studies that have shown that authentic honkaku shochu contains enzymes that may prevent cardiovascular and neurovascular disease by preventing blood clots and lowering blood pressure. Furthermore, since shochu is distilled there is no residual sugar, which makes it a healthier option for those at risk of (or suffering from) diabetes. Many older Japanese drinkers, when confronted with pre-diabetes due to the abundant glucose present in sake, switch to shochu and see their diabetes risk disappear.

WR: As an izakaya patron and shochu expert, you've surely been involved with Hoppy. Timeless classic, or rotgut?

SL: Timeless classic! Though as a honkaku shochu lover, I drink Hoppy Original with a full bodied atmospheric distilled barley shochu or Hoppy Black with kokuto shochu as was recommended by a kokuto shochu maker no less. The Hoppy Black Kokuto Shochu combo is actually a go to drink for me when I visit Tokyo, the birthplace of Hoppy.

4 Comments

  1. David Storey

    Great interview! I used the site when I tried a few shochu a few years ago. It’s a great resource; I just miss a search bar.

    On the topic of unfiltered, barrel aged shochu as whisky, I feel like after trying it, it can be a great product and certainly tastes more on the whisky spectrum than the unnamed shochu spectrum. It does feel like if you say it can’t be whisky because it isn’t legal Japan, then it also shouldn’t be called “just barrel aged shochu” (or sake as many whisky fans says) for the same reason. I think transparency is super important. The story if what you’re drinking is an important component of the experience you have with a premium drinks. What I’d love to see is a new category of whisky, just like when settlers went to america and found maize was more suited to the environment than barley, they made their whisky out of that (or rye), and bourbon (and rye) eventually came about. I’m sure people in Scotland complained on their equivalent of Reddit (probably the pub!) the you can’t make whisky out of maize! (I’m pretty sure there was a parliament debate, where they okayed it (corn lobby was strong, even then ;)) as maize was a noble grain.) I would go with something like Koji Whisky, and only allow cereal grain shochu (or similar koji/nuruk/qu based liquors) that are not filtered and aged 3 years. It is especially important for koji barley whisky, as they have no way of knowing, unlike rice whisky, that it is different to the scotch style malt and blended whiskies. There is also one importer that specialises in cheesy novelty bottles, that now flooding the market with various Japanese whiskies with cheesy Japanese motifs. They’ve done some what I think are koji rice whiskies that they just label as single grain whisky, with no mention of rice (one of their bottles is from an awamori producer, the other doesn’t say who makes it)

    I didn’t know about the New york distiller making a koji whisky, but I saw that FEW spirits are experimenting with a rye and a wheat whisky using koji. They’re a well respected small American distiller, so that should be super interesting.

    I totally agree about the packaging. If you take Ohishi, they’re really focused on different barrel ageing and finishing, like sakura, port, islay, sherry, etc, so it would be a real benefit to let the colour shine through, but their glass bottles are so dark they almost look black. The screw tops also feel cheap compared to the wood/cork tops you often find with whisky bottles in the same price range. They feel closer to a shochu bottle. For how firmly Japanese their product is (as you mention), their labels feel more American to me (probably as they’re entirely designed for the US market). With their more small batch production, I’d enjoy something more minimal, and textured. Like the Japanese equivalent of Mezcal. I’d also love to see the likes of iichiko (they’re the masters of packaging) and Kuroki Honten (also gorgeous, although I like their brown paper bag filtered-aged shochu packaging less for some reason) enter the category.

    1. Whiskey Richard

      There’s a ton to unpack here, and I think it mostly comes down to what sort of standards you have. The average consumer doesn’t know if something is made with yeast vs. koji, or perhaps even barley vs corn vs rice. I would personally like to see more recognition of shochu itself, as in, if it’s shochu, call it that. Yes aging for a long duration generally disqualifies shochu from being called such in Japan, so the law would need to change even here. The end product, sure, maybe you could legally call it whiskey as well in the US. But if people are buying aged shochus labeled as whiskey, and they enjoy it, they’ll look for whiskey the next time they’re at the store. Not shochu. Give the category the recognition it deserves. On the flip side, if they hate it, Japanese whisky has potentially lost a customer. Either way, Japan loses.

      I personally think a good place to draw the line is whether you use yeast vs koji.

      1. David Storey

        I’m not an expert by any means, but I’m pretty sure shochu uses yeast. Saccharomyces cerevisiae for example is a wild yeast used by quite a few. My understanding is the main difference is koji whisky/shochu uses koji to convert start to sugar, while scotch uses malt to do the same thing. Then they both convert that sugar to alcohol using yeast.

        That is why I suggest a new category called Koji whisky, similarly to how malt whisky is named after malt. I think a new category is enough to describe how it is different, just like how people don’t confuse rye whisky with malt whisky. If they do then they’ll get confused with japanese whisky too.

        There is a risk I suppose that people won’t like it and it’ll harm Japanese whisky, but the risk is less if it has its own name, and there is much more risk from the various sourced whiskies from go knows where, or Japanese whiskies on the market here that are made with neutral grain spirit. Even genuine Japanese whiskies can be bad as the number of distilleries grow (some seem like the distillery master don’t have any background in whisky, which seems super risky). Then there are whiskies like Mars Iwai, which may or may not be genuine Japanese whisky, but come from a distillery with a good reputation, but is actually a bourbon style. That is one of the most common bottles you see here as it is cheaper. It could be great and genuine, but as it is non-typical Japanese style then that would confuse buyers if they like scotch but hate bourbon.

        Even if a consumer doesn’t understand between maize, corn (wheat), barley, and rice, that is beyond the koji whisky/shochu debate as you can have genuine whisky outside of that category with rice. Buffalo Trace did one for example. I’m pretty sure that was legal in europe, as their definition of bourbon is probably “whatever US defines it as”, just as in america scotch is “whatever scotland defines it as”.

        Interestingly the Hepburn dictionary back in the day translated koji as malt, and many Japanese shochu sites use that translation in their English sites (I think translate apps are sometimes confused too). Apparently there was a koji-based whisky in the US some time around 1914. They were being held to ransom by wild swings in malt prices and Dr Takamine-san described (and patented) the process of using koji, with the yields being better and cheaper than malt.

        The upsetting of Shochu is an interesting concern, and one I’m sure shochu makers are interested in too. Koji whisky will taste way more like whisky than shochu as it is estimated 80% of the taste of a whisky is from the barrel, and these aged shochu share the ageing process with whisky. if you made a maize koji whisky then there is probably only 5% of the mash bill different from a bourbon. If someone really likes koji whisky though it is easy to research the koji and get at shochu, especially with the same company selling both products. If you love Fukano koji whisky then it is a logical progression to try their shochu (if it is available here). If it is labelled liqueur or grain spirit or grain brandy (what it qualifies as in japan (1st) and europe (2nd and 3rd) then likely no one would try it and discover it is great stuff. Even if it is labelled aged shochu then you’d need to know about shochu to try it so that wouldn’t expand the market either.

        Of course, this is also very Japanese centric. Not all potential whiskies made with koji are shochu. For example what FEW is making is made in the US and using rye and I think wheat. I’m not sure if they are even in the allowed category for shochu. I suspect they distill it in the same way as their other whiskies too.

        Wasn’t it Marget Thatcher that got the law changed to not allow shochu distillers to release spirits darker than the defined level to protect Scotch imports or exports? That in itself should allow koji whiskies to be unleashed on the world lol. A thousand punk bands will play 3 cord wonders in unison to celebrate lol.

        Certainly a complex debate though.

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