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Traditional tipples pick up pace

TOKYO (TR) – Sake is what commonly comes to mind when one thinks of Japan and alcohol. For centuries, this rice-based, fermented beverage was the nation’s drink of choice, while shochu, a distilled spirit often derived from potatoes or grain, played a smaller role.

Today beer reigns supreme, garnering over one third of Japan’s 9-billion-liter annual liquor market. (If beer-like brews are included, the share swells to half.) During this changing of the guard, beginning around 50 years ago, sake and shochu were increasingly ignored, considered as the tipples of choice for stodgy, older males who frequent grungy watering holes.

Recent marketing of shochu as a chic and healthy choice, however, has won over a younger generation, with its consumption actually rising to equal its sake counterpart. To a lesser degree, sake, too, has attempted to attract a more diverse fan base. Select bars and restaurants in Tokyo have been some of greatest purveyors of these developments.

Hasegawa Saketen, in the three-year-old, Tadao Ando-designed Omotesando Hills shopping complex in Minato Ward, is dead set on removing sake’s arcane imagery. “We wanted to create a new concept, a store where people could just drop inside and enjoy sake in a pleasant environment,” explains employee Nobuyuki Takagi, whose shop offers both sake and shochu from different regions of Japan.

Kasumicho 301-1
Kasumicho 301-1
Sake, which has an alcohol content of 15 per cent, is enjoyed either warm or chilled, depending on the season. Shochu has nearly double the punch and is generally poured over ice or diluted with water. At Hasegawa, bottles of recommended offerings of both are available and rotated throughout the year.

Akin to many of the “one-cup” joints that have popped up around the city, glasses can be eased back at the shop’s attractive standing bar for around $4. Small vegetable and fish dishes can also be purchased.

At Kasumicho 301-1, just down the hill in the hip Nishi Azabu area, staff members recommend pairing their tasty shogayaki dish ($16), which is a bowl of pork strips glazed with ginger sauce over a bed of lettuce, with Mannenboshi, a mugi jochu (or barley-based shochu) from Miyazaki Prefecture ($10). “The aroma and taste both retain the barley’s characteristics,” says employee Ayumi Komazawa. The pork is sourced from livestock raised on the waste material generated during the production of another Miyazaki shochu, Hyakunen no Kodoku, which gives the meat a slightly sweet taste.

Should one want to enjoy an assorted plate of sashimi ($30), sliced raw fish often including maguro (tuna) and ika squid, there is Denshu, a dry sake from Aomori Prefecture ($9). “The taste is very deep and well rounded,” explains owner Hitomi Watanabe, who adds that her inspiration for starting the restaurant came from this sake. “It is so dry that you cannot tell it was brewed from rice.”

To shift gears to an entirely new genre is to visit Shusaron, located minutes from JR Shinagawa Station, where manager Nobuhiro Ueno offers numerous types of aged sake.

Hasegawa Saketen
Hasegawa Saketen
Along one wall of his brightly lit bar are dozens of bottles of vintage sake, or koshu, culled from 40 breweries around Japan. Most experts will insist that sake should be enjoyed fresh, yet that is not a rule.

“Aged sake offers a variety of colors, and is greatly different from normal sake with its smell and the taste,” says Ueno, who admits that koshu is not popular in Japan but his six-year-old bar has seen a steady increase in clientele since its opening.

Shichifukujin (2003), from Iwate Prefecture, is fruity and dry, characteristics typically preferred by men, believes Ueno. For females, there is Nagano Prefecture’s Shuburi (1998), which has a slightly sour taste. Both are available for $8 per glass.

“Each year there is always something different,” says the manager.

Note: This report originally appeared in CNN Traveller magazine in the May/June 2009 issue.