Grind Time: iichiko expands shochu offerings

Jul. 9, 2014 | 0 Comments

BY JASON GENEGABUS / jason@staradvertiser.com

With so many sake lovers in Hawaii, it’s easy to forget that Japan makes plenty of other alcoholic beverages besides the liquor known as nihonshu to the Japanese.

Of course, there’s Japanese beer. But did you know there are a number of distilleries in Japan that produce rum? Or that Beam Suntory (the company that recently purchased American spirits giant Beam Inc. earlier this year) just launched a new premium vodka called Ao?

PHOTOS BY JASON GENEGABUS / JASON@STARADVERTISER.COMHawaii shochu drinkers were the inspiration behind iichiko Blū, a new shochu available in Hawaii restaurants this summer.

PHOTOS BY JASON GENEGABUS / JASON@STARADVERTISER.COM

Hawaii shochu drinkers were the inspiration behind iichiko Blū, a new shochu available in Hawaii restaurants this summer.

The Japanese are also very adept at making whisky — they don’t use an “e” as American whiskey distilleries do, however — and more brands are making the jump into the American market. Some of my favorites, like Yamazaki, Hakushu and Taketsuru, are all much more readily available in Oahu liquor stores than they were just a few years ago.

Somewhere between beer and whisky lies shochu, a liquor many get confused with its colorless cousin, sake.

The main difference between them is the production method. Sake is fermented, or brewed, the same way wine is made, while shochu is distilled like vodka or whiskey. Both are usually made with rice, although shochu can be distilled from base ingredients like sweet potato, barley and sugarcane as well.

Another difference can be found in the alcohol content, with shochu generally twice as strong as sake.

Here in Hawaii, the dominant shochu brand is iichiko. Produced by Sanwa Shurui Co. Ltd. in Oita on the island of Kyushu since 1979, it’s the most popular barley shochu in Japan and sold in more than 30 countries around the world. Sit down just about any Japanese restaurant or izakaya in Honolulu and you’ll be able to spot the frosted glass bottles with brown paper labels and twist-off caps.

About 40 percent of all iichiko consumed in the United States is in Hawaii. According to company data, nearly 20 percent of Hawaii residents are familiar with the iichiko name, compared to just 1 percent in San Francisco. So when Sanwa Shurui decided to expand its offerings in the United States, they looked to shochu drinkers in Hawaii for inspiration.

The result is iichiko Blū, a brand new style of shochu with a slightly higher alcohol content (30% ABV, or 60 proof) and bolder flavor that was developed specifically for the Hawaii market. The company has also launched iichiko Bar Fruits, a new line of liqueurs made with barley spirit and all-natural flavors.

“Hawaii is a very important market for iichiko,” said Sanwa Shurui CEO Kazunori Nishi through a translator during a visit to Honolulu in late May. “Sake is quite well-known in the local market, but shochu is undeveloped.”

The new iichiko Blū and Bar Fruits aim to bring shochu to a wider audience in the United States.

The new iichiko Blū and Bar Fruits aim to bring shochu to a wider audience in the United States.

Blū has “more rich flavor” and is more “full-bodied” than iichiko’s original-style Honkaku shochu, Nishi said.

“Up until now, most of our (shochu) go to Japanese restaurants or stores like Don Quijote. That’s why we developed these products. We want to reach more people, not only the Japanese market.”

For those new to drinking shochu, Blū is a great way to get acquainted. The alcohol content isn’t too high, which means there is virtually no burn when served on ice. There was also more complexity in flavor than I remember when I first tried shochu more than a decade ago. I’m still a bourbon guy first, but it didn’t take much of the Blū to convince me it would make for a nice change of pace when I’m eating out at a restaurant with a limited whiskey selection.

A close-up look at the label for iichiko's Bar Fruits ume liqueur.

A close-up look at the label for iichiko’s Bar Fruits ume liqueur.

Along with Blū, iichiko’s Bar Fruits are another venture into unchartered territory for Nishi and his 342 employees. The Bar Fruits line utilizes natural flavors to produce a lower proof liqueur (8% ABV) that’s comparable to a strong beer or malt liquor. It’s also sold in a smaller bottle designed for easy transport and placement in the refrigerator at home.

“The yuzu and ume flavors use the juice from the fruits,” Nishi explained. “We don’t use any chemicals or additives.”

While the ume-flavored Bar Fruits was interesting, the yuzu was easily my favorite of the two. There’s just a bit of tartness, but it’s still refreshing when served chilled. Mix it with a little lemon-lime soda and serve ice cold for the perfect pool party sipper this summer.

According to an iichiko PR rep, both Blū and Bar Fruits are slowly making their way into Hawaii restaurants. Ask for Blū at Shokudo, Roy’s Waikiki or Aloha Table; the Bar Fruits should be available at The Grove Kailua, Sushi ii, Kona Kai Sushi, Gaku, Tokkuri Tei, Genius Lounge, Shokudo and Roy’s Waikiki.

Don’t see your favorite restaurant or bar listed? Be sure to ask for it by name the next time you’re there and encourage the business to carry the new iichiko products.

Serious shochu fans will want to try iichiko's Frasco, which is currently available in local Japanese stores like Don Quijote and Nijiya Market.

Serious shochu fans will want to try iichiko’s Frasco, which is currently available in local Japanese stores like Don Quijote and Nijiya Market.

And while Blū and Bar Fruits won’t be available in stores until 2015, head to Japanese markets like Don Quijote or Nijiya Market and look for iichiko Frasco, the company’s premium shochu. It’s a little more expensive, but definitely worth the money if you’re a serious shochu fan.
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“Grind Time” is always looking for the latest places to get your grub on. Email Jason Genegabus with restaurant, bar or any other food/drink-related item at jason@staradvertiser.com and follow him on Twitter and Google+.

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