US-born, Tokyo based Christopher Pellegrini is one of Japan’s most passionate shochu experts. After a fated night at his local sake bar, he made it his mission to dispel the myths of shochu.
“I think the bartender was bored that night,” Pellegrini recalls. “He wanted to mess with the foreigner and so he pushed shochu in front of me!” It was love at first sip. “He kept serving me different varieties to find one I wouldn’t like, but it didn’t happen.” Pellegrini was blown away by the range of flavours attributed to this one spirit, so he travelled to the shochu capital, Kyushu, to learn more about it.
“It became it a neverending rabbit hole and it got more exciting the deeper I went,” Pellegrini recalls. “Shochu doesn’t get the respect it deserves, so I started to advocate for it.”
Since then, Pellegrini has collected official certifications in Japan and the US, hosted countless events, published books and co-owns a stylish, standing shochu and awamori bar in Fukuoka called Yokaban NY.
The motivations behind Pellegrini’s work are sincere and his passion is magnetic. He’s a born communicator, and the shochu gods couldn’t ask for a better preacher. When asked why it’s not as famous as sake for example, he argues that “people simply haven’t learned about it yet”.
Shochu has never managed to replicate the fame of its more popular counterpart, sake, the success of which was something of a fluke. “Sake’s move overseas wasn’t a conscious decision by alcohol companies,” says Pellegrini. “In the 1970s and 80s, it was more a case of sushi shops wanting a little taste of home. Eventually, sake started to appear in mainstream pop culture – today, shochu has only just begun to break that ground.”
As well as being confused with sake, shochu is also often misidentified as the devilish Korean spirit, soju. “People think they’ve tried shochu, but more often than not they’re talking about soju,” explains Pellegrini. “Soju is not a drink that many people have fond memories of; they often drink too much of it, and pay the price the next day!”
To avoid misunderstanding, Pellegrini has a trick; “I give people a barrel-aged barley shochu drink and ask them to guess what it’s made from. They typically guess it’s a light bourbon. I’ll do the same with rice shochu, and most people guess it’s sake.” It’s a simple technique that showcases the drink’s diversity.
The vital difference between sake and shochu is that shochu is distilled – sake isn’t. “Distillation is a process of evaporating alcohol and condensing it into a more pure form.”
To make shochu, you take sake, increase the temperature of the mash above 78 degrees – the point of evaporation – and collect the alcohol from its mass constituents. The resulting liquid is shochu. In the same way that whiskey is not beer and brandy is not wine, shochu is not the same thing as sake.
When quizzed about his recommendations on the best way to drink the spirit, Christopher is pragmatic. “It depends on the brand and on the person,” he says. “I love sweet potato-made shochu – it has the most variety. I drink it with hot water.”
For those who are into spritzers, shochu can also be mixed with soda water; it’s an easy way to dip your toe in. “[For newbies] I tend to do small glasses neat with a little bowl of ice so people can spoon ice into it after they’ve tried it straight. It’s easy, because most shochu is bottled at around 25% alcohol, so it’s not ‘blow your face off’ level strong.”
In terms of more mixable offerings, Pellegrini says: “Rice and barley are best, as they have the most sedate flavour profile which won’t get in the way.”
Sharing his incredibly infectious passion for shochu, Pellegrini regularly runs shochu tasting classes in Tokyo, open to everyone over the drinking age of 20. The classes help demystify the uncertainties and myths around sake and shochu, and give drinkers an wealth of knowledge they can take back home, as long as you don’t suffer from booze-induced amnesia.
He runs through the itinerary. “The first hour is all sake tastings as I’m a licensed sake nerd as well,” he laughs. “The second hour, we move into spirits and everyone has a high old time.” The tour starts in Shinjuku and lasts for two hours. But if you can’t make it, here are some of the best places to try shochu yourself.