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'Asian vodka' rocks Western spirits Add to ...

Madonna promoted it. The oldest man in the world swore by it. Japan has been lapping it up faster than sake.

Now shochu has landed in Ontario.

Or, more specifically, the first 300-bottle shipment to hit retail shelves in the province arrived in select stores about two weeks ago and has virtually sold out. Trendy tipplers not wanting to miss the latest booze craze can try again in two weeks, when a follow-up order of 600 bottles hits the shelves.

Never heard of shochu? Distilled from a variety of ingredients, most notably barley, sweet potato or molasses, it's something of a cross between vodka and sake, clear in colour and weighing in at roughly 25-per-cent alcohol. For centuries it was considered the sop of alcoholics and the underclass -- the moonshine of the Land of the Rising Sun, so to speak.

But for the past five years, shochu has been on a tear. Tokyo club-hoppers are tossing back a growing number of upscale brands, sipping it on the rocks, mixing it with soda or diluting it with hot water for a bracing toddy. Seniors drink it straight or with water to take advantage of its reputed health benefits. Women tend to consider it a more moderate counterpart to vodka in trendy neon cocktails.

"It's a huge boom in Japan," says Sho Ozawa of Ozawa Canada, which imports the first retail brand to arrive in Ontario, Yokaichi Mugi Shochu ($29.95). "In Japan, when one thing hits, it blankets the whole country."

At one famous bar in Tokyo called Shochu Authority, which stocks more than 2,500 brands, women reportedly account for about 60 per cent of the clientele.

"It really appeals to young women," says Pat Ellis of Promark Sourcing in Vancouver, which first introduced a brand to the B.C. market about a decade ago, and now distributes five types to B.C. restaurants and select stores.

Shochu sales have been climbing every year for the past decade, according to Japan's National Tax Administration Agency, expanding by 36 million cases between 1997 and 2006. That contrasts with a steady domestic drop for sake and whisky. There are now an estimated 3,000 shochu brands in Japan.

Chalk it up to a number of factors, not least the drink's new notoriety as a wonder tonic.

In the mid-1980s, the world's then-oldest man, Shigechiyo Izumi, famously attributed his longevity to a daily half-pint of shochu. Mr. Izumi lived for 120 years before succumbing to pneumonia in 1986.

More recently, the drink sometimes dubbed "Asian vodka" in trendy New York and Los Angeles bars has been riding the clear-spirit wave, benefiting not only from the fact it is lower in calories and alcohol than other spirits, but also from the belief it causes fewer hangovers. Reports have even linked it to an enzyme that breaks down blood clots, reducing the risk of heart attacks and strokes more effectively than red wine does.

Price is no small factor, either. Whereas whisky, particularly imported single malt, has traditionally been taxed to the max in Japan, with humble brands typically fetching northward of $100 a bottle, shochu has been taxed at a relatively low rate . Quality bottles typically sell for the equivalent of $10 to $20.

Shochu also is considerably more cocktail-friendly than Japan's more traditional wine-like rice beverage. "Sake can't allow people to mix with hot water or iced water, but shochu can," says Yuki Nakamura, assistant director of the Japanese External Trade Organization in Toronto. Then there's the virgin-samurai-dragon-slayer factor.

In a sort of real-life prequel to Bill Murray's famous Suntory Whisky television commercial in the 2003 movie Lost in Translation, pop queen Madonna appeared in a couple of Japanese ads for Takara Shochu Jun in the mid-1990s.

Bedecked in samurai-warrior garb and waving a sword at a dragon, she toasts her victory with the sultry declaration, "I'm pure," in a sly echo of her most famous hit, Like a Virgin.

The Jun brand, in fact, has been credited with pioneering the shift to higher-quality shochus as well as slick packaging that echoes the medicinal shape of the iconic Absolut vodka bottle.

Several such brands have recently made their way to the trend-setting centres of New York and Los Angeles, where the drink is catching on in expensive bars.

Traditionally, shochu has been made from multiple grains or vegetables and distilled several times like most other spirits. But that process resulted in a flavourless, vodka-like profile. In contrast, today's fastest-selling brands are made from just one source, notably barley (Scotch whisky's main ingredient) or sweet potato. And they're distilled just once. Mono-distillation leaves behind more flavours, which in the case of shochu can hint at nuts, flowers, minerals and a variety of fruits.

These trendier shochus have been dubbed honkaku, which Mr. Ozawa translates as "the real thing." They also stand in contrast to the popular Korean soju, a more humble cousin that's been available in Canada for years and typically costs $10 to $15 a bottle here. Vietnam is another source of bargain varieties, including the "Japanese-style" Tanaka Moonlight, widely available for $20 in British Columbia.

While several Japanese and other Asian brands have been available on B.C. shelves for years, most sales have gone through bars and restaurants, says Katherine Jeffcoatt, a spokeswoman for the B.C. Liquor Distribution Branch.

Shochu sales in the province were worth $278,000 over the past 12 months, with most of that accounted for by restaurants. The only Japanese brand in the B.C. Liquor Stores system now, Sanwa Lichiko Shochu ($36), is slated for delisting when current stocks run out. Several other brands are available in private wine stores.

In Toronto, shochu's promise may be looking more sanguine.

"The first order depleted fairly quickly from our warehouse," says Chris Robertson, the Liquor Control Board of Ontario's category manager for spirits.

"We do think it's a product that has a certain amount of buzz around it right now," he says. "Because it's got some similarities to vodka, and because of our curiosity about global cuisine, and because the packaging is very interesting and modern, we're hoping it's going to appeal to the vodka consumer as well."

bcrosariol@globeandmail.com

***

Picks of the week

Yokaichi Mugi Shochu

$29.95 (LCBO, product No. 31070)

Distilled from 100-per-cent barley. Outgoing style, with pronounced aromas of grain and banana. Milky in texture and slightly nutty, with a flavour that shuttles between Scotch and sake. Warm and substantial.

Hamada Shuzo

Kaidou Shochu

($40/bottle; minimum order $240 for a six-bottle case; call Ozawa Canada, 905-731-5088 or 1-800-447-8141; sho@ozawa.ca)

Made from 100-per-cent sweet potato - and it shows. The main ingredient comes through clearly in this smooth, round, earthy-tasting spirit. Silky in texture, with a hint of rye whisky on the medium-long finish.

Hamada Shuzo Kakushi

Gura Mugi Shochu

($42/bottle; minimum order $252 for a six-bottle case; Ozawa

Canada, 905-731-5088 or 1-800-447-8141; sho@ozawa.ca)

All-barley. The grain comes through with delicate purity. Lighter, cleaner and fresher than smoky single malt, a Scotch-lover's shochu that leaves you without whisky breath.

WHERE TO TASTE

Kaiseki Sakura, 556 Church St., Toronto, 416-923-1010

Izakaya, 69 Front St. E., Toronto, 416-703-8658 Hapa Izakaya, 1479 Robson St., Vancouver, 604-689-4272 Spirit of Toronto Annual Whisky Gala, May 12, 6:30 to 10:30 p.m., Roy Thomson Hall, Toronto, Spiritoftoronto.ca. (One brand available for tasting, Hamada Shuzo Kakushi Gura, plus several Japanese whiskies.)

Beppi Crosariol

Follow on Twitter: @Beppi_Crosariol

 

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