A centuries-old mainstay in Japan, shochu is a sugar-free, carb-free distilled spirit that is gaining popularity in the West thanks to several new brands hitting the market in recent years. Although shochu is often grouped together with the best-known (in America) Japanese spirit, sake, and its Korean counterpart, soju, what sets shochu apart is that it is made from koji, a Japanese mushroom that serves as a base for miso and soy. sauce, giving it a unique umami flavor. Some shochu drinkers claim you can drink it all night long with little or no hint of a hangover.
About four years ago, Sondra Baker introduced shochu to her friend Bruce Bozzi at a restaurant. “Coming from the hospitality world,” says Bozzi, former executive vice president of Palm Restaurant Group, “I was really intrigued when Sondra said, ‘You have to check this out.'”
The two decided to join forces as business partners and create a brand of shochu called Mujen (meaning “infinite”) and traveled to Japan several times to find the right distillery to work with, landing on a 103-year-old family and female business. -runs one in Kumamoto Prefecture.
“This spirit is over 500 years old, so it’s ancient, but we’re bringing something new,” Baker says. “We feel like we are bringing this treasure from Japan and sharing it. For us, it’s really about friendship and connection. Shochu can be distilled from a variety of ingredients, including sweet potato, sugar, and rice — the latter of which Mujen is made because it imparts a “light, crisp, and clean” taste, according to Baker. She describes the shochu as having a “silky quality” that feels like a surprise.
“We believe it’s an alcohol that complements the lifestyle of Californians, Angelenos, and many people in the United States and around the world who are very conscious of what they put into their bodies,” Bozzi says. . He adds: “It’s not rough in the morning if you drink it very clean, that’s how we promote it.”
Mujen was recently enjoyed by Anderson Cooper and Andy Cohen on CNN New Year’s Eve Live, which boosted sales on the brand’s website in 44 US states. Locally, Mujen (which is offered at three different ABV levels) is available at Wally’s, San Vicente Bungalows, Monsieur Marcel, and is set to be placed at the Sunset Tower Hotel. Baker and Bozzi intentionally rolled out the product slowly and are headed for an official brand launch in May.
Nankai Shochu is another Los Angeles-based brand launched by husband-and-wife team Paul and Mai Nakayama in 2017. “We’re now entering our fifth year,” says Paul, “and we’ve really seen the acceptance of shochu. growing up, beyond the Japanese community or the Asian community – it was really accepted by so many people. Nankai is made in an archipelago of islands south of Japan called Amami, where Mai is from. According to Paul , Nankai (which is sold at Ralph’s and Total Wine & More) was one of the first shochu brands in Los Angeles to specifically import koctoshogiku, which is dark sugar shochu.” It’s kind of an artisanal style which is only available on Amami Island,” he says.
In Japan, shochu is often drunk before, during, and after dinner, mostly neat or over ice, but sometimes hot water is added during the winter months.
“I think it’s kind of a unique experience with shochu — it’s meant to be diluted so you get more flavor,” says Paul. “It’s almost like shochu is the wine of spirits because it’s distilled once, you get all the regional flavors, and to reduce the alcohol, you add water or soda water and make bring out more of the perfume, the aromas, more things in the mouth.It’s a unique gustatory journey.
Yabai, the LA-based brand of Jason Rogers! (Japanese slang for “dangerous and cute”) targets a slightly different consumer. It’s based on the popular canned drink Chu-Hi, which is basically “a party drink for young people in Japan,” says Rogers, and is a combination of shochu, fruit juice, and sparkling water. Rogers, a former pro skateboarder, remembers traveling to Japan and drinking “this wacky drink that looked like an alcoholic soda.”
A few years ago, his nostalgia led him in search of a can and after scouring four different Japanese markets around Los Angeles without success, he realized he had to create his own.
Rogers’ concoction starts with koji-fermented black sugar cane molasses that is “continuously distilled, about 100 times,” Rogers says. “In the end, it’s almost tasteless, so basically you can just lay on whatever you want,” which is where Yabai’s flavors – yuzu lemon, grape and pineapple – come in.
Rogers describes his version of Chu-Hi as sweeter, sourer, and tastier than a White Claw; it is sold at a few Santa Monica-based mom-and-pop stores, Total Wine & More, and various Japanese supermarkets. Going forward, Rogers hopes to get a distribution in the 7/11s, with an upcoming 9% tallboy variation.
Khee Soju, a spirit owned and developed by designer, philanthropist and restaurateur Eva Chow, has an effect as clean as shochu, but is a Korean product. “It’s the same liqueur, the same drink, it’s like making vodka in one region and making vodka in another country, but it’s still vodka. Shochu is the Japanese way of pronouncing it. Soju is the Korean way,” Chows says. Currently, Khee — who Chow first presented at the 2021 LACMA Art + Film gala, which she co-chairs with Leonardo DiCaprio — is sold to Bristol Farms and served Mr. Chow.
A version of this story first appeared in the March 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.