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A mainstay in Japan that’s several centuries old, shochu is a sugar- and carb-free single-distilled spirit growing in popularity in the West thanks to several new brands hitting the market during the past few years. Though shochu is often grouped with the more widely known (in America) fellow Japanese spirit, sake, and its Korean counterpart soju, what makes shochu distinct is that it is made from koji, a Japanese fungus that serves as the base for miso and soy sauce, giving it a unique umami flavor. Some shochu drinkers claim that one can drink it all night with little to no trace of a hangover.
About four years ago, Sondra Baker introduced her friend Bruce Bozzi to shochu at a restaurant. “Coming from the hospitality world,” says Bozzi, a former executive vp at the Palm Restaurant Group, “I was really intrigued when Sondra said, ‘You’ve got to check this out.'”
The two decided to join forces as business partners and create a shochu brand 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-owned and female-run one in the 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’re bringing this treasure from Japan and we’re sharing it. For us it’s really about friendship and connection.” Shochu can be distilled from various ingredients, including sweet potato, sugar and rice — the latter of which Mujen is made from because it imparts a “light, crisp, clean” taste, according to Baker. She describes shochu as having a “silky quality” that feels like a surprise.
“We feel that this is an alcohol that complements the lifestyle of Californians, Angelenos, and many people in the U.S. and all over the world who are very conscious about what they’re putting in their body,” Bozzi says. He adds, “It’s not brutal in the morning if you drink it very clean, which is how we promote it.”
Mujen was enjoyed recently by Anderson Cooper and Andy Cohen on CNN’s New Year’s Eve Live, which drove up sales on the brand’s website across 44 U.S. states. Locally, Mujen (which is offered at three different ABV strengths) is available at Wally’s, San Vicente Bungalows, Monsieur Marcel, and is about to get placement at the Sunset Tower Hotel. Baker and Bozzi have intentionally rolled the product out slowly, and are heading toward an official brand launch in May.
Nankai Shochu is another Los Angeles-based brand, started 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 grow, beyond just the Japanese community or the Asian community — it really has been accepted by so many people.” Nankai is made in an archipelago of islands south of Japan called Amami, where Mai is originally 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 specifically importing kokuto shochu, which is black sugar shochu. “It’s kind of an artisanal style that’s only available through Amami island,” he says.
In Japan, shochu is often drunk before, during, and after dinner, mostly neat or on the rocks, but sometimes hot water is added in the winter months.
“I think that’s kind of a unique experience with shochu — it’s meant to be diluted so you get more flavors,” Paul says. “It’s almost like shochu is the wine of spirits because it’s single-distilled, you get all the regional flavors, and to reduce the alcohol you add water or soda water and bring up more of the fragrance, the aromas, more things on the palate. It’s a unique taste journey.”
Jason Rogers’ L.A.-based brand Yabai! (Japanese slang for “dangerous and cute”) targets a slightly different consumer. It is based on the popular canned drink Chu-Hi, which is essentially “a young people party drink in Japan,” says Rogers, and is a combination of shochu, fruit juice and sparkling water. Rogers, a former pro skateboarder, recalls traveling to Japan and drinking “this wacky drink that was like an alcohol soda.”
A few years ago, his nostalgia lead him on a search for a can and after looking through four different Japanese markets around Los Angeles with no success, realized he should create his own.
Rogers’ concoction starts with koji-fermented black sugarcane molasses that is “distilled continuously, like 100 times,” says Rogers. “By the end, it’s almost tasteless, so basically you can just kind of lay over anything you want,” which is where Yabai’s flavors — yuzu lemon, grape and pineapple — come in.
Rogers describes his version of Chu-Hi as sweeter, more sour, and more flavorful than a white claw; it is sold at a couple Santa Monica-based mom-and-pop shops, Total Wine & More, and various Japanese supermarkets. In the future, Rogers hopes to get distribution in 7/11s, with a forthcoming 9% tallboy variation.
Khee Soju, a spirit owned and developed by designer, philanthropist and restaurateur Eva Chow, has a similarly clean effect as shochu, but is a Korean product. (Soju is currently the best-selling liquor in the world by volume, but has enjoyed centuries-long popularity and success in Korea.)
“Soju is Korea’s national drink. It’s the same liquor, same drink, it’s just like if one makes vodka in one area and one makes vodka in another country, but it is still vodka. Shochu is the Japanese way of pronouncing it. Soju is the Korean way,” Chows says. Currently, Khee — which Chow first introduced at the 2021 LACMA Art+Film gala, which she co-chairs with Leonardo DiCaprio — is sold at Bristol Farms and served at Mr. Chow.
A version of this story first appeared in the March 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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