Cocktail of the Month

Chūhai

   Wesley’s owner Yo-Chan with writer Jodi Kurash
Wesley’s owner Yo-Chan with writer Jodi Kurash

When one thinks of liquor and Japan, sake immediately comes to mind. With its history dating back to the 700s, complex serving etiquette and array of fancy drinking vessels, this fermented rice wine is synonymous with Japan.

But during my recent excursion to the Tokyo area, I discovered another beverage that is booming in popularity in the land of the rising sun. Shōchū is a distilled beverage, mostly forged from barley, sweet potatoes, wheat or rice.

It varies in alcohol content from 20 percent to 25 percent and sports a crisp dry taste comparable to vodka or arrack. Multiple-distilled shōchū, which is generally used in mixed drinks, may contain up to 35-percent alcohol. The main difference between sake and shōchū is that sake is brewed, whereas shōchū is distilled.

Shōchū originated in Kyushu, the most southwesterly island in Japan, where it has been drunk for centuries. In recent years, its popularity has surged. According to the Japan Times, shōchū had long been thought of as being “cheap and nasty.” But as premium brands emerged and it was discovered by a new generation, the last two decades have seen triple-digit growth in sales. Trendy bars specializing in shōchū began popping up all over Tokyo.

Once considered stodgy, shōchū has been embraced by younger drinkers. Kimiyoshi Utsugi, a Tokyo resident, says he drinks shōchū every day. “My father always drank sake, but I drink shōchū,” he said. “The younger generation believes it’s much better for you.” Kimiyoshi says there is less sugar in shōchū and it won’t make you fat.

The way shōchū is served depends on the quality. According to Kimiyoshi, if it’s of good quality, it’s drunk neat or on the rocks. Brands of lesser quality are mixed with fruit juice, tea, lemon or cola.

The most popular shōchū cocktail is chūhai (pronounced Shoe-High), which is a mixture of shōchū and lemon juice topped off with club soda for a fizzy finish.

Douglas Ford, my fun-loving host during my holiday, introduced me to the chūhai cocktail. After a traditional Japanese dinner, we stopped by Wesley’s, one of his preferred watering holes for a nightcap.

We were in Fujisawa, an industrial city a short distance from his home in Kamakura. While the city lies about 46 kilometers south of Tokyo’s city center, to me it felt like part of the L.A.-type sprawl of Japan’s capital city.

As we walked down a dark side street near the train station, we stopped at a narrow doorway that opened to a steep flight of enclosed stairs. Nothing from the street level indicated that anything at all was located in this dim building. But sure enough, once we ascended we arrived in a small cozy den of eclectic regulars. The walls in this dive bar were plastered with marker graffiti and a collection of posters and customer photos. It reminded me of CBGB’s meets Cheers.

The true highlight of Wesley’s is the owner Kagefumi Yoshimora. Yo-Chan, as he is known, is an adorable bespectacled man with cute fuzzy eyebrows and a matching mustache. He becomes an instant friend with all his patrons. Not to be missed are the special nights when Yo-Chan plays guitar with his jazz band.

Doug suggested that I try Yo-Chan’s special version of chūhai. My drink, a bright yellow concoction, arrived in a handled beer mug. The flavor was bright, refreshing and effervescent. The pungent lemon shined while being softened by the fizzy soda. The shōchū added an invigorating bite.

After a 90-plus degree summer day, this tipple is a perfect way to quench your burning thirst. Be forewarned, Yo-chan’s chūhai packs a punch. After a frustrating day plodding through airports, his cocktails went straight to my head on my first night in Japan. After asking for his recipe I discovered why his chūhai is so lethal: there is an approximate 5-1 ratio of shōchū to mixers. Chūhai is not just popular in bars. It’s commonly found as a canned pre-mixed drink in supermarkets, convenience stores and even vending machines in train stations. Popular beverage companies like Kirin (beer) and Suntory (whiskey) produce their own chūhai canned drinks.

While pre-mixed versions may be a convenient option, some of my fondest memories of Japan are huddling around the cramped bar at Wesley’s, cooling down with a glass of “high test lemonade” and listening to Yo-chan jam with his mates. Domo arigatou.

Chūhai 150 ml Shōchū 30 ml Lemon Juice Pour in a beer mug and top with club soda.

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