Lettuce shochu counts as a vegetable, right?
Any shochu fans in the house? If you haven’t heard of it, shochu is a traditional hard liquor in Japan, which is distilled rather than fermented like sake. It’s usually made from rice, barley, sweet potatoes, buckwheat or sugar cane. The alcohol content generally falls between 25-35 percent, so it packs a pretty hefty punch, especially since it’s mostly drunk neat, on the rocks, or just mixed with a little water.
Unfortunately, shochu has a bit of an image problem. In Japan, particularly among the younger generation, it’s often seen as the fusty purview of old men. Overseas, it’s not really known at all. The new all-you-can-drink shochu bar HAVESPI is seeking to change that by giving their customers a fun venue to freely try out a broad variety of shochus and to enjoy them in creative new ways.
The concept is simple. For 3,240 yen (about US$32), you can help yourself to over a 100 different kinds of shochu for as long as you like. In addition, they’ve set up a bar area with all kinds of mixers, garnishes and add-ins that you can use to make original cocktails and explore different flavor combinations. They don’t serve food, but provide plates and cutlery so you can bring in your own and pair your new shochu creations with your favorite nibbles.
Since HAVESPI is right around the corner from the RocketNews offices, we decided to check it out on your behalf, readers. That’s just the kind of self-sacrificing people we are.
▼Abandon hope (of remaining sober), all ye who enter here.
The first thing to catch our eye as we looked over the wall of bottles is the little labels on each shelf telling what the shochu is made from. To the left were the usual culprits. To the right were some real surprises. Lettuce? Enoki mushrooms? Silver vine? Yacon? We didn’t even know what that last one was, much less that you could make booze from it. Turns out it’s a kind of tuber.
▼ Also bamboo shochu for getting your panda drunk.
We opted to start with the lettuce shochu to begin with, drinking it over ice as the staff recommended. Despite the high alcohol content, the taste was surprisingly smooth. Much like lettuce itself, the flavor was faint, refreshing and somehow cooling. One of the great points about shochu, we are told, is that it can be made from so many different bases, so there is a broad range of possible flavors.
After enjoying the unadulterated taste for a while, we headed over to the cocktail area to spruce it up. Feeling a bit overwhelmed by all the choices, we started with a simple squeeze of lime and found the results so tasty, we stopped there and polished off our glass.
▼ A selection of garnishes
▼Citrus, plum, mint and grape syrups, vinegar, Tabasco and cocktail shakers to get crazy with.
Next we tried a chestnut shochu mixed with water, which the staff correctly told us would bring out the sweetness of the chestnut. It was also smoother and easier to drink than we expected, with earthy undertones. We sipped it with some smoked cheeses and found that combination quite delicious as well.
As part of their opening festivities, HAVESPI is doing a tie-up with Kochi Prefecture’s antennae shop in Tokyo. Kochi Prefecture has the highest rate of alcohol consumption in Japan and, at this point, we found out why.
Apparently, Kochi is famous for its drinking games. A representative from Kochi introduced us to one called bekuhai. It uses several different sized cups that are designed so they cannot be set down without spilling their contents and a small, dreidel-like top. A group sits around the table and spins the top. The person the top points to then has to drink from the cup indicated. To add to the fun, some of the cups have holes in them that you have to keep plugged while you drink. And of course there’s a song you have to sing while spinning.
You can see the cups in the photo below. The red one is a tengu. The larger white one is Hyottoko, a comical figure in Japanese folklore. Notice the hole made by his mouth. The smaller white one is Okame, the goddess of mirth.
▼ The top
The smallest cup is probably about a half shot, so you can see how quickly this gets everybody good and liquored up. We are all friends now.
▼”Not the tengu!”
Having not been a huge shochu fan in the past, our night at HAVESPI was a revelation. Each shochu we drank was much better than expected. And with so many unusual varieties to try, we never really even got around to making any cocktails. It’s a whole new world to explore, so we’ll definitely be back.
If you are in the Shinjuku area, you should give it a go too. They officially open for business on July 8.
Address: Shinjuku Watasei Tama Building 6F, 3-9-9 Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo
Telephone number: 03-6457-7538
Hours: 5 p.m. – 11 p.m. Mon-Fri, noon – 4 p.m. and 5 p.m. – 11 p.m. Sat, Sun and holidays
Admission/entrance fee: 3240 yen (US$32)
▼ The bottles have handy numbered tags so you know right where to put them back on the shelf
▼ We loved the retro soda bottles too.
▼Fruit liqueurs from their sister shop Shugar, which specializes in umeshu
▼ From shochu’s blue period?
▼Don’t worry, there’s no actual whale in that one. We think.
▼All the different things shochu can be made with, plus the available mixers (left) and garnishes (bottom), in handy illustration form.
▼The staff helps a customer make a cocktail.
Images © RocketNews24