In late 2008, “Shochu Tuesday” began on a crisp fall night at Izakaya Ten in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan. Within a few weeks a regular group of friends gathered every Tuesday and over the next year we managed to visit “i10” at least 35 out of 52 weeks – mainly on Tuesdays. Birthday parties, shochu tasting parties, any excuse for a party, really. Izakaya Ten has now been reopened as Juban, but still has the same vibe we fell in love with.
Our founder and editor, Stephen Lyman, is the obsessive. With a shochu collection that has outgrown his liquor cabinet he’s become an expert on this Japanese spirit. Stephen was a finalist in the 1st Annual Shochu & Awamori Tasting Contest with a perfect preliminary round score. There were just 8 perfect scores among nearly 1,000 contestants. He has since retired from competitive drinking and is now focused Japanese food and drink for pleasure rather than sport. In March 2012, he was profiled on NHK’s El Mundo as a shochu “otaku” (obsessive).
Realizing he had only a passing understanding of shochu at that time, he traveled to Kyushu (where 90%+ of authentic shochu is made) with the contest chamption, Seikai Ishizuka, in the summer of 2012. While in Kyushu, he and Seikai were profiled on local Kagoshima television station, MBC. They visited 6 distilleries and tried 262 different shochu (there are an estimated 6,000 labels from 600 distilleries in Japan) in just 5 days. Stephen went on to neighboring Okinawa where he visited 5 more Awamori distilleries. Upon returning from Japan he realized he had just scratched the surface of understanding shochu, but his obsession had turned into a passion.
Shortly after the trip, he was approached by Mutual Trading Company to give a shochu seminar for their annual trade show and invited to pick a shochu-of-the-month for Times Square izakaya, Iroha. In April of 2013 he was invited to begin guest bartending (every Tuesday night, 7-9pm) and curate the shochu list at SakaMai, a Japanese concept restaurant in the Lower East Side where he guest bartended until the end of 2015. Since January 2016, Shochu’sday has been a traveling happy hour that to date has appeared in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Washington DC, Seattle, Boston, and Kumamoto, Japan.
In the October 2013 Stephen visited 15 more distilleries throughout Kyushu and did a week long internship at Yamato Zakura Shuzo in Ichiki, Kagoshima. In December 3013, he returned to Fukuoka to give a seminar at Kyushu University, fittingly entitled, “How I fell in love with shochu (and Kyushu)” for The Shochu Project. He’s now living and working in Japan approximately 3 months per year.
Since that time he’s visited more than 40 additional distilleries, sampled well over 1,000 shochu, and has become a certified shochu adviser through the Sake School of America, which licensed their curriculum from Sake School International (the official governing body for sake and shochu certification). He’s also been named the first Cool Japan Shochu Ambassador and has been named the English language guide for the annual Japanese Sake & Shochu Makers Association Kuramoto Tour for foreign media and influencers.
Follow him (and us) on Twitter @KampaiUS, Instagram @KampaiUS and join our facebook group Kampai!
But Kampai.US is not a one man show. The look and feel of our website is courtesy of web designer extraordinaire Michael Slaven & graphic designer (and graphic novelist) Ian Bradley. Both are regulars on the izakaya circuit. Ian is a fan of mugi shochu while Mike favors Japanese beers.
Dean, an Englishman in New York working for a Japanese company, has taken on marketing responsibilities for Kampai.US, which to date appears to consist of drinking in izakayas and telling us what we’re doing wrong.
All in all, we are a group of mainly (for now) New York City based izakaya lovers. We spend a lot of time at izakayas, eat a lot of Japanese food, and drink a lot of shochu. We visit izakayas everywhere we travel and we pick up duty free shochu when we’re in Japan. If you’d like to write about shochu or izakayas for cities or countries outside NYC, please email Stephen at Stephen at Kampai dot US.
Our hope is that this will become the English language resource for izakaya life – that beautiful blending of food, drink, and friendship that the Japanese have perfected.