Throughout the Kampai! izakaya reviews you’ll notice frequent mention of “bottle keep” – a common izakaya service allowing customers to leave behind unfinished bottles of shochu for future visits. It’s a great business strategy, encouraging more drinking and eating – once you’ve ordered a bottle you’re more likely to stay longer – and more frequent visits since you’ll return to finish that last bottle (and likely order another to keep again).
Imagine if your local Italian place let you leave leftover wine for the next time you were in the mood? Wouldn’t work well, would it? The wine would spoil pretty quickly. The same is true of sake or beer. Of course, with spirits there’s no risk of that, but nobody orders a bottle of whiskey with dinner. The strength of the spirit would overwhelm the taste of the food.
Enter shochu. A distilled spirit, shochu does not spoil once the bottle is opened and it pairs really well with oily or fried foods. Since most shochu is diluted with spring water before bottling, the spirit does not overwhelm the food. It might if you’re eating delicate dishes, but that’s where sake may be a better choice. If you’re tucked into an izakaya for the evening there’s every chance you’ll end up eating something fried or grilled or sauteed be it seafood or meat. Shochu’s a great choice and if you can’t finish the bottle (always a better bargain than by the glass) then you can leave it behind.
Different izakayas have different policies and some do not allow bottle keep at all, so be sure to ask before making the commitment. Depending on their storage space they will usually keep bottles for 1 to 3 months. However, once you’ve made friends with the staff it’ll stay there until you come back. Within reason, of course. The photo above is the bottle keep at Otafuku, a soba house in LA. They’ve got plenty of room in their 600+ square foot dining area so an entire wall is devoted to bottle storage and they’ll gladly keep bottles 3 or more months for regulars. A tiny NYC izakaya might only have a couple small shelves and a very short storage period, if any at all.
Bottle keep certainly adds complexity to the restaurant’s business since they need to document each left bottle with a customer’s name and date. These are usually written on a “Hi My Name Is…” sticker on the bottle or written directly on the glass with a permanent market. Izakayas also keep a ledger of bottles in case you can’t remember the date or brand. However, it’s a good habit to write down the date and brand as well as which izakaya you visited. I keep an EverNote file with all of my bottles, dates, and izakayas. You’ll likely need this information, because if they don’t remember you, they’re not likely to give you a bottle just because you claim it’s yours. Better safe than sorry.
We’re big fans of bottle keep and hope the trend catches on elsewhere as shochu becomes more common. You should definitely give it a try next time you’re in an izakaya that offers the service. Just don’t take my bottle. There’s every chance I have one there.