Hard to explain why I haven’t reviewed Kozuru Kuro sooner. Perhaps in some way I wanted to keep it secret. It’s an affordable, luscious black koji imo shochu from Kagoshima. It’s the basic product from Komasa Shuzo, which I visited this summer.
This a modification of a post I wrote in January 2013, but never posted. It’s now modified to include new information about my friend and fellow shochu lover Christopher Pellegrini:
I’ve never missed a flight before in my life, but this time was different. Not only did I miss my return flight from Tokyo to NYC, but I woke up after my flight had left. That’s what I get for having an izakaya crawl the night before a 6:50am departure. Missing a flight is never a good thing, but hoping to make the most of it I had one more night in Tokyo, which many would agree is the top culinary city in the world. I had no idea what to do or who to do it with so I contacted Chris Pelligrini of JapanEats.TV’s Japan Booze Blind through Twitter. We’d messaged a few times, but had never met. He suggested an bar in Shibuya.
This bar needs a bit of explanation. The 2nd floor is dedicated to nihonshu (sake) complete with its own expert bartender. The 4th floor is dedicated to ume-shu (plum wine), also with its own bartender. But the 3rd floor is where we’d be headed – a shochu bar with its own expert, and by expert I mean EXPERT, bartender.
What always fools me in Japan is when someone describes a place as a “bar”, I assume the food won’t be very good. As you can imagine in the U.S., bar food is bar food – and unless you’re in an acclaimed gastropub, the menu is decidedly down market and the quality is about as good as you’d expect from a line cook slopping Buffalo wings and burgers. Not so Japan.
The overwhelming focus on quality and the pride that Japanese chefs take in their cooking is all you need to remember when visiting a place like this. You can order anything and it’ll be great. In fact, you can sometimes order things they don’t make and they’ll find it for you. Case in point. I had recently discovered salt-roasted ginko nuts as a tasty and nutritious shochu snack. I’m nearly obsessed with these things. When Chris asked if there was anything I’d like I said “shio-ginan” (salted ginko nuts) … I’d not found them anywhere in Tokyo on the trip. The bartender balked, but made a note. Twenty minutes later he returned with a perfect bowl of salt-roasted ginko. They don’t carry it on their menu, they don’t stock ginko nuts, but he (or his chef) ran next door to procure some from a neighboring establishment. Can you imagine that happening at your local bar?
As good as the food was, and it was great, including the spicy horemon-yaki … a skillet stew of beef glands in a spicy miso sauce along with lots of vegetables … sounds weird to gross, right? It’s not. In fact, it’s one of my newest favorites. The closest I’ve found in NYC is at Hakata Tonton in the West Village. Anyway … as good as the food was, the shochu selection might have been better.
The highlight for me, not because it was the best, but because it was a first, was a nama shochu, or “new draft shochu”, which is a little bit like having the first Beaujolais of the season. This new sweet potato shochu had been distilled and bottled just weeks before. While not as mellow as other imo shochus, it was unique to try. And our bartender, true to his calling, even brought out the kind of sweet potato this nama shochu was made from (kogane sengan).
Later he brought out a bowl of potatoes so we could see all of the different styles that his shochus were made from. I’d never seen this – not even in Kagoshima. Once the bartender knew our true purpose he began to pour some of his favorite imo shochus and I was not disappointed.
But more memorable than the shochu bar, the horemon-yaki, or the shochus themselves, was Chris Pellegrini. This serendipitous meeting – had I not missed my flight we still would not have met as I haven’t been in Tokyo since that visit – proved quite fortuitous. We’re both baseball fans, we’re both academics, and most importantly, we both love shochu. Since that time Chris has begun referring to me as “my brother from another mother” and since I have a brother named Chris, this goes both ways. He and I have begun having semi-regular Skype calls (or google hangouts, whichever free video conferencing service is working best that day) to discuss the language of shochu and many other topics.
Chris has been so dedicated to shochu that he learned kanji for the express purpose of passing the shochu adviser’s exam, which he’s now done. And he’s now doing something that I’ve long thought needed to be done, but I’d never found the time to tackle – he’s written a shochu book. Having decided that e-publishing is most useful as people will be able to easily reference it on their mobile devices, he’s self-publishing and self-promoting, which for an international topic like this is a very wise decision. It also gives him complete editorial control.
And that’s where we come in. In order to realize this dream and promote the very first English language shochu book in the history of shochu books, Chris has started a very modest kickstarter campaign. It’s so modest, he’s raised nearly 80% of his goal within the first 12 hours (kickstarter campaigns last 2 weeks). If you pledge and the campaign gets funded, he’s got some pretty great shochu swag depending on how much you give. Everything from buttons to shochu cups to t-shirts to your name in the book (and much more).
Check out his video on the “The Shochu Handbook.” An intro to Japan’s alcoholic spirit. kickstarter campaign page to see what my brother from another mother looks like in action and then chip in a few bucks to support him. He’s doing great things for shochu lovers around the world.