Just the title of this piece strikes me as odd. What is a shochu drinking champion? Fortunately for our livers, it’s not the person who can drink the most shochu, but rather the person who can successfully match the most shochus from memory. And last week saw the crowning of the 1st ever New York Shochu Contest champion. Before we get to the winner, let’s talk a little bit about the 1st Annual Shochu & Awamori Tasting Contest. In the interest of full disclosure, I am not an impartial observer. I was also a contestant.
During the preliminary round at 16 restaurants around the city contestants had to match 6 of 10 shochus from memory. Points were awarded based on the number of correct matches achieved in each round – there were 2 rounds of 5 shochus with 3 matches required in each. One match was worth 10 points, 2 matches 20 points, and 3 matches 50 points in each round. A perfect 6 for 6 received a score of 100 points. To give you an idea of how difficult this is, the average score of people I watched take the test was 10 points (1 of 6). The best I witnessed was 50 points (matching 3 of 6 all in a single round). Among the more than 1,000 competitors, only 8 people had a perfect score. I was one of them. The former sommelier of Nobu NY was another. So was our eventual champion.
The top 3 finishers at each restaurant qualified for the final round competition at the Hotel Kitano on Wednesday, February 15th. At the final event the contestants were again tasked with a shochu memory challenge, but this time there were several initial speed rounds to whittle the 42 contestants (6 of the 48 qualifiers did not show up) down to just 5. Those 5 would be challenged with the impossible task of matching 13 shochus from memory – in less than 10 minutes. The first speed round eliminated 3 of the 8 perfect score contestants. Subsequent speed rounds got the finalists down to a manageable number.
In a bit of hubris before the competition started, I wrote a piece on how to win a shochu tasting contest. In fairness, I wrote that before I decided to enter. Only after a bit of coaxing from friends did I decide to give it a try. I had thought I wouldn’t want to turn my favorite drink into something competitive.
My own contest experience was similar to that of the winner, but our stories are very different. We both tried the preliminary round only once. We both had perfect preliminary round scores. We both prefer to drink shochu over anything else. But in the final round competition at the Hotel Kitano, I made a series of mistakes that lead to my defeat while he kept a cool head and beat the 41 other contestants to win $2,000 and 2 round trip tickets to Japan. He’s there now.
So who was our champion?
Eventual champion Seikai Ishizuka (left, hand on table) samples shochu for the final round competition while shochu producers and contest organizers look on (February 15, 2012, New York City).
Let me introduce you to Seikai Ishizuka, 26. He has a slight build, the casual style of an artist, and the delicate hands of a jazz pianist, which makes sense since he’s a jazz pianist who performs regularly at Moco, the Japanese restaurant where he aced his preliminary round test. He also has relaxed demeanor, which likely served him well in the final round contest where nerves were definitely a factor. He’s been in the U.S. for 7 years, in New York for 5, and now lives in Astoria, Queens. But he’s originally from Fukuoka, Japan where he grew up with a father who drinks shochu every day. Fukuoka is on Kyushu Island where 90% of shochu distillers practice their craft and where the residents drink four times more shochu per capita than any other part of Japan. Needless to say Seikai, who’s name means, fittingly, “correct answer”, had a leg up on the competition. He doesn’t even remember the first time he tried shochu, it’s such an engrained part of his upbringing. Like asking an American when they frist had a hamburger.
Fortunately, I had a chance to interview Seikai before he left for Japan to enjoy his prize.
Kampai: Congratulations again on winning the shochu tasting contest. You really put on a great show.
Seikai: Thank you. I had a lot of fun up there.
Kampai: You did a great job. Do you know how many shochus you got right in the final round?
Seikai: I don’t know. Nobody told me. I’d love to know.
Kampai: Me too, that’s why I asked! Rumor has it you won the competition on your girlfriend’s birthday. Is that true?
Seikai: Yes. She was very happy I won. Otherwise I wasted her birthday night at a drinking contest.
Kampai: Do you have any hobbies besides drinking shochu?
Seikai: Not really. Does drinking beer count? I like beer.
Kampai: (chuckling) Sure, drinking beer counts. But how often do you drink shochu?
Seikai: Since moving to the U.S. not as often as I’d like. It’s not available at a lot of places.
Kampai: Do you have a favorite place to drink shochu in New York?
Seikai: Moco has a really nice selection – even some shochus that were not part of the competition. But I’d like to find more places to drink it in the city.
Kampai: What’s your favorite style shochu? Sweet potato? Rice? Barley? Something else?
Seikai: Well, I’ve always liked imo (sweet potato), but I’ve really started to love mugi (barley) lately. Especially the mugi shochu aged in whiskey barrels.
Kampai: Do you drink Okinawan Awamori?
Seikai: Oh, Awamori’s usually too strong for me.
Kampai: Aged Awamori mellows quite a bit. Have you tried it?
Seikai: I haven’t. It’s not available in the U.S., is it?
Kampai: Not yet, unfortunately. What’s your favorite shochu right now?
Seikai: I’d have to say Kannoko or Gokoo.
Kampai: How do you like to drink shochu?
Seikai: Usually mizuwari (with water), but the great ones I drink on the rocks.
Kampai: The contest was just drinking, but shochu goes very well with food. What are your favorite foods with shochu?
Seikai: I’d have to say either edamame or ajitsuki norij (dried seaweed). They’re such great drinking snacks.
Kampai: Yes, they are. Did you have a strategy for the competition?
Seikai: I smelled all of the shochus first to see if I could recognize something unique. Then I tasted them looking for other hints.
Kampai: It seemed to work. Do you think you can defend your title next year?
Seikai: I’m not sure, but I want to try.
Kampai: Have you thought about turning professional since your victory?
Seikai: (chuckling) Can you become professional for that kind of thing? Um … maybe not. I rather enjoy drinking!
Kampai: I’ll try to give you more competition next year.
Seikai: I’m looking forward to it!
So as you can see, Seikai is a down to earth guy who loves his shochu. The kind of guy you’d like to lift a glass with. So to our first ever shochu contest champion I say, Kampai!