Shochu. The geek-spirit of 2011.
I recently stopped in at Ippuku for an early dinner in Berkeley. Taking respite in the subdued interior, away from the ruckus that is weekday evening traffic in the East Bay.
Initially, our intention was to merely to try the increasingly infamous chicken tartare. Raw chicken? Hell yes! But before we could begin to fathom the menu we noticed a little advertisement on the table declaring that Ippuku was Shochu School from 5-6pm. 50% off all shochu by the glass. Indeed! We had stumbled upon a happy hour of education-(fermented)!
The centerfold of the Ippuku drinks menu is dedicated to their Shochu selection. They must have one of the most extensive selections available in the USA. Shochu is a Japanese distilled beverage and can have many different base ingredients. The common barley, sweet potato and short rice spirits have the largest holdings on the Ippuku shelf, but there are also selections based on black sugar and long rice. They offer a preset Shochu tasting selection of one of each barley, sweet potato and short rice but we opted to design our own and order by the glass.
All Shochus we tried are listed below with alcohol content, base ingredient and price by the glass. They were tasted without the addition of water or ice.
Heihachiro 25% (sweet potato) $10. Smelling like a fresh, unscrubbed sweet potato it also gave a hint of ripe peach. Green asparagus and melon dominated the delineated palate presence of this comparitively simply Shochu.
Enma 25% (barley) $9.40. Sporting a more overt floral nose of lifted violets and vanilla. This spirit was creamier on the palate yet still light with honeydew melon fruit. Although round and complete, it gave only a two-dimensional impression.
Yaoki 25% (short rice) $10. Smelled of dried heather, cold pressed nasturtiums and the contents of your lunchtime bento-box. Structurally the lightest of the first three shochu we tasted, it lacked some fullness yet was the most persistent throughout the palate (which lent itself well to food pairings). It was more comparable to the flavours present in Sake.
Sasayaki 28% (barley) $9.30. Sage and jalapeno fusel aromatics jumped out of the little tumbler glass. This is a complex shochu with mint and chartreuse green on the palate. Seemingly octagonal in structure, albeit a touch cloying. Joint favourite with the Shiroyutaka.
Shiroyutaka 34% (sweet potato) $12. The extra alcohol helped to give this Shochu more depth and breadth than the others we tasted. Aromatically it was spicier with musk, red chili and cinnamon red hots. It had softer pillowy presence on the palate without being disappointing. It was lush, creamy and finished with a good dry bite.
As with any great food and wine combination, for every dish there is a complimentary Shochu. In the following paragraphs is a selection of the food tasted and what we favoured to pair with it. (More about the food from Bauer or Yelp – including pictures of the menu)
A great warm way to start was with the jidori gyoza paired with either of the barley Shochus. The texture of mountain yams is not for everyone but the yamakake yellowfin brought out a lovely raspberry characteristic in the Sasayaki shochu and was an all around amazing dish.
The sweet potato Shochus went perfectly with the tori yukke (spicy chicken tartare). Never mind the hype, this is a controversial dish well worth seeking out.
The delicacy in the short rice Shochu paired beautifully with most dishes, but especially with the bright clean flavour of fresh Uni. Isobe maki – grilled mochi with nori had a great soy seaweed flavour which expressed fully when paired with the short rice Shochu.
The agedashi tofu was so light in texture and the beautifully flavoured dashi was flexible with all our Shochus. We found the chrysanthemum leaves steeped in shoyu to have a quirky earthy characteristic that made for a good palate cleanse between plates and tastes!
My only gripe about Ippuku is that the servers were a not forthcoming with knowledge and information about the spirits available. We were shooting in the dark selecting things to try while our waiter shuffled suggestions back and forth from the bar. I value confident guidance from my server regarding illumination of any unfamiliar menu items.
What Ippuku lacks in competent service it makes up in delicious food and interesting spirits (in shovels and spades). If you are in the East Bay it is not to be missed! Head there during happy hour and geek out on Shochu for 2011.