Japan has proud alcohol brewing traditions that go back centuries. Over the years, the techniques of sake makers have captivated people all over the world, especially with the production of shochu. For Paul Nakayama, his experience with shochu inspired him to create his own variety of Japan’s premiere craft spirit.
Along with his wife, Nakayama created Nankai shochu, a premium black sugar drink that’s available from their headquarters in Los Angeles. Nakayama is on a mission to make more people aware of shochu and Yamato Magazine is pleased to present his story.
Great to have you for Yamato Magazine, Paul. As the co-founder of Nankai shochu, you’ve been doing some great work to raise awareness of shochu in the US. How did you first get into shochu and what inspired you to create your own?
I’ve been drinking shochu for quite some time, but I’ve always had a hard time convincing my friends to drink shochu. Being single distilled, shochu is packed with flavour and aroma, which is what makes it great, but it can also be something of an acquired taste.
And then on my honeymoon to my wife’s hometown of Amami, we came across what would eventually become Nankai. It was so easy to drink and approachable that I couldn’t stop thinking about it on my flight home to Los Angeles. It was simply the cleanest tasting alcohol I’d ever had. Realising that it could be to shochu what Patron was to tequila, we were inspired to begin importing and distributing under our own brand name.
Something I love about shochu is the vast amount of ingredients that can be used to make it. What are some of your favourite ingredient types?
I definitely love the regionality of shochu. It tells a story and allows distilleries to bring their own interpretation to that story. My favourite is of course black sugar (kokuto) shochu, but I also enjoy sweet potato, barley, sesame, and buckwheat.
What makes Nankai shochu unique from other types of shochu?
A couple of things really. On the production side, we’re the only black sugar shochu that uses 80% black sugar to 20% rice. It’s a very expensive ingredient (usually takes about 100kg to make 10kg of black sugar), but it’s worth it. Our distillery was also the first to use vacuum distillation for black sugar shochu, which really made it more approachable and more appealing to a global audience.
On the branding side, we’re focused on introducing shochu to a brand new audience of drinkers so our look and feel for our bottles is very different from traditional shochu companies.
In addition to the regular Nankai shochu you also offer Nankai Gold. What makes it different?
Nankai Gold is a very special product. Whereas Nankai Shochu is 24% ABV and a single batch shochu, Gold is a blend of 5 different expressions of black sugar shochu. Different distillation methods, different casks, and different aging times for each expression. These are then blended together to maximize flavour, complex notes, drinkability, finish, and colour. Keeping the flavor and colour consistent is truly a challenge for our master distiller Yoichiro Haseba, but that’s why he’s a master.
There can be a lot of confusion around shochu and the Korean beverage soju. How important do you feel it is to differentiate the two from an education standpoint?
I think it’s very important to differentiate between a multi-distilled product like soju and a single-distilled product like genuine (honkaku) shochu. The multi-distilled sojus are produced to be cheap to both consumer and producer, and often have additives to balance the flavours.
Genuine shochus are more premium, being all-natural and some of the purest distillates around. There are of course many craft single-distilled sojus in Korea that have more in common with genuine shochu and is a better comparison.
That said, the growing popularity and ubiquity of soju in America does provide shochu companies like us to find a contextual foothold to introduce shochu to more people.
I recently read the interview with the Nankai shochu master distiller Yoichiro Haseba and think his passion for the craft is brilliant. How did you start working with him and what does he bring to the operation?
My wife and I fell in love with his products and are admirers of his dedication to the craft. He’s the genius behind all of our products. We began a working relationship with the distillery about four years ago — it was more of a courtship really, where we tried to convince them that we would be worthy representatives of the product.
Low ABV cocktails have emerged as a major trend. Why do you think they have become so popular and where do you think shochu can fit in?
Low ABV cocktails are great for so many reasons— you can pair them with meals, you can have more of them and enjoy a variety during an evening, there’s a growing group of people that prefer taste over intoxication.
With most being 20-25%, shochu is a perfect fit for many reasons. The regionality of shochu allows for a wide range of flavours, aromas, and nuance to play with. Sweet potato shochu, for example, can bring an earthy note, while barley shochu can bring a drier element. Black sugar shochu can work to carry and enhance other flavours well.
Can you describe some different cocktail recipes that would go well with your drink?
Easy: Hana Hana Highball
– Add 4oz of soda water to 2oz of Nankai Shochu/Gold over ice in a collins glass.
– Squeeze lemon juice (anywhere from 1 wedge to 1/3 lemon) to taste
Easy: Yuzu Pop
– Mix 2oz Nankai Shochu with 4oz of Ginger Ale
– Add dash of yuzu juice
– Add ice, stir, and enjoy
Medium: Gold Fashioned
– Muddle 1tsp of sugar with 3 dashes of Angostura bitters and a splash of soda water
– Add 2 oz of Nankai Gold
– Add large cube of ice
– Stir until blended and enjoy
Hard: Nankai Margherita
– Muddle 4 grape tomatoes, 2 basil leaves in a shaker
– Add 1/3 lemon, 2oz Nankai Shochu/Gold, 1oz agave/honey syrup (1:1)
– Add ice and wet shake vigorously
– Double strain into a coupe glass.
You can also talk to our bartender/chef friends like Matthew Biancaniello, Adam Chapman, Amanda Colom, Jason Yu, Esteban De Luna, and Dany Maldonado for the genius-level cocktails.
What kinds of food pairings would you recommend with Nankai shochu?
Anything with a lot of umami, like fresh/raw seafood, grilled meats, cheese, and tomatoes. Black sugar shochus really accentuate those flavours well. Traditionally, black sugar shochus are also paired with fried dishes and desserts.
What does the future hold for Nankai shochu and do you plan on expanding your portfolio into other drinks such as awamori?
We plan on releasing more black sugar shochu varieties in the near future, including some infusions. We’re always on the lookout for great Japanese craft spirits and brews, so anything is possible. It’s really about introducing great Japanese beverages that would otherwise not be distributed outside of Asia.