Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk |

Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk

It’s funny how the world works. If not for a chance meeting on Richmond Ridge between a couple of snowboarders, it is possible that one of Japan’s most legendary spirits may never have made it to Aspen.


Here’s the story: Four or so winters ago, Shawn Gallus was looking for a new job following a few years spent at the likes of the Ajax Tavern, Olives and in the employ of Grand Vin, the Denver-based wine distributor. Todd Clark, manager of Matsuhisa Aspen, was simultaneously looking for someone to maintain and expand the liquor and wine program at the high-end sushi bar.

Neither, it seems, was looking very hard, as both were boarding the backcountry one fine powder day. As Shawn came ripping ’round a corner he nearly ran into Todd, who was turning around the same trees. Voila! The match was made. Shawn had a job and Todd had someone to buy the booze.

So what about the spirits? Well, Matsuhisa Aspen sold a significant amount of fine Sake, the fermented rice wine from Japan that is found in nearly all sushi bars. But interestingly, the only brand of Sake that they sell in any of the Nobu and Matsuhisa restaurants (there are 19 around the around the globe) are those made exclusively for the restaurants by the Hokusetsu brewery on Sado Island in Niigata Prefecture, Japan.

Shawn, at Todd’s urging, took a trip to Sado Island (dubbed “Sake Island” by Nobu Matsuhisa’s business partner, Robert DiNiro) to visit Hokusetsu and learn about the products they produce.

And learn he did. Not just about Sake, a subject so intricate that one could spend a lifetime exploring (did you know there are 1,200 different kinds of rice but only 50 are suitable for sake?), but about a distilled product called Shochu. And that has become Shawn’s passion.

Shochu, pronounced “show-chew” and sometimes spelled soju (just to confuse things) is a clear, colorless distilled vodka-like spirit made from high-starch grains like barley and wheat and from vegetables such as corn, sweet potatoes and carrots. It can be drunk neat, on the rocks, in hot water, or mixed with juices or anything one would mix vodka with.

The drink, whose name translates into “fiery spirits,” is hugely popular in Japan (it outsells Sake there) and Korea, and its consumption is on the rise. With a recorded history spanning 400 or so years, Shochu was, until recently, a working man’s drink. Something that could be cheaply and easily distilled from just about anything and would get the job done, so to speak. Every culture has something similar. Think Grappa in Italy or even “moonshine” here in America.

But, like Grappa, the perception of Shochu has changed from that of working man’s booze to a high-quality, high-concept, alcoholic beverage. The change began a decade or so ago as Shochu was repositioned as a drink for the young and trendy. Today it is so prevalent that Shochu cocktails can be purchased in cans from vending machines throughout Japan.

One reason for the boom has been the perceived health benefits of Shochu. Though it can be distilled to as much as 45 percent alcohol, the vast majority of Shochu are right around 25 percent alcohol, more than wine, but significantly less than other spirits like whiskey or vodka. And Shochu is very low in calories, with about a third as much as in vodka. It is known for being a “clean” drink, one that is assimilated easily by the body and leaves drinkers with little or no hangover.

Shawn has worked with Grand Vin, his former employer, to bring different Shochu into Colorado and to date has six different varieties behind the bar at Matsuhisa, including Nobu “the soju” from Hokusetsu. A recent tasting showed a great variety of flavors depending on what the Shochu was made from. The nutty sesame seed Shochu was terrific served on the rocks, a drink that could easily replace a scotch after dinner. The sweet potato elixir was a little rougher around the edges, definitely an acquired taste. And the buckwheat Shochu had a lingering aftertaste, similar to, but not as hot as, a Grappa.

Shawn has also put three Shochu-based cocktails on the list at Matsuhisa. The White Rabbit is a special treat. It mixes Nobu “the soju” with a non-carbonated Japanese soft drink called Calpico and is served on the rocks with a “yamamomo,” a gorgeous, red mountain peach from Japan. It would be a great summer afternoon drink, refreshingly light, with more of a slight slap than a punch.

Across America Shochu is on the rise. In New York there are a number of different Japanese restaurants selling Shochu. EN Japanese Brasserie on Hudson Street has more than 30 different varieties and a number of different cocktails. Clearly, Shawn is on the forefront of a new trend. His dedication to introducing Shochu to Aspen and beyond is just one reason to try it.

Swing by Matsuhisa for a taste.

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