BoozeMenus goes behind the bar with Beverage Director Michelle Hand at En Japanese Brasserie in the West Village to explore the rise of Japanese spirits in the US.
BoozeMenus: Japanese Whiskys seem to be a growing trend in the US. Have you always had a big whiskey program here?
Michelle Hand: Well no, a lot of Japanese whiskeys have just recently come to the US market. Suntory was the first to export whisky to the US. Yamazaki is probably their most known product, mostly because of ‘Lost In Translation’ and that was the first whisky available in the US market. We carry Yamazaki’s 12 year and 18 year. We carry Hakushu 12 year, and they did their 18 year US debut last week here at En Japanese Brasserie! We also carry many whiskys from the producer Nikka. Nikka and Suntory are Japan’s largest whisky producers. Nikka has what is known as a Coffey whisky, which has no relation to coffee, the continuous still used to make this whisky was created by a man named Coffey so the whisky was named after him.. This one in particular is made similarly to Bourbon with corn whereas most Japanese Whisky is comparable to Scotch and made with malted barley. Most Japanese whisky makers learned how to make whisky in Scotland.
BM: Many people aren’t very familiar with Shochu and you have an extensive and unique list. Tell me a little about the different Shochus.
MH: Shochu is an indigenous Japanese spirit. It’s distilled unlike Sake, which is brewed, so you can make it with anything that has sugar or starch in it. Most of the classic ones are made from barley or rice and then there are some that are a little different. Some use green tea, carrots, sweet potatoes, or even sesame seeds. In some of these they are not solely distilled from one grain, for example Aka No Ne is 65% carrot and 35% rice.
BM: Fittingly, I notice a lot of Japanese-influenced ingredients on your cocktail menu. Can you tell me about the basis of the cocktail program?
MH: Jesse, one of the owners, likes to keep things simple and prefers to only use fresh products and ingredients. For example, if someone were to ask for a Cosmopolitan we may not be able to make that because we don’t carry cranberry juice since fresh cranberry juice is extremely sour or bitter and the kind you’d typically buy at a grocery store is not fresh. Everyday the team basically performs a ‘juicing operation’. We have a hydraulic press for juicing pineapple, grapefruit, watermelon, etc. We try and change the menu for the season using the ingredients at their freshest stage, so in the summer we introduce a great watermelon cocktail. We have an apple cider cocktail in the colder months. We also have a list of house made sodas and juices and a lot of versions of cocktails can be made with or without alcohol. The other owner, Reika, doesn’t drink so she liked the idea of giving people an option of having a fun drink that doesn’t necessarily need alcohol. Try the Seppun made from shiso leaf, grapefruit juice, yuzu juice and club soda.
In addition to our cocktail menu, we have an extensive list of sake, which is what most people are familiar with when it comes to indigenous Japanese spirits. I’d love to encourage people to explore both shochu and Japanese whisky more as we currently carry 11 different whiskys. Kissui is a Japanese vodka that we carry which is made from rice therefore it’s gluten free which is a good option to have on a bar.
BM: What’s your favorite wintertime drink?
MH:I’ve actually been drinking a lot of shochu. A lot of people tend to drink hot sake, but as another option, you can drink warm shochu. There are a lot of ways to drink shochu. You can drink it neat or on the rocks, or mizuwari which means mixed with cold water, or oyuwari which means mixed with hot water. Shochu is typically 50 proof as opposed to most spirits, which are 80 so it’s nice and light. In Japan it is said that shochu is good for you, that it’s good for your blood flow and heart.
CLICK HERE to view their complete cocktail and spirit menu. Head to En Japanese Brasserie in the West Village and be sure to ask any of the servers well-versed in Japanese spirits to lead your palate on an adventure.
(Photos Courtesy of EN Japanese Brasserie)