INTERVIEW: SHUZO NAGUMO
Shuzo Nagumo, Japan’s Top Mixologist, Talks About Shochu’s Rising Star
Mixologist Shuzo Nagumo
Mixology is the beverage industry name for the techniques behind combining liquors into cocktails. Beyond simple bartending, mixology is what lets masters bring diverse ingredients like fruit, teas, cacao, and more into harmony with base liquors to create new, convention-defying cocktails. Mixology links all kinds of ingredients and all kinds of liquor, and it has also influenced the development of base liqueurs and spirits themselves. Today’s topic, shochu, is beginning to see some new appeal in this realm.
We visited Japan’s star mixologist Shuzo Nagumo at his bar memento mori, found in Toranomon Hills Business Tower in one of Tokyo’s most popular business districts, to discuss what he sees in shochu, its compatibility with other ingredients, and his recommended distilleries.
A Shocking Book Encounter
Mr. Nagumo, how did you first encounter mixology?
Nagumo: When I was 21, and still a university student, I worked at a bar. Right around then, the Japanese translation of Ben Reed’s book Cool Cocktails came out. I bought it, read it, and was utterly shocked that cocktails like that actually existed out there in the world. It would be like, if you had spent all your time studying classical art, then suddenly you encountered contemporary art for the first time. That was what it felt like. There was this freedom to choose your own style and ingredients, without any hard guidelines on what to do with your own creation. It was saying mixology is creation. It felt like a whole new world opened up in front of me.
I understand you work very closely with shochu. What has driven you to be so active in using it?
N: The whole thing has gone in steps, so I’ll just go through it in order. First, I started my own company in 2009 as a way to explore the possibilities of cocktail making, which involved a lot of trial-and-error. We were the first to start using equipment like centrifuges, sous-vide vacuum cookers, or smoke guns, and bartenders from all over Japan gathered to help create something new. At the same time, we created connections between people, and started study groups with people from other industries. We worked on research with specialists in industries like craft beer, tea, and flavoring.
After that, I had the idea to start a Japanese-culture themed cocktail bar and kicked off with a tea-themed shop at Ginza Six. The narrow theme means we have to be extremely specialized. Each shop now has a very clear intent. Here at memento mori, for example, we focus a lot on cacao and botanicals.
As a natural extension, from 2018 we’ve had a shop focusing mostly on domestic spirit traditions, like shochu and awamori. That shop led to deeper relationships with the distillers, and now I work really closely with the Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association. I’m even overseeing a project promoting Miyazaki Prefecture shochu. I think my job is to consider how to help widen shochu’s presence at bars or use in cocktails.
Shochu Coming Into Its Own
Has your deeper relationship helped you discover new appeal in shochu?
N: The third big shochu boom ended around 2007, and while there are some shochu labels that still sell well, a lot of distilleries are struggling to recover sales because they never analyzed why they sold during the boom. Now, they don’t know what they need to improve. At the same time, though, there have been some changes in the shochu market. New products are appearing, and distillers are starting to use more sophisticated labeling and packaging.
For example, Miyazaki’s Shoro Shuzo distillery puts out a shingenshu (undiluted new make) from test crop Benimasari sweet potatoes, Shikensaibai Benimasari Shingenshu, in a really elegant bottle. It’s also 37% ABV. Typically, people would tell you not to drink such strong shochu cut with hot water, but it’s perfect for drinking with soda or in cocktails. Powerfully aromatic shochu goes well with soda, and now the distilleries are starting to recommend that serving style. Changes like that make me feel like shochu is really just now starting to come into its own.
How have customers been reacting to this new shochu appeal?
N: Really well! But not every shochu goes with everything. For example, sweet potato shochu goes well with sweet flavors, but not with dry or bitter ones. Barley shochu, though, is rich and often gets compared to chocolate barley puffs. I think it goes will with anything that tastes good spread on bread. Rice shochu or kasutori shochu (made from sake lees) go well with fruit, and hanatare, which is the head cut of initial run from the still, often has a banana aroma so it blends well with gin or vodka. Personally, like with the bread analogy, I try to express individuality of flavors, how they are perceived, and actual combinations in clear words as a way to help people enjoy the sensations.
Do you have any recommended shochu regions?
N: I think the biggest sources of new shochu are Kagoshima first, and then Miyazaki. Kagoshima really has a lot of distilleries, and even small ones are coming up with fresh ideas. Among them, even medium-sized distilleries producing around 30,000 koku (1 koku = 180 liters) have researchers working on new drinks, and some of them are expanding into other styles like whiskey, gin, or sake. There are many hard-working distilleries.
Can you give us some specific distillery recommendations?
N: Three distillers that are really thriving right now are Komasa Jozo and Nishi Shuzo, in Hioki, Kagoshima, and Hamada Shuzo in Ichikikushikino. Smaller distillers like Nakamura Shuzojo in Kirishima city, or Yachiyoden Shuzo in Tarumizu, are also really interesting. In Miyazaki, Kuroki Honten in Takanabe and Shoro Shuzo in Kushima are compelling as well, and attracting a lot of attention.
If we visit Kyushu, what do you recommend for a real sense of the place?
N: If you go to Kagoshima, I think you have to try the local specialty of chicken sashimi, and I hope you have it with sweet potato shochu. If you get yakitori grilled chicken skewers, then I think topping them with the local sweet soy-sauce based sauce is better than simple salt, and it pairs perfectly with soda-cut shochu or awamori. It’s really interesting how local food and local drink go together.
I usually ride my bicycle around Kyushu, but even if you drive, going south from Fukuoka lets you see how the mountain vegetation gradually changes through the windows. I think you should really get out and enjoy the nature and scenery in Kyushu. There are also a lot of hot springs, so it’s such a satisfying place to visit.
And sometime soon, I want to set up a shochu version of Oktoberfest in Kyushu. It would be in October or November, maybe, right when the distilleries are in the middle of the season, and the main venue would have an arts festival where guests could try shochu from every region. We would also organize distillery tours around Kyushu so that people could visit and sample all the rich shochu, as well as take in the scenery and visit hot springs. That’s the kind of event I’d like to do.