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A Place I Wouldn’t Expect to Find Oolong

June 03, 2008

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Shochu oolongHere’s the short list of my personal rules that are violated by the drink in the photograph:

  • Do not combine Chinese and Japanese elements.
  • Do not mix caffeinated beverages with alcoholic beverages.
  • Do not drink tea cold.

Despite all of the above, I tried – and enjoyed! – shochu oolong (Oolong Hai) this past weekend. One of the staples on nearly every Izakaya (居酒屋) (Japanese pub) menu, it is a combination of oolong tea with shochu, served over ice in a highball glass. Shochu (焼酎) is a traditional Japanese distilled alcohol made from grains, usually barley or wheat, and/or sweet potatoes. Its character is completely unlike sake and its alcohol content is considerably higher.

Kaname Izakaya and Shochu Bar Kaname Izakaya and Shochu Bar in the International District in Seattle where I tried this drink, feels like a bar designed more for Issei(一世) and Nisei(二世), than for locals who approach the International District like tourists. You will not be able to get one of those absurd and trendy “saketinis” there, but you will be presented with interesting and more traditionally Japanese adventures in food and drink. I admit to being tempted by the shochu maccha, although my motivation would have been pure curiosity, not anticipation that it would actually be a pleasing experience to drink. The waiter admitted that he had never tried it himself, and my impression was that he had no desire to. Unlike the shochu oolong, the shochu maccha is served hot, I assume in a traditional ceramic shochu cup.

The particular drink that I tried was made with Takara Jun, a distillation of Corn, Barly and Sugarcane and the resulting beverage was quite smooth and refreshing. The oolong tea provided a mild, dark flavor counterpoint to the shochu, also serving to tone down the high alcohol content. I do not know the specifics of the oolong tea used, but it tasted like most medium-grade oolongs, without a tremendous amount of distinctive flavor or scent. And really, when a tea is going head-to-head with grain alcohol, there’s little need for it to be of subtle or refined flavor. Of course the Japanese do not limit themselves to drinking only Japanese grown and processed teas, but oolongs are very distinctly Chinese and therefore the shochu oolong, while a distinctly Japanese drink, is a curious combination of Japanese and Chinese elements. In this case it works quite well and is a drink that I would choose again, presented with the opportunity.

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