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Clinician Fosters Obsession for Far Eastern Beverage


Have you ever heard of shochu? Stephen Lyman, PhD, has. In fact, he's considered a shochu obsessive.

Stephen Lyman

Have you ever heard of shochu? Stephen Lyman, PhD, has. In fact, the director of the Healthcare Research Institute at Hospital for Special Surgery could tell you a great deal about shochu, a Japanese distilled beverage. He is considered a shochu obsessive.

But Lyman does a lot more than simply talk about shochu. He edits a shochu website (Kampai.us), promotes shochu for several Japanese government agencies, guest bartends at shochu happy hours around New York City, consults with bars and restaurants on their shochu lists, and has the largest private shochu collection in the US.

Why the obsession?

“I’ve been interested in Japan on and off probably since I was 10 years old and saw the Shogun miniseries on television,” Lyman recalls. “And then in college I read a book on the Japanese political culture, and that got me interested in Japan again.”

But that was just the beginning.

More Than Sushi and Teriyaki

After cutting his teeth on sports medicine injury prevention research at the American Sports Medicine Institute in Alabama, Lyman moved to New York City and soon began exploring Japanese restaurants.

“Growing up I thought Japanese food was sushi and teriyaki, which I think most Americans probably still do,” Lyman says.

That changed when he was introduced to a izakaya, a type of informal Japanese drinking establishment that also serves food—small plates meant for sharing with alcohol.

“These are actually very popular restaurants now, starting to pop up around the country,” Lyman says. “But at the time, I didn’t even know they had a name.”

Then one evening he found himself with some friends at a place called Izakaya Ten in the Chelsea section of Manhattan. The restaurant was having a shochu special, selling bottles for a 20% discount. But the unique aspect was that if you purchased a bottle and didn’t finish it, you can put your name on it and the restaurant will keep it for you to have weeks or months later when you return.

“It (the shochu) was really light and easy to drink,” Lyman recalls. “And I liked the fact that it was distilled rather than brewed. You don’t get that heavy feeling after a couple of drinks.”

They ended up going back virtually every Tuesday for a year.

“There were nights where there would be a big snowstorm on a Tuesday and we’d still show up and be the only customers all night,” Lyman says. “We’d get to hang out with the owner and the chef, and the other staff, and it just ended up feeling sort of like home. I learned more and more about shochu through that.”

Branching Out

Lyman began researching shochu online but was frustrated that nothing was available in English. So one of his friends, a graphic designer, created a website for him and Lyman began blogging. Three months later he was profiled on NHK, the Japanese equivalent of the BBC. He was being hailed as a New York City shochu expert.

“But I knew virtually nothing about it,” he admits. “It was more about good timing and not really based on merit.”

That would shortly change. Lyman continued to blog online and introduce people to shochu. Before long he began tending bar—his main gig being a place called SakaMai which he says has the largest shochu selection in North America.

Why tend bar?

“Both of my parents are college professors, so I think education has always been part of my DNA,” says Lyman, who teaches clinical epidemiology at Weill Cornell Medical College. “It’s an opportunity for me to teach people about shochu. Nothing’s more fun than introducing someone to it for the first time.”

Lyman explains that shochu sales in the US have been relatively flat for a few years, but the drink is enormously popular in Japan, where they distill more shochu, and more shochu is consumed than tequila and sake combined.

A Variety of Shochu

Shuchu is typically distilled from barley, sweet potatoes, buckwheat, or rice. Sweet potato, Lyman says, is the most popular base ingredient.

“I’ve had some people compare it to tequila or mezcal, but I don’t know if that even fits, because [shochu] is quite a bit lighter,” Lyman explains. “It’s only 20-25% alcohol. It just has a very, very different aroma and flavor.”

Lyman should know. He has about 100 different varieties of shochu at home. Barley shochu, he says, is the most popular in the US, largely because Americans are used to whiskey and beer, which are barley-based drinks. But there’s also rice shochu, which is even lighter than the variety made from sweet potato.

“You can make shochu out of more than 50 different base ingredients,” he says.

But Lyman doesn’t just drink, study, and tend bar where shochu is concerned. He has traveled to Japan and participated in the distilling process.

“I work with a handmade shochu distillery in Kagoshima, in southern Japan,” he says. “It’s actually a family operation, it’s a father and son. And they have seasonal employees, which are all sorts of part-time retirees in a small community. And then I come for a few weeks each year and learn how to make it, and help them out.”

A Healthy Alternative

Lyman explains that not only is shochu the only spirit he’s encountered that pairs well with food, it also contains less alcohol than most other drinks. For example, it’s lower in alcohol content than beer, wine or sake, and doesn’t have any residual sugars because it’s distilled.

“I actually did a shochu diet where I replaced my usual alcohol consumption with shochu,” Lyman says. “And over seven months I lost 15 pounds. We’re prohibited from saying there are health benefits to any alcohol, but certainly it’s lower in calories and lighter.”

One off-putting reality, Lyman says, is that many of the older distilleries in Japan that make shochu may disappear over the next few years.

“They’re all small, locally run companies in rural Japan,” he explains. “They’ve been making really high quality products for hundreds of years. But the Japanese demographics are changing rapidly, and the population is actually shrinking. So unless they develop an export market, a lot of these distilleries are going to disappear. And I’d hate to see that happen.”

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