Pantechnicon is a five-storey goliath in the heart of Belgravia, fusing Nordic and Japanese aesthetics and cultures. The overhauled 19th-century building is a shopping and dining destination, with a programme of workshops and masterclasses that shine a light on Japanese products, crafts, and experiences. We headed up to Pantechnicon’s Studio for one such masterclass – an Exploration of Shōchū and Awamori (Japan’s oldest spirit) by Spirits Educator, Hannah Lanfear, alongside an introduction to artisanal Sugahara glassware.
To describe Pantechnicon as an impressive building would be a bit like calling naga chilli quite hot. Originally built in 1830 as an arts and crafts centre, a five year renovation has added a three-storey rear extension clad in glazed white brick and an enlarged basement. The extension is stepped in form and punctuated by large, crittal-style windows that nod at the building’s past as a warehouse where affluent locals could store their excess and opulent belongings.
We head up, passed Café Kitsuné and it’s tantalising pastries and market-like shopping stalls to Studio, where a wide range of ceramics, fashion, knives, and more sit on display for perusal and purchase. At the back of Studio, tables and stools are laid out by a small bar topped with bottles of shōchū and awamori that are unavailable anywhere in the UK outside of Pantechnicon. The familiar face of drinks industry stalwart and all-round lovely, Hannah Lanfear, pokes out from behind the bar, whilst Kylie Clark, Head of Japanese Experiences at the venue ushers us to take a seat next to a quite frankly dazzling array of hand-crafted Sugahara glassware. As the other spaces at the table fill up, Hannah begins our lesson.
What are Shōchū and Awamori?
Shōchū is a distilled spirit made from a wide range of raw materials (such as sweet potato, barley, rice, and brown sugar). Awamori can only be made in Okinawa islands using long grain rice and black koji (don’t worry, we’ll explain this in a bit).
Hannah tells us that shōchū and awamori are often bottled at lower ABVs than you might typically expect of a distilled spirit. This is because of the drinking culture in Japan, with the lower alcohol content making the products super drinkable and pairing beautifully with food:
“We rarely sit down to dinner and want spirits whilst we’re eating; these things go so well with food, particularly with Japanese cuisine. Methods of drinking range from cute 5ml cups for awamori that you’re constantly toasting people with, to traditions of mixing them with hot water, cold water, or soda water.”
Shōchū and awamori are historic distillates with 500 years of history behind them. What makes them fascinating is the way these spirits are produced.
To ferment, you need to harness yeast’s ability to consume sugar and turn it into alcohol. Starch doesn’t have sugar in it but is made from building blocks of sugar so it is possible to break down the starch to get sugar. This is the way beer is made; the skill of turning grain into alcohol originally came from Egypt and spread around the world. This was done by taking a load of grain and getting it wet to trick it into thinking it was getting ready to grow. The grain would start to break down starches into sugar so that it could begin turning itself from a seed into a grass.
This information travelled quite well, and the idea of fermentation began to move East, where processing starch became a different method. Here, instead of breaking down starch by cutting growth, starch began to be broken down by enzymes created by mould in decay.
“When talking about shōchū and awamori”, Hannah explains, “the magic ingredient is ‘koji’ – a very specific, almost laboratory-clean strain of fungi. It’s very different to where spirits are made in China where a whole host of bacteria is invited. In Japan, it’s clinically clean. They take this mould and seed it on a starter material, which is rice. At the end of this process you have koji.”
When making shōchū and awamori, the base raw material is gelatinised with steam before little parcels of koji are added. The next day, you can see that the mould will have started to spread over the raw material. Yeast is then added to ferment it and turn the sugars into alcohol. This process is called parallel fermentation with the breaking down of starches happening slowly and the yeast getting drip-fed sugars. The result is a higher level of alcohol in the ferment than a fast fermentation would achieve.
Shōchū vs Awamori – what’s the difference?
Honkaku Shōchū (the historic type we’ll be drinking at Pantechnicon) and awamori must both use a single pot distillation with the final spirit collected at less than 45% ABV. A key difference between shōchū and awamori – other than the locations they are made and awamori’s base material being restricted to long-grain rice – is the strain of koji mould used.
Black koji is traditionally used in awamori (as well as some rarer, more robust styles of Honkaku Shōchū). It produces high levels of acid and yields spirits with a distinctive smoky, earthiness.
“Think Twiglets, Vegemite, soy sauce, mushroom, walnut, and other savoury flavours.”
Shōchū and Awamori Cocktails
Knowledge drop achieved, Hannah demonstrates how to make two cocktails from the Japanese spirits, following recipes developed by the Pantechnicon drinks team. Each is served in an astonishing Sugahara glass.
The first, a Pomegranate Cooler uses Nagakumo kokutō shōchū from the Amami Islands. Kokutō shōchū is made from brown sugar, which Hannah describes as “the most exciting sugar [she] has ever tasted in [her] life”. Local sugar cane is milled to produce a lovely green juice that is put on a hot pan and heated. All the water boils off and a point is reached where you get a tablet-y toffee that hardens to brown sugar, which tastes of the fresh cane. Hannah shakes the shōchū with triple sec, cold-press pomegranate juice, lemon juice, and sugar syrup, before straining into a Sugahara Lommo highball glass, with a base hand-finished to look like a chipped piece of ice. Bright and refreshing with a perfect balance of sweet and tart notes, it’s a texturally robing pleaser served in an immaculate vessel.
Next up is Marimo – a Negroni-esque cocktail with Snap Pea infused Awamori. It is named after algae moss balls that grow in Hokkaidō and which echoes the shape of the Sugahara Kudamono glass. Hannah tells us how infusing shōchū and awamori with vegetables, fruits, herbs and spices is a very traditional and widely used practice. This specific infusion plays with the vegetal notes already present in the awamori. The aroma of the cocktail is super-charged with umami; sweet pea and mushroom come through too, all combining beautifully with the botanical vermouth. A touch of walnut peeks through at the end, playing with Campari’s bitterness.
Sugahara Handmade Glassware
As we sip on our Marimo, Hannah passes the hosting baton to Nagisa Kobayashi from Sugahara, who tells us a bit more about the company and walks us through some of the glassware collections that are available at Pantechnicon.
Founded in Tokyo, Sugahara has been developing and producing handcrafted glass products since 1932. With a reputation as one of Japan’s finest craft glass studios, Sugahara pieces are recognised around the globe for their quality, practicality, and attractive designs. All products are designed and handcrafted by artisans who, while keeping with tradition, also come up with new, beautiful forms of glass products by using their experience and intuition. Nagisa tells us how they are aiming towards zero waste, with broken glass being reheated and recycled.
One of our favourite designs is the visually simple but technologically impressive Black Matte Relax Drinking Glass, first developed in the ‘80s when monochrome was “in”. Back then, black glass didn’t exist, but Sugahara’s team found a way to develop this silky smooth and light glass, which quickly caught the eye of international buyers and allowed them to begin exporting. Today, it remains one of their iconic designs.
Another eye-catching collection that showcases the skill of Sugahara’s artisans is the Duo Layered Blue & Amber, where two layers of glass of differing thicknesses have been blended with a perfectly sealed fusion line to make it appear as though there is liquid in them even when they’re empty.
Functionality is just as important as beauty in all Sugahara’s products. Nagisa demonstrates how rounded bottoms prevent rims chipping and drinks spilling during moments of clumsiness or overindulgence. She points out stem heights and thicknesses that have been carefully calculated to ensure drinks are not warmed by hands whilst also remaining in balance with other elements on a dinner table when put down. The stunning rose-like Saki Sake Frosted Wine Set comprises multiple vessels (ranging from sake cups and wine glasses to nibble bowls and a decanter) that nestle together so as not to take up too much space, whilst the fun Fujisan Glass resembles a snow-capped Mount Fuji when filled with a frothy beer.
We love the creative functionality of each Sugahara piece and how their craftsmanship adds further occasion to the sipping of the shōchū and awamori cocktails (or whatever else you’d want to enjoy in such fine glassware). Luckily for homeware fanatics, the full range of Sugahara glassware is available at Pantechnicon (both in-store and via the online shop).
It’s not everyday that you get the chance to sample spirits that are unavailable in the country. Pantechnicon’s programme of cultural workshops and experiences give London-dwellers the chance to sample rare and unusual delights within a stylish setting. Wisdom imparted by Hannah was insightful and engaging, delivered with approachable candour and a genuine excitement that proved to be contagious. The icing on top of an already decadent cake was the chance to savour drinks served in beautiful Sugahara glass, which truly brought the concepts of the cocktails to life.
For more information about Pantechnicon’s Cultural Workshops and Experiences, visit the site.
To buy Sugahara products, visit the online store.