Drinking vinegars, while traditional to most Asian cultures, may have been unfamiliar to most people in Charleston before they showed up on Izakaya Hiro's menu when the King Street restaurant opened this summer. But in fact, FIG has had the traditional Asian drink on its menu for years, serving the SOM brand, produced by the Pok Pok restaurant in Portland, Ore. At H&L Asian Market in North Charleston, you'll find drinking vinegars in to-go pouches — kind of like Capri Suns but without all the kooky chemicals. That's how Izakaya's General Manager Jacob Fuhr first got the idea for creating his own. "That definitely got me turned onto it," he says of H&L's offerings. "I was just amazed how sweet, sour, and refreshing it was, and I turned it over and saw that the ingredients were plums, sugar, and vinegar."
Fuhr has spent 22 years in food and bev, and his Charleston culinary history includes time at McCrady's, the Sanctuary Hotel, and Mercato. This is his first job with REV Foods, and they've given him a lot of creative freedom with Izakaya's beverage program. After his serendipitous H&L trip, Fuhr started looking into the history and traditions behind vinegar. "People have been drinking it for centuries," he explains. "Cleopatra used to bathe in it. There's a lot of B.C. history of vinegar, not only in preserving foods, [but] bathing in it, drinking it with certain foods."
Ingesting vinegar may also be beneficial to your health. Fuhr explains that it reportedly increases blood flow, aids digestion, reduces blood pressure, speeds up metabolism, and helps drinkers recover from fatigue (or, as he notes, hangovers).
Fuhr drinks about one a day now, but fortunately he doesn't have to buy them in bulk from an Asian supermarket. Following that first pouch, Fuhr went home and started experimenting, spending a lot of time on different combinations, mixing rice wine and distilled or apple cider vinegars with strawberries, peaches, pineapples, and more. Pretty soon he had perfected a bunch of drinking vinegar recipes, and he brought them to Izakaya.
Now, on a shelf behind Izakaya's bar, you'll see Fuhr's drinking vinegars in a collection of massive mason jars. Only they're not quite ready yet.
Creating a drinking vinegar is a pretty simple process, though it takes a little while to achieve the final result. Chop up your fruit of choice — pineapple when we visited Fuhr — and put it in a mason jar or similar storage system. Then pour vinegar on top, a mixture of distilled and apple cider in this case; depending on the natural sugars of the fruit, you have to play around with the ratios of vinegar. Agitate the mixture and stick it on a shelf. Wait a week then empty it out into a stock pot and heat it up to boiling. Add however much sugar it needs (a cup and a half per quart usually), let that dissolve, take it off the heat, strain it, chill it, and you're good to go. And you could always try to make mochi balls out of the pulp like Izakaya is planning to do.
When a drinking vinegar is ordered at Izakaya, Fuhr or another bartender will squeeze out some of the vivid, slightly viscous concoction from a bottle into a glass and add soda. Guzzling the bubbly beverage is essentially like slurping down sour candy. Drinking vinegars by themselves are unabashedly non-alcoholic — and very kid-friendly — but you'll also find them in the craft cocktails on Izakaya's menu. The Dragon's Tongue, composed of sake, pineapple vinegar, aloe, and kaboshu (a Japanese citrus), also features a special drinking vinegar that's not officially on the menu. It happens to be Fuhr's favorite: cherry jalapeño, a.k.a. "dragon's blood." Ask for it and your server will probably give you a glass. It's not a bit spicy, but more vegetal, and gives the otherwise sweet cherry a fresh bite.
When it comes to drinking vinegars, the quality of the produce used makes a big difference on the quality of the finished product. Fortunately, Fuhr buys local when he can, usually from Joseph Fields or Ambrose Farms on Johns Island, where he lives. He mostly wants to keep his concoctions simple, so the flavors on the menu now should be there for some time, with blueberry, raspberry, and pitted and stone fruits popping up when the season allows. You'll never see any arrogant, multi-layered experimentations. The most ambitious Fuhr got once was avocado. It didn't work.
"I did read a very interesting fact that one in eight Japanese people drink vinegar every day," he adds. And if Fuhr reaches his potential goal of bottling and retail production, the same might become true in Charleston. Maybe some day soon you'll see Fuhr's name on pouches at H&L.
Drinking vinegars aren't the only beverages on the Izakaya Hiro menu that Charlestonians may be unfamiliar with. The bar also serves shochu, a Japanese distilled spirit that's not to be confused with sake. As Jacob Fuhr explains, it's typically distilled through barley, rice, sweet potato, or buckwheat, and some are even cask-aged to bring out whiskey characteristics. Fuhr likes to describe it to curious customers as a "really weak vodka." It's often served neat, on the rocks, or with fresh fruit juice. When we spoke to Fuhr, he was planning on rolling out an interactive shochu service at Izakaya in the near future, where patrons will be able to select their fruit (think orange, blood orange, lemon, lime, and pink grapefuit) and juice it into their drink themselves. Ginza no Suzume, a barley shochu featured on Izakaya's menu, is a classic, non-aggressive shochu that pairs well with drinking vinegar. O-Ku and the Cocktail Club also create cocktails using shochu.