Shochu Deserves to be Recognized Worldwide

We’ve seen gin and rye make a cocktail-based resurgence and cachaça and pisco are now common ingredients on many bar menus, but what about shochu?

Mostly limited to Japanese and Korean restaurants in the United States, shochu/soju/sochu offers some distinct advantages to cocktail makers and bars; novelty, sure, but also distinct and subtle flavor qualities hard to find in other spirits as well as lower alcohol, for starters (shochus range from 20% to 37% alcohol by volume, at least among the few dozen I recently tasted). Additionally, there’s at least one trend-setting barman who long ago saw the wisdom of creating a program centered on shochu, house-infused varieties and cocktails based on both. More about that later.

I mention shochu — probably not exactly on the “must add” list of many mainstream or cocktail bars — because about 20 Japanese producers made a rare area appearance in New York City last week during the Experience Shochu event sponsored by the Japan External Trade Organization and the Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association. The products they brought are worth a mention and some attention, yet I saw few familiar bartenders in attendance.


One of many tastings at the Experience Shochu event held Feb. 13 in New York City.

The spirit already has a presence in the United States; Ty Ku sells a version, and Korean giant Jinro is available in bars and restaurants up and down California (where alcohol laws left a loophole that allows lower alcohol spirits to be served in many operations) and in most cities with a Korean population.

Having so many available at one time was a little eye-opening, and even though this was an all-Japanese affair, it made me think there is definitely some untapped utility in the spirit, whether from Japan or Korea.

About shochu: The world’s single largest consumed spirit is made from many things, but the Japanese producers (including Iichiko, Japan’s largest seller) brought three main varieties made from sweet potato, rice or barley. All recipes included yeast, of course, but also koji, a cultured rice mold. One other variety is called Awamori and made on the island of Okinawa with only rice, yeast and black koji. Awamori also differs in its single fermentation regime; all others are fermented twice. There were even a couple that used brown sugar as a source of fermentation, I think.


Iichiko Shochu, one of the many brands that appeared at the Experience Shochu event in New York.

First impressions? Sweet potato shochu often shows a pungency found in few cocktails, an earthy, robust and fragrant quality sometimes reminiscent of fresh mushrooms or just-turned earth. Think funky Bloody Marys, vegetable infusions or Martinis with truffle shavings or pickled vegetables. Rice shochu is generally more neutral, though some of the brands present offered a crisp, lemony snap and a light quaffability that made it perfect for drinking straight, lightly chilled or with a touch of citrus.

But the barely shochus interested me the most and helped me finally understand the bridge between Japan and their love of malt whiskey. Drop your nose into one of these, and you might think of a watered-down blended Scotch — grainy, a little oaky, but sweet and pleasant. Many are made with malted barely, tightening the bonds with Scotch, and some with koji made with barley. Notes of caramel, chocolate and vanilla were not uncommon, but in general they were light, with no smokiness or peat, even though some had many years of aging on them (Also notable: the effect oak-aging had on a range of sweet potato shochus from Satsuma Shuzo, especially 37% ABV, distilled-to-proof Kuradashi Genshu.) This is an entry-level spirit for the whiskey-averse that is likely to mix well with apples and pears, cinnamon or other baking spices.

Also worth checking out: green-tea-and-rice-brewed Gyokuro and rice Gokoo brands from Kitaya as well as the barley shochus from Nishiyoshida and from Genkai.

Shochu cocktails? Restaurants in Korea Town in Manhattan and Los Angeles serve plenty, but I’ve never had one worth reordering. Years ago, before bartender Tony Conigliaro had his own bars, he ran the beverage program for London’s Roka and Zuma and established the same company’s Shochu Lounge with a range of house-infused shochus, selected for their suitability for taking on apricots and cedar shavings or plums and spices in his infusions. The shochus were served neat or in terrific cocktails and were way ahead of their time. I returned from a visit convinced that shochu could be something big very soon here and said so on stage at a conference. Shows how much I know. Still, this time, I think I could be right, and I encourage bartenders looking for an edge to take the time to taste this category again.

***Photos courtesy of Natalie Blank.***

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