Bartenders are increasingly reaching for a spirit once hard to find on cocktail menus in the Americas: Japanese shochu. With its wide range of flavors and unique complexity, the category is gaining traction with those who value both its exciting versatility and the care with which many bottlings are made.
“There is such a variety in the shochu flavor world,” says famed bartender Thomas Waugh. “Given all the moving parts with shochu production—primarily the koji varieties and raw materials used—the end product’s flavor can be wildly different. It’s amazing, actually.”
That variety stems from the coming together of just three components: the base ingredient, koji (a mold used for fermentation) and water. After fermentation, the liquid is distilled on a pot still just once to retain the maximum flavor and character of the ingredients. After distillation, only water may be added.
Though the process is straightforward, a number of variables exist within the framework. That leads to incredible diversity among the universe of Japanese shochu, starting with the base ingredient. “There are 53 government-approved ingredients which may be used to make honkaku (“authentic” or “genuine”) shochu,” notes Julia Momosé, who has long drawn inspiration from Japan for projects, such as her Chicago bar Kumiko. Those include Japan’s staple rice (kome shochu), which creates a soft and light flavor profile, sweet potatoes (imo shochu), barley (mugi shochu), brown sugar (kokuto shochu), buckwheat soba (soba shochu) and the lees left from making sake (sakekasu shochu).
Three different types of koji can be used to break down the starches and encourage fermentation, yielding specific results; awamori shochu, for example, is made in Okinawa using local black koji for its distinctive richness.
Further, the provenance of the water used and fermentation temperature also impact shochu’s flavor and texture. Resting and aging of shochu is common, typically in neutral vessels, although barrel aging also takes place sometimes. All of these measures lead to distinctive aromas and flavors.
And, of course, terroir can play a role—meaning the soil, water and climate can be reflected in the liquid. As a result, some shochu varieties have been granted “appellation of origin” status by the World Trade Organization, not unlike geographic designations for spirits like Cognac or tequila. This includes Iki shochu, a mugi [barley] shochu produced on the Iki island in Nagasaki; Kuma shochu, a rice shochu produced around Hitoyoshi in Kumamoto and the surrounding Kuma area; Ryukyu awamori, fermented only with black koji in Okinawa; and Satsuma shochu, a sweet potato shochu produced in Kagoshima.
As a result, Japanese shochu’s rich flavors also appeal to those seeking complexity in their cocktails. “Overall, we’re seeing a lot of interest in savory flavors of umami from our guests,” observes Eleven Madison Park’s Matthew Hunter. Inspired by the toasted sesame and popcorn tones he detected in a particular barley shochu, he’s translated that umami urge into his Plum cocktail, which is further shored up by miso syrup, plum-spiked tahini and amontillado sherry.
By comparison, Waugh turns to a rich, nutty sweet potato shochu for his Espresso Martini riff, the Miyazaki Martini. “Espresso Martinis are way better with flavorful spirits,” he posits. Momosé, meanwhile, focuses on the category’s potential for aromatics in her green tea–based Silver Chawari, which is built around an “exquisite” rice shochu with tropical fruit tones and a distinct delicacy.
Some bartenders also favor Japanese shochu because it has a lower alcohol level than most other spirits—usually below 40 percent ABV—meaning it plays well with others. “Shochu works in many cocktail applications, either in a dominant or supplemental role,” Hunter explains. At Eleven Madison Park, for example, it’s been used as an accent in the likes of a wintry Old-Fashioned variation that featured genever, cream sherry, maple and smoked juniper. “Since most shochu is bottled at a lower ABV, I like mixing it with sherry and pommeau,” both low-proof aperitifs, he says.
To begin exploring how to mix with Japanese shochu, start simple. “Try it neat, with a splash of water or club soda. Try it over ice and see how it evolves based on temperature and dilution,” Momosé advises. “One of my favorite serves in the wintertime is oyuwari—mixing with hot water.” The key: Pour the hot water first, then the shochu, she says.
Since shochus can vary so widely, it’s worth sampling a few before trying to showcase them in cocktails. Momosé suggests finding a Japanese bar or restaurant that carries multiple types; if possible, try a shochu flight.
“I love how diverse and distinct shochu is,” Momosé says. “[The] unique types are an endless source of inspiration.”