A primer plus top spots to try and buy Japan's "other" libation.
Shochu has long enjoyed fame in the motherland. Now the drink is picking up fans across the globe. Here's a primer on Japan's "other" libation.
The Japanese have been making shochu since the 14th century. Unlike sake, a brewed rice wine with alcohol levels at 18-20%, shochu is distilled, and its alcohol content generally ranges from 25% to 45%. Also up to 40 different base ingredients can be used, but the most common are rice, barley and sweet potato.
The spirit, which literally translates as fiery liquor, falls into two basic categories, according to the distillation method used. Like single-malt Scotch whisky, honkaku shochu is distilled only once and made with only one raw material. These varieties retain the flavors of the ingredients to a high degree. On the other hand, kourui shochu is distilled multiple times, from a blend of various raw materials. This style is smoother, with less character than honkaku shochu, and is typically stirred into cocktails.
The base ingredients profoundly affect the character of single-distillation honkaku shochu. Barley (mugi) shochu is dry and smooth, with malty nuance. Rice (kome) shochu is sake-like and often shows crisp fruit flavors. Sweet potato (imo) shochu is spicy and sweet, while brown sugar (kokuto) shochu is mild and rum-like. These types are best enjoyed straight, on the rocks or mixed with a touch of warm water to soften the alcohol and release aroma.
Although in the west, spirits are typically had before or after dinner, Shochu Advisor (the official title for a shochu specialist, analogous to the wine world's sommelier) Akiko Tomoda encourages people to try the liquor with food. Pair barley shochu with charcoal-grilled meats—the nuttiness of the spirit highlights the smoky flavor of roasted dishes. An understated rice shochu is a great match for sushi and sashimi. With dessert, reach for a robust sweet potato shochu. "The fruity character of sweet potato shochu works nicely with fruit sauces and pies, and it's particularly delicious with Mont Blanc," she says.
Ms. Tomoda usually prefers to drink honkaku shochu on its own but admits she occasionally enjoys an expertly prepared shochu cocktail. At New York's Soba Totto, award-winning bartender Gen Yamamoto mixes up tantalizing concoctions using honkaku shochu with fresh fruit or vegetables (See his tomato cocktail recipe below.) "My main principle is to respect the ingredients," he says. "The bar experience is like Japanese tea ceremony. I have to create the whole atmosphere and catch the moment where the ingredients are at the height of flavor." Naturally, the drink menu at Soba Totto changes with the seasons. For late autumn and winter, Mr. Yamamoto recommends a blend of baked pumpkin, barley shochu and cream, or fresh apple juice with rice shochu.
Where to Try Shochu
For those new to shochu, expert Akiko Tomoda, who released the world's first bilingual guide to sake and plans to work on a bilingual guide to shochu, suggests drinking it straight or poured over a few ice cubes (rather than mixed with water) to fully appreciate the complex aromas and flavors. For your debut (or if you're just looking for a new spot to sample Japan's fiery spirit), here's a roundup of some top shocohu bars both in the U.S. and Tokyo.
Kaname Shochu Bar
Shochu Bar Takayama
Cortile Ginza Bldg 2F
1-11-5 Shinbashi, Minato-ku
+81 (3) 3569-0502
Where to Buy Shochu
If you can't make it to the Tokyo's Shochu Authority where they stock around 3,000 varieties, head to Astor Wines and Spirits or Sakaya in New York. For first-timers, Sakaya's co-owner Hiroko Furukawa recommends a smooth, mild shochu like Satsuma Hozan or Tomino Hozan.
You can also shop online at the Hudson Wine Market.
Recipe: The Tomato Cocktail
Recipe created by Gen Yamamoto
This simple cocktail reflects Mr. Yamamoto's minimalist approach to mixology. For this recipe, he recommends using Yokaichi or Iichiko barley shochu.
1 small, ripe tomato
2 oz barley shochu
1 tsp lemon
2 tsp homemade tomato confiture (or 2-3 tsp of Simple Syrup)
fresh mint leaves for garnish
Muddle the tomato in a cocktail shaker. Add the liquid ingredients and shake well. Prepare the glass by dipping half of the rim in sea salt. Pour the mixture over ice cubes, top with mint, and serve immediately.