Bar Talk: Shochu
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Bar Talk: Shochu

Sep 27, 2023

News News | Oct 14, 2023

When visiting Japan this past spring, I not only wanted to try the local cuisine, but I also wanted to experience authentic Japanese libations.

And beyond sake or a whiskey highball, that means I had to try shochu.

Shochu is a traditional Japanese alcohol with origins dating back to the 1500s, according to the Japanese Sake and Shochu Makers Association.

Conventionally made from barley, rice, or sweet potatoes, shochu in modern times can also be made from sesame, chestnut, green tea, and many more native Japanese ingredients. The one thing that all shochu has in common — used in the fermentation process — is koji, a fungus used in a variety of Japanese pantry staples such as miso, shoyu, and sake.

The koji turns the starchy ingredients into sugar and helps give the shochu a smooth umami-like flavor.

In sampling shochu straight recently, a friend said it was reminiscent of American vodka, but with a more unique flavor that she couldn’t quite place, probably thanks to the koji.

I first experienced shochu in Japan in a canned lemon sour (or as we called them, lemon squeezies). These are ubiquitous around Japan, made from shochu, soda water, and lemon juice, as well as a great choice for grabbing to enjoy on a long shinkansen (bullet train) ride.

So, when a company representing the Japanese Sake and Shochu Makers Association reached out to me with some creative breakfast cocktail recipes involving shochu, I knew I had to try them.

Beyond being excited to experience shochu in a new way, I was surprised and thrilled to discover that you can buy it in America, and the spirit is beginning to find its way onto creative bar menus across the country.

When I was originally sent the breakfast shochu recipes, it was still summer, but now that the weather has turned decisively chilly, I determined that I was going to have to make some seasonal changes to the “Summer Cooler” recipe, which features iichiko Saiten shochu.

Crafted in the Oita Prefecture in Japan, iichiko is a high-grade Honkaku shochu, meaning it can only be distilled once, and no sweeteners or additives can be used. The company born from the merger of three family companies found its way onto the market in 1979.

According to iichiko, the Saiten variety has been “crafted specifically for the modern bartender.” It’s 43% ABV and absolutely packs a full-flavored punch with complex sweet/fruit/umami flavors.

Instead of cucumber and yuzu juice called for in the summer cooler, I chose a spiced apple cider to make it a fall cooler, which I hoped would complement the earthy tones of the matcha syrup that the original recipe calls for.

The result was a drink that was not entirely appetizing to look at, but as the saying goes, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.”

The drink was good and a bold use of shochu. It started off strong with the juicy spiced apple flavor then the sweet hit of the Itchiko Saiten followed by the earthy yet sweet secondary taste of the matcha.

As I am not really one for drinking alone, my drinking buddies said that, overall, it really fit the flavor of fall. But next time, they might recommend I serve it up rather than over a big ice cube and maybe add in a slight bit of lemon or more preferably yuzu; in the Roaring Fork Valley, that can be difficult to come by, to add one more acidic component.

While the fall cooler with Saiten was unique and fun to drink, the next cocktail I made was my drinking companion’s favorite (and mine, too), which makes sense as it is a more classic way of serving shochu. Iichiko calls it a Blood Orange Hai, commonly served and known across Japan as a chu-hi.

My second experience with shochu in Japan was in a Chu-Hi ordered at an izakaya in Takayama.

Chu-Hi is a “classic” lighter ABV Japanese cocktail that stands for shochu highball. The drink, which is believed to have become popular after World War II, is made with shochu and either soda water and fresh fruit juice, typically citrus, or sometimes even a fruit-flavored soda. It’s light, pairs well with food, and is incredibly easy to drink.

The Blood Orange Hai, made with iichiko Silhouette, a traditional sochu expression that is 25% ABV, is simple: Just blood orange juice, east Indian tonic, and sochu that lets the softer, smooth umami flavors of the spirit to shine through.

Well-balanced, less sweet than the cooler with a deeper flavor yet crisp, the Blood Orange Hai could be enjoyed year-round and at any time of day. My co-drinkers said it was reminiscent of a Paloma with its bright citrus notes but markedly different from the almost toasty aromatic notes from the barley shochu.

The third recipe I was provided was what seems to be a modern-day craft cocktail take on a chu-hai, made with coffee-infused iichiko Saiten, coffee liqueur, tonic water, and club soda. I didn’t have a chance to give this variation a try, but it could be a fun alternative to the ever-popular espresso martini that seems to be served and ordered at every bar across Aspen.

If you’ve never had an opportunity to try shochu, I would recommend setting aside the sake to give this traditional and versatile Japanese spirit a try.

iichiko cocktail recipes

Coffee Chūhai

Created by Kenta Goto, Bar Goto LES

1 oz Coffee-infused iichiko SAITEN

2 tsp Coffee liqueur

1 oz Tonic water

3 oz Club soda

Glassware: Highball

Method: Add all ingredients to a highball glass filled with ice, stir gently, then serve.

Blood Orange Hai

2 oz iichiko Silhouette

0.5 oz Blood orange juice

East India Tonic

Glassware: Double rocks glass

Garnish: Orange slice

Method: Build in glass with ice, adding blood orange juice last. Top with East India Tonic.

Summer Cooler

2 oz iichiko Saiten

0.75 oz Matcha syrup

0.5 oz Lime juice

0.5 oz Cucumber juice

0.25 oz Yuzu juice

*Make it a fall cooler by subbing the cucumber juice for spiced apple cider, and pick either lime or yuzu juice (or both) as the accompanying citrus flavor

Glassware: Rocks Glass

Garnish: Cucumber Slices or if making a fall cooler, use sliced apple

Method: Mix all ingredients into a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake, then strain into a rocks glass with ice. Garnish with cucumber slices.

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