Spirited Stock: What is Shochu & Why You Should Use It

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At the southern tip of Japan’s island chain rests Kyushu, a land of volcanoes, hot springs, and shochu. Often referred to as Japan’s national spirit, shochu has existed since at least the 1500s, and the center of production is on Kyushu with each prefecture – and each producer in that prefecture – producing their own style. While shochu has been making very gradual inroads in the States over the last decade, it is starting to gain more visibility. And, as more and more bartenders taste it, they are wooed by its remarkable spectrum of flavor profiles, its inherent food friendliness, and its low ABV.

Despite precise legal stipulations between korui (mass-produced) shochu, which uses continuous distillation, and honkaku (authentic) shochu, which must be made with only one base ingredient from a single distillation, free of sugar and additives, the spirit still defies categorization to some degree. The only way to truly define shochu, according to cocktail and spirits educator Don Lee, is to say that, first and foremost, it’s a koji spirit. Used in some of Japan’s best-known products, including soy sauce, miso, and sake, koji is a mold employed in the brewing process.

“Koji is the secret behind shochu's unique flavor,” explains Ken Oka, sales manager at iichiko shochu, “[It] is also the secret to unlocking shochu's signature umami flavor.”

Depending on what that base is, how it is distilled, and what kind of koji is being used – black, yellow, white – the character of the product can differ vastly, creating an array of personalities. “The thing that keeps the category interesting,” says Lee, “is the variations.” Iichiko, for instance, uses a proprietary koji blend.

With all of these factors, the overriding goal among the hundreds of artisan shochu producers, a majority of whom are located on Kyushu, is to showcase the purity of their ingredient. And it’s these distinctive variations that make shochu a valuable spirit in the bartender’s arsenal. “The unique thing about shochu,” explains Rhon Romero, head bartender at Odo Lounge, “is that it retains its natural ‘aroma’ of base ingredients used, giving it a slight advantage for cocktail making. Shochu flavors vary from rich/nutty, smoky or light/refreshing with fruity aroma. With that said, it could cater to almost any distinctive taste, even the hard-to-please palate.”

shochu cocktail
Rhon Romero, head bartender at Odo Lounge, mixes up a shochu cocktail. (Photo: Odo Lounge)

Not only does shochu offer a vast number of flavor profiles, it also generally clocks in at a lower ABV than most spirits – roughly between 20% to 27%. With the interest in low-ABV drinks today, shochu is almost a plug-and-play spirit for a variety of cocktails. Among the drinks that are finding popularity is the Chuhai (or “Chu-hi”), essentially a shochu-based highball that originated in Japan. The drink shows up on menus and as an RTD in Japanese markets. The combination of shochu, fruit juice, and soda water is quite basic, but it can be elevated at the bar by adding signature ingredients.

Reed Windle, head bartender at n/soto in Los Angeles, is a huge fan of them for brunch. “Chu-his are the perfectly crushable, low-abv cocktails,” he says. “They have all of the beautiful effervescence of a spritz with less of the sweetness and medicinal element. I particularly love them because you can highlight the different styles of shochu with light, complimentary flavor components. Even better, they go well with all types of food. They’re really the perfect cocktail for the non-cocktail drinker.” If you’re in a brunch mood, he suggests mugi (barley) shochu with waffles and imo (sweet potato) shochu with avocado toast.

Romero also serves a shochu highball complemented with housemade grapefruit cordial and St. Germain, while his shochu-based cocktail on the menu infuses the spirit with corn and combines it with tequila to make what he calls “a subtle, cleaner version of a margarita.” These disparate drinks aptly demonstrate the possibilities that the spirit offers. But it is well worth considering the more traditional, Japanese way of enjoying shochu with a bit of water. Mizuwari is simply shochu and room temperature water, while Oyuwari uses hot water.

Lee says that when guests taste shochu like this, “Their minds will be blown. Here is a product that is amazing without additions …here is a historic product that is meant to be low ABV. You’re not tasting the quality of distillation. It is a pure expression of the ingredients. You taste it all.”

Lee even suggests serving a small glass of warm shochu before a meal, similar to the way chefs serve an amuse-bouche. The low ABV and the lightness of the spirit will stimulate the guest’s palate without an overwhelming boozy kick or a flavor that is too aggressive.

If there is any one inherent problem with shochu, it’s the availability of the product. Thanks to its artisanal nature, there are over 5,000 brands today, many of them incredibly small operations run by generations of a single family for hundreds of years. Yet, only a miniscule fraction of these makes it to the United States.

Once here, the spirit has historically faced numerous obstacles, including confusing alcohol laws. For instance, since 1998, there has been a California ruling allowing establishments with only a beer and wine license to sell these types of spirits as long as they were under 25% ABV and labelled as soju, a Korean spirit that, until recently, has been an industrial product. Seeing a monetary opportunity, many Japanese shochu producers dropped their ABV and stuck “soju” on their bottles. The same mislabeling started to appear on bottles in liquor stores, leading people to think shochu is soju. And, if a person decides they hate soju, it’s a tough proposition to convince them to try a spirit that sounds so similar.  As a result, shochu is still struggling with an image problem created by some of the shochu producers themselves.

Luckily, the majority of shochu that does make it to the States now is honkaku, meaning it is a true expression of the product and is labeled as such. However, it can be hard to find. "As a professional, the sad reality is that it’s very difficult to get any of it," says Lee. 

If you aren’t in a major market like Los Angeles or New York, you might find it challenging to find a distributor who carries it. And, if you do, Lee recommends asking them about availability, since many brands are limited and seasonal. As a bartender or bar owner, you have to ask yourself from a business perspective whether you can put this on the menu and keep it on the menu.

iichiko's White Tea Cooler cocktail. (Photo: iichiko Shochu)

One of the movements in the spirits world that may help shochu’s fortunes – both public perception and availability for on-premise – is America’s continued fascination with craft spirits that emerged around the early 2000s. Combined with the experience-driven mentality of the 72 million-plus millenial generation, the artisanal nature of shochu should continue to build. A number of bartenders and others in the industry, including Romero and Lee, equate the spirit to mezcal. Not only does mezcal champion a single-village aesthetic, but the producers celebrate it, fiercely pursuing flavors that reflect the local terroir. It’s this terroir concept that is rather irresistible. “Shochu is a wonderful spirit in the sense that their flavors have a broad array of tastes”, says Windle, “and each one lends itself differently to cocktail modifiers.” As an example, he suggests using the barley-based Nikaido in a bamboo cocktail where the toastiness of the barley complements with the nuttiness of fino sherry.

Right now, shochu is a bit of a slippery beast, difficult to classify because it has so many unique qualities, while striving to overcome a lack of awareness coupled with erroneous public perception. Currently, the primary shochu exports are sweet potato, barley, and rice based. But within these ingredients are almost endless possibilities – flavor profiles influenced by the base ingredient, the locality of the base ingredient and the water source, the choice of koji, and the ABV. These are the elements that bartenders can use to educate customers about this chameleon-like spirit, encouraging each guest to try something different that goes beyond their usual tipple. In doing so, both bartenders – and their guests – will discover which expressions of the koji spirit speak to them.  


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