Shochu Cocktails

Top bartenders share their favorite recipes for this Japanese spirit now tempting U.S. palates 

BY KAYLEIGH KULP / PHOTOGRAPHY BY GREG MILANO / DRINK STYLING BY STEPHANIE GREENWOOD — Fall 2018

hochu, a Japanese spirit made mostly from rice, sweet potato, or barley, has long been lauded in its homeland as a low-proof, food-friendly sipper and cocktail base — and now American imbibers are catching on. According to Japan’s National Tax Agency, U.S. shochu sales increased 27 percent from 2014 to 2017. 

Traditionally drunk on the rocks or with water in Japanese gastropubs called izakayas, shochu — with its malty, earthy, and sometimes fruity flavors — pairs nicely with snack foods such as salted edamame, lightly grilled meats, and fermented seafood. Drinkers may also order a ch–uhai — a highball made up of shochu and soda water, maybe with some yuzu or other fruit juice — for a refreshing cap on a long day.

But some of America’s top bartenders are ratcheting up the innovation, pairing shochu with other traditional Japanese ingredients to meticulously create cocktails capturing the attention of U.S. audiences. 

How better to get to know this on-the-rise spirit than to give it a taste. Here, seven flavorful drinks you can impress your friends with at home.

The Dejima 

“The name ‘Dejima’ derives from a Dutch trading post in Japan that once was the major outlet of sanctioned trade between Japan and the Western world. The gin has warm overtones of Thai pepper and lemongrass, held in balance by the soothing structure of the malted rice in the shochu. Muddled cucumber brings a fresh, vibrant note along with the rhubarb’s floral tartness. The subtle cedar aroma of the masu box adds to it.” Janis Martin, owner, Tanuki, Portland, Ore.

4 slices cucumber
1-1/2 ounces rice shochu
1-1/2 ounces Bombay Sapphire East gin
1 ounce elderflower liqueur
3 dashes rhubarb bitters
pinch of sea salt

In a cocktail shaker, muddle 2 cucumber slices. Fill shaker halfway with ice and remaining ingredients. Shake vigorously for 15 seconds. To serve, strain into a cedarwood masu box (traditional sake cup). Garnish with 2 other cucumber slices.


Chichibu Rebellion

“This drink is named after an uprising by Japanese farmers in the Chichibu district to protest oppression after the Meiji Revolution. The shochu adds to the aromatics with its citrus notes, while the barrel-aged gin offers a toasted note and imparts a whiskey character. It’s similar to the classic Manhattan cocktail and a little boozy.”  Anna Shin, general manager, Momotaro, Chicago

1 ounce barrel-aged gin
1 ounce sweet vermouth
1/4 ounce maraschino liqueur
1/4 ounce citrus-flavored shochu
2 dashes Angostura bitters
orange peel for garnish 

Add all ingredients to a mixing glass. Stir and strain twice into a martini glass. Garnish with an orange peel.


50 Shades Of Jade 

“This is a delicate and floral cocktail with sweet plum and bitter lemon peel notes. It’s very quaffable, despite being all spirit, thanks to the lower proofs of the shochu and sake. I like it best as an aperitif, maybe on a sun-drenched patio. You can also pair it with seafood or salads with vinegary dressings.” Eric Trousdale, beverage director, Arbella, Chicago

1-1/2 ounces dry shochu
1/2 ounce sweet shochu
1 ounce plum-infused sake
2 dashes plum bitters
1/4 ounce amaro
1/4 ounce créme de violette liqueur
lemon peel for garnish

Combine all ingredients except the amaro, crème de violette, and garnish in a mixing glass and stir. Strain into a coupe glass. Express the lemon peel and place in the glass. Add amaro and crème de violette on top with a pipette. 


Sleepwalk

“A refreshing, shochu-centric beverage reminiscent of a piña colada, this refined drink’s tropical ingredients result in a delightful, silky cocktail to drink on balmy nights.”   Frank Cisneros, consulting bar director, Bar Moga, New York

1/2 ounce lime juice
1/2 ounce cream of coconut
1/2 ounce ginger syrup
3/4 ounce Yuzu Omoi (sake infused with yuzu)
1 ounce Mizu lemongrass shochu
rose water
lemon twist for garnish

Whip-shake (shake with only a few chips of ice to aerate) lime juice, cream of coconut, ginger syrup, yuzu sake, and shochu. Pour over crushed ice in a rocks glass. Top with a spritz of rose water and lemon twist.


Spring in Tokyo

“Savor the different notes of bright citrus that are both delicate and delicious. The umeshu offers an added sweet and sour taste, while the yuzu rounds out the drink with its exotic citrusy fragrance, topped by an egg white foam cap for texture.” Katsuaki Asai, lead mixologist, Azabu Miami Beach, Miami

1-1/2 ounces lemongrass shochu
1/2 ounce umeshu Japanese liqueur
3/4 ounce yuzu juice
1/4 ounce simple syrup
1 egg white
matcha tea powder for garnish
small edible flower for garnish

Shake shochu, umeshu, yuzu juice, and simple syrup together with ice. Strain onto a sphere or large square of ice in a rocks glass. In a cocktail shaker, shake egg white without ice until frothy. Top the drink with the egg white foam and garnish it with matcha tea powder and an edible flower.


Uchiba Shiso Tini

“Honkaku-style shochus feature ripe pear and honeysuckle blossom notes, sometimes even with ripe red plum and fresh cooked rice. The acidity in this drink balances well with the shochu’s savoriness. Served ice cold, it has a light yellow tint and is very drinkable. It reminds you of a Meyer lemon with apricots as you bring it to your lips.”   Chris Melton, beverage director, Hai Hospitality (which owns Uchiba), Dallas

1-1/2 ounces vodka
1/2 ounce Honkaku-style or barley shochu
1 ounce lemon juice
3/4 ounce yuzu honey (recipe follows)
shiso leaves

Add all ingredients to a cocktail shaker with ice and one shiso leaf and shake well. Double strain and serve in a chilled glass. Garnish with a fresh shiso leaf.

YUZU HONEY
2 ounces yuzu juice
2-1/2 ounces clover honey

Mix ingredients. Store remaining honey for future use.


Yuzu Shiso Sour

“Yuzu is a tart, aromatic citrus. It’s very refreshing, while the shiso has a basil-mint quality. The rice shochu is very neutral with a few tropical fruit notes. It’s designed as an aperitif, but goes great with grilled meats with a light soy glaze.” Courtney Kaplan, co-owner, Tsubaki, LA

2 ounces rice shochu
1 ounce yuzu juice
1 ounce shiso syrup (recipe follows)
club soda
yuzu peel for garnish

Add the shochu, yuzu juice, and shiso syrup to a Collins glass with ice. Top with club soda and yuzu peel. 

SHISO SYRUP
16 ounces water
16 ounces sugar
shiso leaves

In a pot over high heat, heat water and sugar until dissolved. Add a handful of packed shiso leaves and let sit until cooled. Strain.

WHERE TO FIND SHOCHU

Previously carried almost exclusively by Japanese distributors for Japanese bars and restaurants, shochu has expanded its reach as of late, with many fine U.S. liquor stores stocking and shipping it. You can also find shochu at Japanese markets. These purveyors feature selections worth checking out.

Astor Wine & Spirits: The iconic fine booze retailer carries various shochus and ships to most U.S. states. 212-674-7500; astorwines.com

Mitskwa Marketplace: With locations in California, Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey, and Texas, this Japanese grocer carries shochu, sake, and snacks suitable for pairing, such as wagyu bento boxes and sushi platters. mitsuwa.com

Umami Mart: The popular Oakland, Calif., shop sells fine imported glassware and barware, as well as sake and shochu shippable within the state. 510-250-9559; umamimart.com

NEW SHOCHUS TO TRY NOW

AOKAGE: Barley shochus can sometimes be dry and grassy, but Aokage is a mouthful of velvety chocolate, says shochu expert Stephen Lyman, an educator for the Sake School of America. Expected to arrive in the U.S. this fall, it mixes well in warm cocktails. yanagita.co.jp

MIZU LEMONGRASS SHOCHU: The Mizu brand was the first to break out into the New York cocktail scene with its barley expression, and its second release is the first lemongrass shochu made in Japan with organic lemongrass harvested near the distillery and a rice and white koji base. It works as a beer replacement when mixed with lots of ice and soda water, Lyman says. mizushochu.com

TOJI JUNPEI: This traditional handmade shochu hit U.S. stores in April. Made with purple sweet potatoes, it is richly aromatic with a sweet, yet complex flavor profile. Lyman calls it “extremely versatile,” so drink it how you like. kodamadistillery.co.jp

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