Milky. A little musty. Clean, mineral finish.
That is perhaps the best way to describe Japanese shochu (formally written as shōchū and pronounced like show-choo), when it’s distilled from rice grains. And although shochu garners comparisons to its better-known sister, sake, it boasts greater variation.
“The word shochu in Japanese literally means burnt liquor, though shochu is not produced that way,” says Rob Brouse, general manager of Roka Akor in Chicago. The Japanese steakhouse has wholeheartedly embraced the liquor. “It is a distilled spirit different from sake,” he adds.
In addition to rice, shochu is also commonly distilled from either sweet potatoes or barley. The former iteration bears funky, earthy notes along with a subtly sweet finish while the latter brings more depth and toasty notes with a hint of tropical fruit.
This versatility—coupled with Americans’ increasingly adventurous tastes—might explain why the once obscure spirit is becoming more prominent. According to food and research industry firm Datassential, shochu has seen a whopping 197 percent menu growth in the last 10 years, of which 71.4 percent of appearances, not surprisingly, were found on Japanese menus, and 28.6 percent were on other Asian menus.
The general rise in popularity of other Japanese spirits—especially whisky, thanks to the recent highball craze—is also feeding the interest around shochu.
“Shochu is a newcomer to the U.S. stage and has been rising in popularity over the last 10 years; however it outsells both sake and whisky in Japan,” says Jules Gomez, beverage manager at Zuma Miami, which offers eight different expressions of the spirit.
“In the Miami market, there are still only a handful of places that carry shochu, and many people have never heard of it before, but we are trying to set the trend and expect it to continue to grow as more people get exposed to the flavor profile,” Gomez adds.
Barley-based shochu might be the best gateway for American consumers. Brouse says this version tends to be more popular here in the States compared with the Japanese-favored sweet potato one, likely because of its less pungent flavor. “I would describe barley shochu as tasting of some tropical fruits with a soft, round, and toasty finish,” Brouse says.
While room temperature is best for tasting, shochu is also served over ice and often paired with grilled meats. In this case, it offers a clean, balanced palate cleanser for richer foods, like Roka’s wagyu beef and kimchi dumplings dish or the shrimp tempura with crushed wasabi peas and sweet chile aioli. At the same time, shochu is soft enough to stand up against super-fresh fish, such as chirashi sunomono—a dish of salmon and shrimp sashimi sprinkled with vinegar and served alongside smoky sea vegetables.
If it were up to Brouse, he might pair that sweet potato shochu with a miso-marinated black cod, reserving the barley one for a semi-savory ube dessert.
The history of shochu is a long one, Brouse says, dating back nearly 700 years in Japan, where makers used special clay pots to ferment rice with the aid of koji, a mold that helps break down the starches in the rice and other grains when added to the distilling process for both sake and shochu. The latter is typically matured three to six months, and these days, is often made in stainless steel vats.
While some purveyors may hold an almost institutional grip on sake and shochu, cocktail artists around the country have been getting in the game lately. Steve Tindle, Roka Akor’s beverage director, says schochu’s application in cocktails is likely due to its low alcohol content, high drinkability, and intrigue as a lesser known spirit.
At only 45 proof, shochu stands with vermouth in terms of lighter aperitifs. That low alcohol content makes it a strong choice for brunch menus, as well as all-day drinking sessions.
In addition to presenting the spirit neat or over ice, Gomez also serves it with warm or cold water, a preparation called mizuwari. Additionally, he mixes the spirit in cocktails, replacing higher ABV proofs like gin in, say, a negroni, or as a highball-style cocktail with flavored sodas or teas.
Shochu can also be infused with fruits, vegetables, herbs, and aromatics. Roka has served a black cherry–peppercorn infusion that’s sweet and rich in vanilla, nutmeg, and cinnamon notes. The infused spirit stands up well on its own over ice but also makes for a killer, shochu-based Manhattan.
To make the infusions, which have also featured combinations of pear, star anise, and cinnamon, as well as mango and Thai chilies, Tindle says Roka staff steep gallons of the spirit in large bags with the flavor-enhancing ingredient of choice in the cooler for for eight to 10 days. The infusions are then drained, bottled, dated, and stored in the cooler under the bar.
“Shochu to me really is a blank canvas because it takes on other flavors so well, and it plays nicely with other spirits,” says Tindle, who rolled out a new, schochu-heavy cocktail list this past winter.
It’s a similar approach for Zuma Miami’s Gomez, who likes to feature the spirit in or alongside cocktails that are made with more widely known spirits, almost certainly leading to a “what is this?” line of questioning and eventually, ubiquity.