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Becoming fluent in shochu, Japan's answer to vodka

Arris Noble, general manager of Sei restaurant, adds shochu, a traditional Japanese spirit, to a Silver Samurai cocktail.
Arris Noble, general manager of Sei restaurant, adds shochu, a traditional Japanese spirit, to a Silver Samurai cocktail. (Tracy A. Woodward/The Washington Post)
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By Jason Wilson
Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Learning to taste and appreciate a new spirit is like trying to speak a new language. Sure, you can jump in with a few basic words and expressions and manage for a while. To reach true understanding, however, you're going to have to learn the grammar.

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I'd always used that comparison as a casual simile. This past week, however, as I waded into the world of shochu, I literally had to learn a new language -- or at least a bunch of challenging words -- to understand what was going on. Even after some pretty intense shochu study (by which I mean tasting a lot of it), I don't think I'm anywhere close to mastery of this traditional Japanese spirit. And I'm not certain I ever will be.

Shochu, quite simply, is a flavorful, aromatic, usually clear distilled spirit with a rather low alcohol content: around 25 percent by volume, or 50 proof. "It's like Japanese vodka. That's how I sometimes tell people to think of it," says Andrew Stover, sommelier at Sei in Penn Quarter. The restaurant and lounge carries about 20 shochus, one of the region's largest selections.

Of course, shochu is lighter than vodka's usual 80 proof. Like vodka, it can be produced in many ways, and many people are doing so, with more than 600 shochu distilleries in Japan. Shochus can be made from five base ingredients: mugi (barley), satsumaimo (sweet potato), kome (rice), soba (Japanese buckwheat) and kokuto (brown sugar). Before shochu is distilled, its production process is similar to that of sake in that koji, or mold spores, are used to start fermentation. The type of koji is another major factor in shochu's taste, and there are three: White koji creates a fruitier and gentler spirit, black koji creates a more robust taste, and yellow koji is somewhere in between.

The highest-quality shochu, called honkaku ("authentic"), is single-distilled. In fact, the single distillation, at very low proof, is really what gives shochu its unique aromas and flavors. Once you start distilling shochu more than one time, it becomes . . . well, like vodka.

Still following along? Domo arigato. If not, don't worry. "It is so confusing, and it is very difficult to find information on this stuff," Stover says. Adding to the confusion is the fact that in New York and California, shochu is sometimes relabeled "soju" -- a different spirit altogether, from Korea -- to take advantage of loopholes that exempt soju from liquor regulation.

My recent interest in shochu was piqued by "Japanese Cocktails" (Chronicle), a new book by Yuri Kato, who is the founder of the Web site Cocktail Times. The author discusses how "the image of shochu has drastically changed" in recent years as the spirit has grown popular, particularly among Japan's young and hip. At one point in the past decade, shochu sales in Japan even surpassed sake sales. Before then, shochu had been considered an old fogeys' drink. In fact, an elder named Shigechiyo Izumi (1865-1986), who in the 1980s became the oldest living person in the world at 120-plus, claimed that the secret to his longevity was the brown-sugar shochu he drank every day.

I probably won't live that long, but I did introduce a massive dose of shochu into my system when I tasted my way through Sei's list with Stover last week.

Overall, shochu provides an incredibly subtle taste experience. My favorites were the barley shochus, which I felt best balanced robust flavor with the fruit and floral aromas: in particular, the racy Iichiko "Kurobin" (around $50) and the mellow Gokoo "Comfortable Sky" ($40), which is aged in oak barrels for three years and had a whiskeylike profile.

Sweet potato shochu, in particular, rose to popularity in Japan in the past decade, triggering a shortage of sweet potatoes in that country. The most coveted sweet potato shochus come from Satsuma, a district in Kagoshima considered the historic home of shochu, dating to the 16th century. From Sei's list, I enjoyed an expression of sweet-potato shochu called Satsuma Shiranami ($35), which was bold and pungent with a touch of sweet, and fiery around the edges.

Another favorite was a rice shochu called Hakushika "Naka Naka Nai" ($35 per 750 ml), which means something like "very limited." It is aged in cedar casks and has wonderful white-pepper notes. I also tasted a fascinating brown-sugar shochu produced in Japan's Amami Islands. Sei carries one example of this type, and it tastes a lot like a low-proof cachaca, the Brazilian cane spirit. In fact, the restaurant sometimes substitutes it for cachaca in a drink called a Japanese caipirinha.

Beyond the basics, Sei also pours some wild, experimental bottlings distilled with green tea and carrots, and even stocks an amazing higher-proof expression distilled from Hitachino Nest White Ale.

So what do you do with shochu? In Japan, most take shochu neat, on the rocks or, popularly, with hot water. In her book, Kato suggests adding oolong tea or lemon.

In cocktails, shochu offers a lower-proof alternative to many white spirits. The accompanying Silver Samurai recipe is a light mix of citrus, muddled cucumber, and barley or sweet potato shochu. You'll understand it to be a wonderfully refreshing warm-weather drink in any language.

Wilson can be reached at food@washpost.com. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/boozecolumnist.



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