Well before the current vogue of “skinny” cocktails, shochu was in play at the bars of Asian-inspired dining and drinking establishments that aspired to authenticity.
Indeed, at a time when operators take cues from Korean taco trucks, Japanese izakayas and Southeast Asian street-food emporia, the Japanese distilled spirit offers much more than just a lower calorie load than Western liquors. It is the versatile base for a wide array of specialty cocktails, especially the East-meets-West applications that are popular today.
“There is a definite interest in shochu as a mixable spirit,” said Drew Peterson, corporate beverage director of SushiSamba, a five-unit, New York City-based chain of restaurants that blends Japanese, Brazilian and Peruvian culture and cuisine. “It is coming on stronger as people associate it as the quote-unquote Japanese vodka.”
By Japanese tradition, shochu is fermented from a starch like barley, potato, rice, buckwheat or sweet potato. After distillation, the liquor ranges anywhere from clean and neutral to rich and earthy in character. Compared to premium vodka, it has about half the alcohol, less than half the calories, a generally lower price point and in some places, different regulatory treatment. Because of the lower proof, some jurisdictions allow establishments with beer-and-wine licenses to sell shochu, making a cocktail business possible.
“In Japan, shochu may be enjoyed as simply as a bottle shared among a table of businessmen at the izakaya,” said Peterson. “In clubs and bars, it goes with a lot of fruit flavors. There is a strong interest in that cocktail element.”
That versatility is reflected in SushiSamba’s Chu-Cumber, made with made with barley shochu, muddled fresh cucumber, elderflower liqueur and fresh lime, strained and served up.
“Shochu goes quite well with cucumber, as does gin,” said Peterson. “We find this particular shochu made with barley really has a very smooth, rich flavor.”
Other shochu variations include the Sultry Sake Chu-tini, which combines shochu, sparkling sake, fresh lychee puree and fresh mango puree and the Spicy Ginger Chu-tini, with shochu, raspberry-flavored rum, guava, lime juice, ginger and sugar. The latter drinks sold for $8 apiece during the Japan Samba Hour promotion at SushiSamba rio in Chicago.
SushiSamba bartenders also use shochu in spinoffs of the caipiroshka, a Brazilian cocktail usually made with vodka, lime and sugar, in keeping with the concept’s cross-cultural theme. One popular capiroshka is flavored with fresh kiwis. The bar also infuses pineapple, strawberry and lychee in jars of shochu at the bar to make flavored spirits for straight consumption and cocktails.
Although fewer calories appeals to some customers, flavor is actually the main driver of popularity, Peterson said.
“I think people understand alcohol is going to have calories,” Peterson said. “People like their flavor first. If it is lower in calories, that’s an added benefit.”
Patrons are also intrigued by a distinctive and somewhat mysterious beverage.
“You’re showing the guest a Japanese spirit they may not have had before,” said Peterson. “It’s fun to introduce people to cocktails that are different from the typical vodka soda or Cosmopolitan.”