We Choose Shochu - 405 Magazine

We Choose Shochu

Local cocktails fueled by the Japanese spirit.

Photo by Lexi Hoebing.

Local cocktails fueled by the Japanese spirit. 

Market observers have been predicting since at least 2018 that an obscure (to the general American public) spirit would soon see a bump in popularity. Shochu outsells sake by a wide margin in Japan, where both have their origin, but the numbers are reversed on export. Beginning last year, though, shochu finally started showing up on liquor store shelves around Oklahoma, and now we’re finally seeing shochu-based cocktails on bar menus in the 405.

Unlike sake, shochu is distilled, not brewed, and the base can be rice, barley or sweet potatoes, but it’s the koji — an umami, edible mold — that sets shochu apart. Jeff Cole, the distiller for Wanderfolk Spirits in Guthrie, explains it well.

“Shochu has a delicate yet complex array of floral, citrus and savory flavors that come exclusively from the fermentation process,” he said. “You’re tasting the rice, the sweet potato, the yeast and the koji in its pure fermented state. It’s only been distilled a single time, and the aim here isn’t to eliminate flavor but to eliminate the solids and concentrate the flavor, or spirit, of the fermentation.” 

Ordinarily, shochu is in a split-base cocktail; it’s sharing top billing with gin, vodka or even liqueurs. Musashi’s Japanese Steakhouse, for example, offers a very simple, very refreshing mix of shochu, St-Germain elderflower liqueur and lemon juice. It’s easy to like and works as a solid introduction because the shochu isn’t lost in the mix of ingredients.

For a more complex take on the spirit, Palo Santo created a whisky/shochu-based cocktail with matcha, honey, grapefruit and lemon — all flavors that go well with shochu. Sushi Neko used Garden Club Gin, made by Wanderfolk Spirits, to pair with Jikuya White Shochu, a sweet potato distillate. The Garden Cat also includes a house-made cucumber shrub and fresh lime juice. The floral, citrus,and savory notes all work together to create a complex but refreshing accompaniment to the sushi. Gin, it turns out, is an excellent partner to shochu. 

Cole again: “Gin typically uses a very neutral base spirit, focusing instead on flavors that botanicals lend to the spirit in a redistillation. These flavors are carefully layered as a perfume would be, which is without much thought about the original fermentation. Garden Club Gin is a nice choice, as the botanicals used are delicately applied. Small amounts of juniper are accented with citrusy coriander, yuzu, lemon, orange peel and lemon verbena, with floral aromas from lavender and pink peppercorn.” 

The Jikuya is an excellent choice, and at least two other brands are good places to start: Mizu includes a green tea-flavored shochu that is perfect for sipping, and Iichiko is a barley distillate with two styles — Saiten is great for cocktails, and Silhouette is more for sipping neat. When shopping for shochu, don’t confuse it with its Korean “cousin” soju.