When I placed a few calls to contacts in the Japanese–Canadian community to inquire about shochu recently, I was greeted with the same question each time: Was I sure I didn't want to talk about sake instead? Fair enough. Sake is Japan's most famous beverage export, sushi's booze buddy. While I do love the fermented rice brew, especially top-quality cold stuff, I must confess an equal passion for shochu, sake's distilled, higher-strength cousin.
If you've had the privilege of dining in one of Japan's ubiquitous pubs, known as izakayas, you'll know what I'm talking about. Variously distilled from rice, barley, sweet potato, buckwheat, molasses and even chestnuts, shochu, which is typically bottled at 25-per-cent alcohol, is a staple of the casual, small-plate grazing scene. It's also a pillar of Japan's cocktail culture, where the so-called Asian vodka enjoys wider popularity than any other spirit in mixed drinks. "Instead of vodka, this is what's the standard in Japan," says Shotaro Ozawa of Ozawa Canada Inc., a Toronto-based importer of several brands, including the fine Yokaichi Mugi. The same is true in Korea, where a similar national drink, called soju, is reputed to have come first.
With annual consumption hovering around 950 million litres in Japan, shochu outsells wine by a factor of more than three, the Japan External Trade Organization reports. As for sake, even it was humbled in 2003, when shochu overtook it in popularity, figures from Japan's finance ministry show. Although the white spirit remains obscure and hard to find here, I was heartened to learn that shochu distilling has finally taken root in Canada. 66 Gilead, an excellent new craft-spirits producer in Ontario's Prince Edward County, just released White Dragon, the first homegrown shochu. And it's a splendid product, distilled from a combination of barley and rice. Imagine the cereal-like underpinning of a single-malt Scotch fused with the delicate sweetness of fine, cold sake, yet with a milder alcoholic bite than 40-per cent– alcohol whisky. Alternatively, think of it as sumo-strength sake, sturdy enough to carry its subtle grain flavours into battle against vibrant Asian fare.
As with barrel-aged whisky, White Dragon delivers a hint of toastiness, though not from time spent in charred oak. "I love Korean food," says Sophia Pantazi, the Toronto doctor who owns 66 Gilead with her physician husband, Peter Stroz. "I just love toasted sesame seeds, so I decided to add some to the mix."
It's an unconventional recipe, but shochu offers distillers more creative latitude than other, more tightly governed spirits. Unlike vodka, which must be colourless, it can even be left to mature, mellow and develop a coppery hue in barrel. Since there are no veteran shochu distillers in North America to offer tutelage and no manuals for guidance, Pantazi hit the sake books instead. The fermentation process is essentially the same, one reason many Japanese sake breweries have branched out into shochu. Pantazi even used authentic koji mould, the rice-derived enzyme used to break down starches into sugar for fermentation. "Shochu," she says, "is basically a distilled sake."
White Dragon isn't, however, the only shochu from North America. Seattle's Sodo Spirits Distillery, which entered the market with its first shochu in late 2011, a year ahead of 66 Gilead, has made infusions its specialty. Coowner K.C. Sheehan places a variety of fresh ingredients directly into the pot still to make four flavoured styles: rosemary, ginger, mint and chili pepper. "We wanted something that would work nicely in a cocktail," he says. "Many craft specialty bars are looking for special spirits to mix with." In a burst of Eastmeets– West inspiration, he even swapped rye whisky with chili shochu to create a mildly spicy Manhattan.
At Hapa Izakaya in Vancouver, regional bar manager Chris Ireland features two signature shochu cocktails, including the Tokyo Iced Tea, a long drink that includes simple syrup, fresh lemon juice and cold oolong tea. "Some people expect a vodka burn, but it doesn't have that," he says.
Tea happens to be a popular shochu mixer in Japan, too; many Japanese also swear by plain hot water, in a 50-50 blend. The result is akin to warm sake, with the aromatic nuances gaining heady lift from the rising vapours.
For quality-minded shochu producers, there is, though, one self-imposed restriction. The finest shochus are distilled just once, preferably in a pot still. Single distillation, a departure from twice-distilled Scotch and multiple-distilled vodka, preserves more of the base ingredient's flavours. Pot stills also help amplify them. The growing singledistilled category, known as honkaku, helped drive the resurgence in Japan, where shochu had long been dismissed by younger drinkers as the unhip sip of an older generation.
Quality, it bears saying, is another dividing line between shochu and soju, the latter often made from an inexpensive neutral grain spirit (a.k.a. flavourless alcohol) and spiked with sugar and citric acid to mask the burn. Good shochu, available in limited quantities in Canada, costs about $30, while something like sweet, medicinal Charm Soju runs at about $5.50 for a half bottle. I can, of course, appreciate the appeal of mass-produced soju with Korean fare centred around pickled kimchi. But it's no White Dragon.