This year, you can transform your ordinary Thanksgiving dinner into an extraordinary one — not with food, but with drink. Shake up cocktail hour with shochu, a delicious distilled alcoholic beverage from Japan that’s caught the fancy of American bartenders.
Shochu is often wrongly described by Americans as a kind of vodka. Although it comes in a variety of flavors, it is lower in alcohol and calories than vodka or other distilled alcoholic beverages.
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Shochu production in Japan began around the 16th century in certain regions. The famous production areas include the large southern island of Kyushu and the neighboring small islands of Amami, Okinawa and Iki. The warm winter climate in these areas is not well-suited for producing good quality sake, as this rice wine requires very cold winter months for proper fermentation.
Shochu production involves two steps. The first step is to produce alcohol in a way that is very similar to that of sake. Koji, the magic mold that creates flavorful enzymes and sugars from starch, is inoculated into steamed rice to produce a fermentation starter. The starter is mixed with yeast, spring water and the selected and cooked main ingredient: usually rice, barley, sweet potato, potato, buckwheat or sugar cane. It is left to ferment for about 14 days. This is half the fermentation period for sake, and so this brewed batch is very rough and wild in taste, texture and aroma. The second step, distillation, removes all sugars and roughness from the brew, and transforms it into a clean, clear and elegant alcoholic beverage.
Top-quality shochu is distilled only once. This is called Honkaku shochu. Single distillation leaves each shochu with a delightful hint of the distinctive taste and fragrance of its base ingredient. After distillation, the alcohol content approaches 80 proof (40% alcohol). Then, it is diluted to about 50 proof (25% alcohol). Honkaku shochu can be served straight-up or on the rocks in order to enjoy the full flavor of each variety.
Another less expensive type of shochu is usually made from lesser quality ingredients and goes through multiple distillations. The resulting shochu is deprived of the unique and sometimes funky taste and fragrance of the real thing. After multiple distillations, the alcohol content approaches 160 to 180 proof (80% to 90% alcohol). This is then watered down to around 72 proof (36% alcohol). In Japan, it is this less expensive shochu that is used to make cocktails at bars and restaurants.
But craft-conscious bartenders in the United States are taking a different approach. Jesse Falowitz, founder of Nehan Spirits LLC in New York, manages the production of his own award-winning brand of barley-based shochu, Mizunomai, in Japan and imports and markets it in the U.S. For this breed of bartenders, Falowitz says, “it is important to preserve the unique flavor of each spirit. whether it be shochu, whisky, brandy or gin, in the cocktails that they craft.”
For your Thanksgiving gatherings, reach for Honkaku shochu to enjoy the wonderful flavors of high quality shochu alone or in delightful cocktails. Here are the flavor profiles for some types of high quality shochu.
Imo-shochu, made from sweet potato, comes from Kagoshima Prefecture on Kyushu Island, a major sweet potato producing area. When you sip Imo-shochu, you can’t miss the hint of slight funky, sweet potato flavor and fragrance. Once you are hooked, you will love it.
Kokuto-shochu, made from sugar cane, comes from the small Amami Islands south of Kyushu Prefecture toward Okinawa. Kokuto-shochu will remind you of good-quality rum, but on average it is 12 percentage points lower in alcohol. Kokuto-shochu has a round mouth-feel and a subtle sweetness. It also is unique in being slightly alkaline, while all other distilled alcohol has a neutral pH. The sugar cane grown in the Amami Islands’ coral-rich fresh water is responsible for this unusual characteristic.
Kome-shochu, made from rice, comes from Kumamoto Prefecture. Kome-shochu presents a flowery and rich flavor similar to what you find in some sake.
Omugi-shochu, made from barley, may surprise you with a hint of banana, cantaloupe and caramel flavor.
Finally, if you are not a cocktail person, this is how we enjoy Honkaku shochu in Japan.
1. Mix 6 parts shochu with 4 parts cold water. This is called mizu-wari.
2. Mix 6 parts shochu with 4 parts warm water at about 98º degrees F. This is called oyu-wari. Warming shochu in this way allows the fragrant aroma to burst forth.
3. Or, try it simply on the rocks or straight up.
However, I encourage you to get creative with shochu cocktails, such as the following recipes provided by Jesse Falowitz.
Ringo, I Love You
This will be a smash hit for your Thanksgiving party, and for any gathering in deep autumn. This cocktail is characterized by a crisp and refreshing character with a delicate sweetness and hint of spice. Ringo in this case is “apple” in Japanese, not a member of the Beatles.
Prep time: 5 minutes
Yield: 1 serving
1/2 red apple, plus a few thin slices for garnish
2 1/2 ounces Mizunomai shochu or other Honkaku shochu
1/2 ounce fresh lemon juice
1/4 ounce maple syrup
1 dash of cinnamon powder
1. Core and cut the apple with skin into coarse pieces.
2. Add the apple half, shochu, lemon juice and maple syrup into a cocktail shaker or tall glass. Press the apple with a muddler, like the one used for making a mojito, to extract the most juice.
3. When the juice has been pressed out from the apple, close the shaker with the shaker top and shake vigorously.
4. Remove the shaker top and strain the cocktail through a cocktail strainer into a rocks glass in which you have placed a large piece of ice or two.
5. Garnish the cocktail with thin slices of apple. Lightly dust the apple with cinnamon powder and serve.
Neguloni, a Shochu Negroni
This is a Japanese twist on the Italian classic. This satisfying cocktail has smooth texture, a tinge of bitterness, sexy deep-dark red color, and pleasant buttery texture. You can make this cocktail without the grapefruit bitters, but it enhances the flavor of the cocktail, and the inclusion is highly recommended.
Prep time: 5 minutes
Yield: 1 serving
1 1/2 ounces Mizunomai shochu or other Honkaku shochu
3/4 ounces sweet vermouth
1/4 ounce Campari
3 drops grapefruit bitters
1 peel of grapefruit skin
1. Pour the shochu, sweet vermouth, Campari and grapefruit bitters into a rocks glass in which you have placed a one large ice cube.
2. Stir the glass with a cocktail spoon for 10 seconds to chill and slightly dilute the alcohol.
3. Remove a long grapefruit zest from the grapefruit with a peeler and lightly squeeze the oils over the cocktail.
4. Garnish the drink with the grapefruit zest twist and enjoy.
Main photo: The Ringo, left, and Neguloni cocktails. Credit: Jesse Falowitz