It's not sake. It's not soju. It's shochu, and while this Japanese spirit may be lesser known to some, shochu, which is typically brewed from grains or starches then distilled, is popping up on bar shelves in D.C., especially when it comes to cocktails.
Mostly, people confuse shochu with Korean soju, not only because they sound alike, but because soju is like the popular, older-brother to shochu.
"At least in the states soju has been known a little bit longer than Japanese shochu," says Mandu owner Danny Lee. "You can usually find it at Korean barbecue restaurants, and the alcohol-by-volume is lower, making it easier for restaurants to carry in some states."
How popular is soju? Well, the top-selling bottle of alcohol right now isn't Smirnoff vodka (3rd) or Jack Daniel's whiskey (20th): it's Jinro soju according to rankings from Drinks International.
So what's the big difference between soju and shochu?
"Taste wise, there's really not all that much," Lee says. His restaurants serve about a half-dozen different bottles of soju. Both soju and shochu are meant for sipping, and their mild alcohol strength (usually around 20-30 percent) makes it easy to drink a bottle in one sitting with a few friends. But, when you look and compare the two alcohols side-by-side, Lee says, there are some noticeable differences.
Primarily, soju is lower in alcohol-by-volume, usually gets distilled multiple times. It also has a sweeter taste — that's because sugar and other additives go into the finished product. Shochu, on the other hand, is thought to be stronger, can be single-distilled, sometimes aged in wood, and usually emphasizes the starch or grain used. And, it's not always a rice or grain product that goes into making these drinks.
Some varieties of shochu are made from molasses, brown sugar or sweet potatoes, says Eddie Kim, the beverage director at Daikaya Izakaya. At the bar, they use a sesame-based shochu (Beniotome) to make a drink called the "Sesame Street." This cocktail riffs off the Dark'n'Stormy and combines shochu with ginger beer, angostura bitters, and yuzu, a citrus fruit common to Japan. "We are expanding our cocktail options for shochu because we think it serves as a good introduction for what it is," Kim says.
At first, people don't always get what shochu is, says Daikaya's bartender Lukas Smith. For those who are curious, he usually pours a straight taste. But, the bar is using shochu is some inventive ways too. Daikaya is working on building an old-fashion style cocktail with shochu, and since the alcohol is less potent, shochu mixes well with other spirits, including Japanese whiskey.
Not to be outdone by shochu, soju also works remarkably well in cocktails, Lee says. At Mandu, the bar came up with a line of "Sojutinis." The soju serves as the spirit base and a Korean crushed juice is added to a martini glass. Aloe juice is probably the most popular flavor, Lee says, but there's also mandarin orange, white peeled-grape, and yogurt flavors. Mandu also has a soju-based cocktail on their brunch menu: the soju bloody mary. Since soju is basically a weaker version of vodka, Lee says he can load up the drink and mix it with a thick bloody mary sauce that has spices, including horseradish, Worcestershire sauce, black pepper, and Sriracha.
But traditionally, shochu and soju are served in similar styles. Soju comes in a chilled bottle and is poured neat in small soju glasses. Upon request at Mandu, the staff will take a lemon and screw it into the top of the bottle which creates a lemon rind spout for added citrus flavor. Mandu also serves some rare sojus, including a bottle from the Andong region of Korea. These sojus are typically distilled only once and result in a more refined and stronger product, Lee says.
At Daikaya, shochu comes in variety of 10 different bottles or 3 ounce pours. The most popular brand is a barley-based shochu, called Iichiko. It can be used to make a "Chuhai," a drink that is basically a Highball or Ricky and mixes with ice, soda water, and fruit juice. But, Kim says, most Japanese expats tend to buy a whole bottle of shochu or gravitate toward Awamori, which is made in a similar style to shochu, but varies because of its long-grain rice and a special fermentation that uses black mold, found specifically in Okinawa, Japan.
Whether you're going for soju or shochu, the most important thing is to test out the wide varieties, Kim says. And, he encourages other restaurants and bars to catch-on to shochu too. "This is something that should be incorporated into a lot of beverage programs. You should have at least one kind of bottle behind your bar because it's really adaptable."
— Tim Ebner
· All Previous Cocktail Week 2013 Coverage [-EDC-]
Daikaya Izakaya [Photo: R. Lopez]