Ever since the publication of The Travels of Marco Polo, the West has been intrigued by the East. Fast-forward seven centuries, and there are still discoveries to be made. A delicious one that’s beginning to show up on drink menus in Miami is shochu (pronounced show-chew), a Japanese liquor distilled (not fermented, like sake) from raw materials as varied as carrots, sweet potatoes, barley, sugarcane, and rice.
Stronger than sake and wine but weaker than most hard liquors, shochu ranges from 25 to 46 percent alcohol, which may be part of the charm—it’s easy to drink but has some kick. The Japanese began distilling the spirit about 500 years ago in the southern regions, where rice was difficult to grow but other starches, such as sweet potato, were plentiful. Once considered old-fashioned on the island, it’s now all the rage. And depending on raw material and distillation traditions, the spirit can have a quite eclectic range of flavors, from clean and neutral to earthy and layered. “It’s artisanal, so there’s a lot of variation,” says Carlos Portocarrero, assistant general manager at Sushi Samba on Lincoln Road, where shochu is picking up steam. You can drink it straight, on the rocks, or with a bit of warm water, which is said to open up flavors.
Sushi Samba uses shochu in cocktails such as the refreshing Kumori (nigori sake, shochu, gin, cucumber, lemon juice) and sells seven brands. Some of the more idiosyncratic are the Non No Ko Kuro (67 percent barley and 33 percent rice), which achieves a soft, sake-like mouthfeel and rustic barley notes, and the Shima Senryo, made from sweet potato and having a mushroomy nose and a slightly charred baked-potato skin taste. “It’s great for a meat pairing,” says Portocarrero.
At Zuma, beverage manager Theo Von Ungern-Sternberg recently launched a shochu program in response to a shift in trends. He uses a three-hour vacuum infusion process to impart intense fruit flavors such as green apple, raspberry, and lychee into a neutral shochu. The result is a delightfully light drink that’s dangerously easy to imbibe. Von Ungern-Sternberg also serves three brands individually, the most distinct being Amami, made from brown sugar, with an oceanic nose and delicate flavors of tobacco and caramel.
Fraser Hamilton, “spiritual advisor” at Blackbird Ordinary, picked up the shochu bug while bartending at Oko-hi in London. He infuses his shochu with cucumbers for one to three days and serves it, cucumbers and all, in a 10-ounce Mason jar. The shochu’s barley base plays well off the grassy cucumber for a summery cooler. “It’s nice to use a neutral spirit with a thick mouthfeel. It’s simple and easy to drink,” he says. “People have been frightened of it, but after one, they come back for more.” Future infusion plans include toffee, hot peppers, and candied pineapple, and one with grapefruit and basil. Though shochu is a rather broad categorization, and there are lots of ways to drink it, there is one rule: “Never pour your own, or let someone else do that,” says Portocarrero. In other words, share—not such a bad rule, whether you’re in the East or West.