With Japanese-inspired bars and restaurants capturing attention here in the United States, ingredients from Japan also are finding the spotlight—not least of all the country’s native distilled spirit, shochu.
As a highly versatile liquor, it’s no surprise bartenders are embracing shochu’s nuanced flavors. Distilled from a wide range of raw ingredients—barley, rice, sweet potato, molasses, buckwheat and brown sugar, among others—and made in various regions across Japan, shochu provides an opportunity for bar professionals and home bartenders alike to experiment with the terroir and flavors presented in each bottling and add complexity to their cocktails accordingly.
In celebration of Shochu Week’s March debut, bartenders from 10 leading bars across the U.S. created original cocktails showcasing the spirit’s unique qualities. Here, a list of some of the best places to drink around the country and the shochu cocktails you can find at each.
Find a Bar
To celebrate this original craft spirit, the Kagoshima, Miyazaki, Oita, Kumamoto Prefecture have partnered with some of the best bars across the country, and avid shochu admirers, to create a week dedicated to nothing but Shochu cocktails.
Styled as an upscale izakaya, this cozy bar on New York’s Lower East Side—alongside its sister bar across the river in Brooklyn—offers Japanese-inspired cocktails alongside small plates like miso wings, kombu celery and okonomiyaki. It’s a tiny space with a minimalist vibe, warmed with wood paneling and soft lighting, where bartender-owner Kenta Goto and his team mix highballs and other drinks with famously exacting attention to detail. The Far East Side, mixing sake, tequila and elderflower liqueur, garnished with a single vibrant shiso leaf, has become an instant guest favorite; the shochu-inflected Hakumai Highball, available at both locations, offers similar simplicity and visual appeal.
Kenta Goto’s straightforward shochu highball is garnished with pickled ginger for visual interest.
At Kumiko, an omakase-style bar in Chicago’s West Loop, Japanese-born owner Julia Momosé builds thoughtful drinks around ingredients reminiscent of her heritage and upbringing in Kyoto. In a space lauded as sleek, elegant and contemporary, the ambitious, precise drinks often nod to the seasons and the wonders of nature. Momosé’s Hanamizaké Martini exemplifies that dreamy aesthetic, evoking a quiet moment beneath a flowering cherry tree, with a graceful sakura blossom nestled in the bottom of the glass.
A Martini variation inspired by time spent under the sakura for hanami (flower viewing).”
One of the most exciting pop-up concepts in recent memory is Daijoubu, where Caer Maiko (also of Austin, Texas, bar DrinkWell), constructs what she has termed “super Asian cocktails.” For her, that means boundary-pushing drinks that are built around Asian stories, traditions and flavors—think cold soba noodles, fish sauce or nori furikake—often incorporated in unexpected but delicious ways. Take the colorful Beni Shoga Mule, for example: a playful variation that uses beni shoga (Japanese ginger pickles) in a piquant shrub.
Beni Shoga Mule
This tart and spicy mule incorporates beni shoga, a Japanese ginger pickle.
“Less is more” is the guiding principle at the “little blue bungalow” with the sprawling patio. Austin, Texas’ Half Step, opened in 2013, is a laid-back cocktail bar on Rainey Street named for a Grateful Dead song, the kind of place that prides itself on being unpretentious, but just casually happens to offer refreshing top-notch versions of the classics—like Ginger Palomas on draft, or a frozen Piña Colada—thanks to industry veteran and owner Chris Bostick. The creamy, fruity Amami Island Colada is an unexpected option for tropical drink fans, with matcha and shochu elevating the cocktail above just the usual.
Located in a restored 1854 carriage house in New York City’s Gramercy Park neighborhood, this is indeed a tiny space, as the name of the bar alludes. Run by Takuma Watanabe, former head bartender of the famed Angel’s Share and a former barista, this newcomer, set to open in March 2022, promises an intimate, detail-oriented experience—plus Martinis, of course. The Guardian Deity hints at what’s to come: a shochu sour with the complex flavors of yuzu and an Okinawa brown sugar syrup.
Takuma Watanabe’s shochu-based Gimlet variation focuses on yuzu two ways.
San Francisco izakaya Pabu, part of the upscale Michael Mina empire, celebrates sushi, sashimi, grilled meats from the robata, and of course, modern and seasonal cocktails. Located in the Financial District, the drinks menu references Japanese ingredients—yuzu tonic, Okinawa sugar, Japanese coffee—to playful effect. Consider, for example, the sassy Mr. Untouchable, which builds on brown sugar shochu with assertive jalapeño, mint and spicy ginger beer, to bracing effect—fitting for a cocktail whose name references Japan’s yakuza crime syndicate.
A play on the 1800s classic Badminton Cup, this drink subs shochu for gin and adds a riot of flavorful flourishes.
A San Francisco neighborhood cocktail bar with a lively vibe, this Union Square oasis, helmed by owner Kevin Diedrich, is known for elevated drinks inspired by international street markets. The menu’s flavors conjure up these far-flung destinations, as in the likes of the savory-sweet Red + Blue—fueled by rum and sherry and topped with salted jackfruit whip, inspired by the Philippines—or the vegetal One Thousand Cranes, featuring Japanese shochu infused with cucumber and melon, lengthened with effervescent yuzu soda.
One Thousand Cranes
This crushable, citrusy highball pairs the savory melon notes of the Saiten shochu with fresh lemon verbena.
Hidden behind a coffee shop façade, the moody Patent Pending is an intimate space within the Radio Wave building in New York City’s NoMad neighborhood. The speakeasy-style bar offers creative, elaborate drinks like the Electric Messiah, made with Japanese whisky, Cognac, yuzu sake, orgeat and curry leaf, and the Shochu Sour, sweetened with citrusy, spicy yuzu kosho rock candy syrup.
Nikola Nikoletić’s frothy sour features Japanese persimmon and yuzu kosho rock candy syrup.
In Rule of Thirds’ minimalist-chic space in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, guests find Japanese comfort food with creative touches (panko-crusted pork shoulder, tamagoyaki, Chicken Katsu Sandos), plus sake and shochu. The showstopping drinks often feature pops of umami and memorable presentation, such as a tropical grog served in a hollowed-out grapefruit; a nightcap garnished with a Japanese Kit Kat; and a classic Tipperary variation that features sweet potato shochu with shiso oil and—wait for it—French lobster oil.
Housed in the Riggs Hotel in Washington, D.C., Silver Lyan is the first stateside bar from Ryan “Mr. Lyan” Chetiyawardana’s extended bar empire. The hotel space was formerly a bank; the bar is in what was once the vault, which has been transformed into a plush hideaway. As with all of Lyan’s enterprises, the drinks are thoughtful, often accompanied by deep-dive backstories, yet also playful to the point of avant-garde. Infusions, tinctures and other housemade ingredients abound, as in the shochu-based Old-Fashioned variation sweetened with toothsome salted black pepper caramel.
Sweet potato shochu takes center stage in this classic Old-Fashioned construct.
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