Looking at the label of a bottle of sake or shochu can be intimidating. The vast majority are written in Japanese and there are many different styles to choose from. “They are very specifically created and labeled, they have their own language of quality and category—it takes a lot of time and patience to really fully understand these spirits,” says Aneka Saxon, beverage director and master mixologist for Chicago-based Machine Hospitality Group. “As a consumer, it’s tricky to pick one out at the liquor store without having a pretty solid understanding of how to read the labels. Even I find sake and shochu overwhelming!”
She adds that this has likely impeded the Japanese beverages reaching the mainstream U.S. consumer. “But at the same time, this allows them to be a mixologist’s darling—we love using the esoteric, the challenging, and the unexpected, and we love proving we can,” she says. “Sake and shochu are recent players in the cocktail game in my experience. As cocktail culture continues to boom, mixologists are reaching further to create that exciting new thing.”
Brian Evans, partner and director of bars for Brooklyn, New York-based Sunday Hospitality Group, also notes that today’s bartenders are eager to expand their creative horizons—and shochu and sake have benefited from this. “It feels like shochu was relatively non-existent in cocktail culture until the late 2010s, and the only sake-based cocktails anyone had heard of were confined to Saketinis or Lychee Martini variations,” he says. “There’s been a noticeable push in shochu education in recent years, highlighting its range and diversity, as well as a recent accessibility of higher proof shochu expressions that facilitate a more ‘plug-and-play’ approach with classic and familiar cocktail builds.”
He adds that cocktail inspiration has widened tremendously in recent years to include cultures outside the U.S. and all types of ingredients. “There’s literally nothing a mixologist won’t try to incorporate into a cocktail these days,” he says. “The modern climate of bartending and drinks-making draws so much influence from the intrigue and focus of Japanese bartending that it only makes sense that the allure of shochu and sake came along with it.”
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Saxon notes that shochu and sake are primed for a boom. “After a few decades of vodka, gin, rum, whisk(e)y, and Tequila, we’re ready for some new bases,” she says. “Mezcal was the next big player to take the stage, but Japanese spirits are coming in hot.”
Both Saxon and Evans note that the adage “what grows together goes together” applies to sake and shochu cocktails. “Japanese ingredients like shiso, green tea, plum, and seaweed, to name a few, all go well with these Japanese beverages,” Evans says. At Sunday Hospitality Group’s restaurant Rule of Thirds, Evans’ Douglas Fir-Banks ($18) comprises Beniotome Sesame shochu, St. George Terroir gin, Giffard Pêche de Vigne peach liqueur, lime juice, house-made vetiver root syrup, and house-made umeboshi “paint” containing the Japanese pickled plum plus beet juice, which is brushed on the glass.
“Thinking about the location where a particular sake or shochu is made, what the people there are eating, what the world smells like, what kind of nature they are surrounded by, whether they have seasons—using the answers to these questions serves as an excellent inspiration to layer a terroir-driven cocktail experience,” Saxon says. Her Head in the Clouds ($59 for six servings) is a large-format cocktail served at the hospitality group’s Machine restaurant, and it features Tozai Living Jewel sake, Kyrö gin, Giffard Lichi-li lychee liqueur, house-made genmaicha (a blend of Japanese green tea and brown rice) syrup, and fresh lemon juice. “The array of these spirits on the market is large and diverse—so many different products fit under the two umbrellas of sake and shochu,” Saxon adds. “They can be sweet, dry, high proof, low proof, delicate, bold, some are infused, some are sparkling. I love to taste new things and get excited by doors opening to new flavor potentials.”
At Nami at the Lake Nona Wave Hotel in Orlando, Florida, the Mandarin ($16) blends Chiran Hotaru Firefly sweet potato shochu, Chinola passion fruit liqueur, fresh yuzu juice, Boiron mandarin purée, The Japanese Bitters Co. Shiso bitters, and Fee Brothers Fee Foam. The drink was created by Jacob Johnson, corporate beverage director for venue owner Tavistock Restaurant Collection. “Sweet potato shochu shines as the backbone of the Mandarin cocktail—it provides strength, a creamy palate, and also enhances earth tones and adds a bit of funk for enhanced exotic aroma,” Johnson says. “The drink aims at umami, highlighting bright citrus, tropicality, herbaciousness, and earth elements. The shochu enhances the drink’s complexity and allows our guests to find something new in each sip.”
At Isla in Santa Monica, California, bar director Kent Thompson’s If You Build It ($18) mixes Sawtelle Sake Co.’s Clear Skies Junmai Ginjo sake that’s blended with yuzu juice specifically for Isla, plus Rittenhouse rye, Bénédictine herbal liqueur, fresh lemon juice, and house-made yuzu kosho and ginger syrups. “Our If You Build It cocktail is a play on the Penicillin, but with heavy Japanese influence,” Thompson says. “It has yuzu kosho, which is a fermented chile and yuzu peel paste that pairs nicely with the rye, but the secret ingredient in my opinion is the sake that we get from our friends at Sawtelle Sake. It brings everything together and makes the drink pop.” Similarly featuring heavy Japanese influence, beverage director Kenneth Vanhooser’s Living Coral ($16) at Present Tense in Nashville, Tennessee, features Pure Land Junmai sake; lemon juice; house-made lemongrass, purple shiso, and ginger syrups; and seltzer water. “Through this drink we pay homage to distinct Asian flavors, which align beautifully with our Japanese leaning menu at Present Tense,” Vanhooser says. “Eastern flavors mix with sake for a food-friendly, light and refreshing effervescent Highball.”
Sunday Hospitality Group’s Evans notes that his favorite way to enjoy sake is mixed with tonic water in a 2:3 ratio. “It helps to increase the volume of the shochu or sake in a cocktail to 2½ ounces or 3 ounces, so the subtleties can shine a bit more against other potential ‘flavor bullies’ like amaro or citrus,” he says. “Both shochu and sake truly shine in Highballs, as carbonated water will easily bolster the subtle flavors into the forefront.”
At Sushi Bar in Miami Beach, sake is featured in two refreshing Highballs: the Oyster Highball ($22) comprises Imayo Tsukasa IMA Junmai sake, clarified lime juice, East Imperial Yuzu lemonade, and house-made honey, mint, and lemongrass syrup, while the Wasabi Cooler ($22) blends Imayo Tsukasa Black Junmai sake, house-made cucumber and wasabi syrup, clarified lime juice, and club soda. “Sake allows us to create a unique cocktail program; we’re able to layer so many unique flavors without compromising the integrity of the cocktail,” says general manager Sam Attia. “We’ve come a long way from the Saketini we once knew. Sake and shochu are still new to the cocktail world but I believe that in the next few years, we’ll see more sake- and shochu-focused cocktail programs, especially now that newer sakes and shochus are being developed for the cocktail industry, which is starting to create an industry boom.”
For shochu in particular, higher proof expressions have hit the market in recent years, aimed at courting bartenders. “Mizu shochu introduced a line of higher-proof, cocktail-friendly expressions that took the bartending community by storm, with Barley, Lemongrass, and Green Tea expressions all at 35% abv,” Evans says. “I always find inspiration working with their entire line in a myriad of different styles and seasonalities.” At Rule of Thirds, his The Hidden Fortress ($17) comprises Mizu Saga Barley shochu, Neversink gin, Kleos Mastiha, Dolin Dry vermouth, St-Germain liqueur, and Bittermens Scarborough bitters.
“Stylistically, I find that many shochu expressions work beautifully as a split-base with numerous types of Sherries, genever, and gins,” Evans notes. Also at Rule of Thirds, his Spirit of the Beehive ($17) features Motoko sweet potato shochu, Lustau Amontillado Sherry, Yellow Chartreuse liqueur, Laphraoig 10-year-old Scotch, house-made honey and maple syrup mix, Regans’ No. 6 Orange bitters, Groix et Nature Lobster oil, and house-made green shiso oil. “There’s a less-charted flavor dimension of umami found in many shochu styles that adds adventurous depth to just about any cocktail,” he adds.
Shochu’s umami flavor lends itself well to tiki-inspired builds. At Hutong in New York City, bar director Henry Dwyer’s Mystic River ($22) blends equal parts Nankai shochu and pineapple-infused Ming River baijiu, plus Nonino amaro, house-made orgeat, and lime juice. “With this drink I found that split-basing the baijiu with shochu helped to round everything out and tame the strength of the baijiu; the two worked very well together,” Dwyer says. “The result is a tangy, smooth tropical cocktail—an Eastern take on a tiki drink, if you will.” Similarly falling into the tiki category, the Xantolo ($14) by bartender Esteban De Luna at Tiki-Ti in Los Angeles mixes Nankai White Oak shochu, Mathilde Pêche peach liqueur, pineapple and lime juices, honey syrup, and fresh mint. “Shochu is a very versatile spirit that opens up to any style of cocktail, and Nankai is my favorite brand,” De Luna says. “The White Oak expression has floral notes that pair perfectly with the honey, tropical flavors, and citrus in this variation of the classic tiki drink the Missionary’s Downfall.”
Machine Hospitality Group’s Saxon notes that to her Midwestern palate, sake and shochu are exotic, which is what makes them exciting to mix with. “I think we’re all excited by new experiences, especially experiences we enjoy,” she says. “Using sake or shochu in place of a more Western spirit in a classic cocktail gives you just enough complexity to have a gorgeous new drink on your hands, but it’s also incredibly simple to pull off.” At the group’s Headquarters Beercade bar in Chicago, her Throwing Shade ($13) is what she calls “a nuanced, slightly adventurous take on a Gimlet.” It blends equal parts Mizu Green Tea shochu and Monkey in Paradise vodka, lime juice, house-made triple syrup, and a splash of soda water.
At Machete in Greensboro, North Carolina, bartender Kevan Ash’s Cure to Karoshi ($16) is a Japanese-influenced take on the 50/50 Martini. It mixes equal parts Dewazakura Oka Cherry Bouquet Ginjo sake and Roku gin, plus Haku Smoked Shoyu soy sauce and The Japanese Bitters Co. Yuzu bitters. “I love 50/50 Martinis, and for this recipe, I use a delicate, soft, and floral-forward sake from Dewazakura Brewery in place of vermouth and utilize the bright citrus qualities that can be found in Roku gin,” Ash says. “I tie it all together with yuzu bitters and aged, cold-smoked soy sauce, which adds umami to the cocktail and creates depth while countering the citrus and floral elements.” At Sushi Bar, meanwhile, the Emperor’s Martini ($22) is a take on the Vesper, blending Mizu Green Tea shochu, Roku gin, Noilly Prat dry vermouth, and The Japanese Bitters Co. Umami bitters. “I can definitely see the current Martini demand make room for easy shochu variations, such as, say, a shochu Espresso Martini, perhaps?” Sunday Hospitality Group’s Evans says. “I always feel like sake inches closer to the Spritz or Highball cocktail world, so maybe it wouldn’t be unrealistic to see Sake and Tonic or Sake Spritz variations take cocktail menus by storm soon.” At Atelier in Chicago, beverage director Ali Martin’s MiSoo Sbagliato ($16) is one such Sake Spritz, mixing equal parts Fukucho Moon on the Water Junmai Ginjo sake and Misoo Bitter aperitivo, plus McBride Sisters Brut Rosé.
At Bar Goto in New York City, owner Kenta Goto offers shochu-based takes on the classic Margarita and Bloody Mary. His Bar Goto Margarita ($17) comprises Iichiko Saiten shochu, El Tesoro Blanco Tequila, Ancho Reyes Verde Poblano liqueur, lemon and lime juices, and simple syrup, while his Umami Mary ($17) features dashi-infused Iichiko Silhouette shochu, Iichiko Saiten shochu, and tomato, lemon, and lime juices. “I often use Iichiko Saiten—it’s 86 proof, high enough to stand up in a classic cocktail formula, which makes it’s easy to use,” Goto says. “The flavor is earthy, savory, and full-bodied. I find that it works very well with other strong flavored spirits, such as Tequila and mezcal.”
Goto adds that around ten years ago, shochu-based cocktails didn’t really exist. “Maybe some Japanese restaurants at the time were using shochu in cocktails, but not the way we’re seeing now,” he says. “The number of bartenders who decide they want to work with shochu as a main ingredient in cocktails is growing rapidly. They’re also very popular on our menu with customers—more people are interested in trying something new and are ordering shochu.”