While the early years of the cocktail revolution involved digging deeper into U.S. history and pre-Prohibition spirits and cocktails, today’s bartenders tend to seek inspiration farther afield, notes Jason Lee, beverage director at N/Soto in Los Angeles. “A lot of the first boom in cocktail culture was pretty American- and European-centric, but I think overall, with both food and drink, there’s a renewed interest in expanding palates and trying new things,” he says. “Bartenders and consumers are discovering that there are so many more ideas to be shared and stories to be told about beverages between cultures.”
Lee adds that the popularity of books like “The Japanese Art of the Cocktail” by Masahiro Urushido and “The Way of the Cocktail: Japanese Traditions, Techniques, and Recipes” by Julia Momosé, as well as the success of these bartenders’ respective bars—Katana Kitten in New York City and Kumiko in Chicago—have helped put a spotlight on Japan’s native drinks, including sake and shochu. “In the past, the tendency was for bars and restaurants without liquor licenses to use sake as a replacement for clear spirits, but that’s starting to change as people increasingly grow to appreciate that sake and shochu have tons of unique characteristics on their own, and start to use them because of what they bring to the table as opposed to just using them because they have no other choice,” Lee notes. “And increasingly, shochu producers in Japan are exporting higher proof offerings for international bartenders to work with, so there’s definitely more general interest in, and exploration of, the category.”
David Muhs, beverage director at Sama Street in Brooklyn, New York, sees that U.S. bartenders are using sake and shochu more prominently in their cocktails today. “In conjunction with this, the consumer has become more aware and educated about the category,” he notes. “Nearly gone are the days of explaining the difference between shochu and sake. And these aren’t just for sushi restaurants anymore—I love when a sommelier includes a beautiful sake on their list.”
Indeed, though sake and shochu have been around since the 15th century and are widely consumed in Japan, they’ve never been more common on U.S. cocktail menus than they are today. “Bartenders and cocktail enthusiasts are always on the lookout for new things to put into the mix, so it was only a matter of time before they started using these timeless ingredients in this form,” Muhs says. “I also think that cocktails have become a great way to introduce people to new ingredients and flavors, as they can expose people to something completely new while still having a feeling of familiarity.”
Most U.S. drinkers are familiar with sake and have been for many years thanks to the popularity of sushi restaurants, but shochu is still new to many Americans. It shares similarities to sake, but is all its own. Shochu can be made from any number of ingredients, but the most common types available in the U.S. are barley (mugi), sweet potato (imo), rice (kome), and unrefined cane sugar, also called black sugar (kokuto). The base ingredient is fermented using koji mold—just like in sake production—but unlike sake, which is brewed and carries an abv of around 15%, shochu is distilled and comes in between 20% and 43% abv.
“We’re all familiar with ‘Saketinis,’ a tasty companion to any sushi dinner, but bartenders are beginning to appreciate the complexities of both sake and shochu and using them to their fullest potential, leading to a welcome expansion in variety as far as sake and shochu cocktails are concerned,” notes Ariana Teigland, co-owner and bar manager of Glo Noodle House in Denver. “What makes shochu and sake appealing is that they provide flavors that most Western palates aren’t used to. We all have a favorite gin, whisk(e)y, and vodka, but shochu and sake have their own unique histories, methods, and, ultimately, final products.” Shochu is featured in several cocktails at Glo Noodle House, such as in bartender Luke Evans’ Kwaidan ($16), blending equal parts Yokaichi kome shochu and Kyrö gin, plus Peychaud’s aperitivo, lime juice, simple syrup, muddled cucumber and mint, egg white, The Japanese Bitters Umami bitters, and Angostura bitters.
At Bar at Nakaji in New York City, general manager Louis Andia’s Shobu ($18) features Mizu Lemongrass shochu, Roku gin, Aperol aperitif, lemon juice, simple syrup, and egg white, while his Marimo ($18) comprises Asahiyama Junmai sake, Mizu Lemongrass shochu, El Silencio mezcal, Midori liqueur, yuzu juice, simple syrup, egg white, and a dusting of matcha powder. “Shochu started as a subtle ingredient to mix with soda water in a Highball, but it’s evolved into the main ingredient of many more complex cocktails,” Andia says. “Most people know sake just as a substitute for wine at a Japanese establishment, but it’s also seeing more growth in cocktail programs, often used to soften other spirits in drinks.”
Ivan Papic, beverage director of GG Tokyo in New York City, points out that bartenders tend to favor ingredients that are unique and outside of the mainstream, which has helped sake and shochu grow more popular. “They both have an umami characteristic—something you don’t get from classic Western spirits,” he explains. “I also think the popularity of Japanese cuisine and Japanese-style bartending, which takes years to master and has amazing attention to detail and service, has contributed a lot to consumers’ expanding palates and the rising popularity of both shochu and sake.” At GG Tokyo, Papic’s The Ceremony ($20) blends Mizu shochu, house-made matcha and oat milk syrup, lemon juice, and Peychaud’s bitters, while his The Mermaid ($16) mixes Joto Yuzu sake, beet-infused Ten To One white rum, Laphroaig 10-year-old Scotch, yuzu juice, and simple syrup.
“I think Asian ingredients in general have become increasingly popular over the last five years and bartenders have had a big influence on this: We’re always looking for the next thing to dive into and we love sharing—look what happened when we got into mezcal,” Sama Street’s Muhs says. “I like working with shochu, especially the real savory and funky ones. My drink-making style leans toward the savory side and shochu has become a great asset.” In the Major Tom ($18), Muhs uses equal parts Mizu Lemongrass shochu and Bombay Sapphire East gin, plus house-made lemongrass syrup and ginger syrup, lime juice, Coco Lopez cream of coconut, house-made chile tincture, and fish sauce-pickled tomato. In his Menty B ($18), Ichiko Saiten shochu is mixed with Tempus Fugit Crème de Cacao liqueur, Branca Menta amaro, heavy cream, demerara syrup, matcha powder, and house-made pandan tincture.
“My favorite thing about working with shochu and sake is that, because they both use koji as the fermenting agent, they bring along a lot of that great umami that’s unique to koji and other aspergillus oryzae ferments, and in turn provide great depth to cocktails,” N/Soto’s Lee notes. “For so long, bartenders have felt that to add savory elements to cocktails they needed to add things like mushrooms, tomatoes, pickles, or miso, but with shochu and sake you’re already inherently building off of a base with some savory qualities, so you’re more able to explore the way umami can work in cocktails that aren’t tied to particular umami-heavy secondary ingredients.” His Radio 55 ($16) blends Lento kokuto shochu, house-made date-honey-lime leaf syrup, house-made white guava syrup, and lime juice, topped with Fukucho Seaside sparkling sake, while his Ok Now ($14) features Beniotome sesame shochu, Shibata Yuzu sake, tamarind-infused Ryukyu Ohcho awamori (another Japanese spirit, made from long grain rice and black koji mold), house-made toasted rice syrup, and lemon juice.
Diverse And Versatile
Though shochu and sake both feature koji mold, which imparts umami qualities, there’s plenty of variety among the different brands and styles available within these categories to keep things interesting for bartenders. “The great thing about sake and shochu is their diversity—they can vary so much by region, ingredient, and distillation,” Muhs says. “One may work really well in a shaken sour and another might be perfect for a stirred application. When I’m working on a savory cocktail, I often reach for shochu, and with sake, I love using fresh fruit to accentuate its fruity notes. I also love using sake as a low-abv cocktail option, as it adds great flavor and texture to cocktails.” His A Long Kiss Goodnight ($19) is stirred and spirit-forward, comprising aonori-infused Kuroki Kiroku shochu, black sesame tahini-infused Appleton Estate 12-year-old Rare Casks Jamaica rum, Cocchi Vermouth di Torino, cacao-infused Campari aperitif, Akashi White Oak blended Japanese whisky, and Tempus Fugit Crème de Cacao, while his Supersoaker ($16) is shaken, fruity, and low-abv, blending Chibi Zumo Little Sumo sake, house-made watermelon syrup, lime juice, and Fundokin yuzu kosho.
“Different sakes and shochus are going to work with different things, so a great starting point is to try a bunch of them, learn what you appreciate about each one individually, and then build cocktails out of their strengths,” Lee advises. “I find that a junmai ginjo sake like Fukucho Moon on the Water works well as part of tropical and tiki drinks because of the way it brings both fruit and warm spices to the table; on the other hand, the grainy and gamey, high amino acid and mushroom-like quality of some yamahai or kimoto sakes often do well with amari, especially the vegetal kinds like Cardamaro and Zucca.” In his cocktail Tepache ($15), Lee pairs the yamahai sake Tamagawa Red Label with Cardamaro, plus house-made purple corn and coconut cream, house-made ginger and ponzu shrub, and Cellador Tepache seltzer.
“I’ve found at our bar, that when people try sweet potato shochu for the first time, especially the heavier ones like Ikkomon, that its peppery, vegetal, and earthy quality reminds them of Tequila, and as a result it works well with ingredients commonly used in agave drinks,” Lee adds, pointing to his cocktail Hato ($16) as an example. It features Ikkomon shochu, Oeno Blanco vermouth, house-made grilled shishito syrup, lime juice, and Ting grapefruit soda.
Glo Noodle House’s Teigland also notes shochu’s versatility thanks to the different styles available. “Rice shochu is crisp and clean and calls for similarly lighter flavors to complement and not overwhelm, while sweet potato shochu, in my opinion, brings a fuller bodied, earthy presence to a cocktail,” she says. “It’s truly a versatile spirit and can be used in a variety of cocktails from Highballs to Old Fashioneds.” Her Little Forest ($14) is on the brighter side, mixing Yokaichi kome shochu, shiso-infused Family Jones vodka, Dolin Dry vermouth, and lime juice, while her Tora ($16) is a riff on the Old Fashioned featuring Asakura Premium Barrel-Aged shochu, muscovado sugar, and Angostura Orange bitters.
At Finch & Fork in Santa Barbara, California, beverage manager and sommelier Jazz Moralez showcases sake’s flexibility in cocktails with two very different applications highlighting the same brand: The Great Wave ($14) is a take on the traditionally gin-based Southside, featuring Yaegaki Junmai sake, lime juice, simple syrup, and mint, while the Bloody Samurai ($14) is an umami-driven Bloody Mary variation, blending Yaegaki Junmai, lime juice, Sriracha hot sauce, tamari sauce, and a house-made Bloody Mary mix comprising tomato juice, grilled jalapeños, fish sauce, Sriracha, lemon, lime, and pickled ginger juices, and salt and pepper. “I think part of the attraction and the popularity for both shochu and sake is that there’s so much to discover and appreciate about these fine spirits that have these long, grand histories,” Moralez says. “American palates are expanding and have become more receptive to unique flavors—especially after being cooped up. I’ve seen our guests more often than not want to be shown something different. They’ve come to the realization that now is the time to explore and taste everything, so why not start with cocktails?”