Kicking Off Japanese Craft Spirits Month

Surprisingly, Shochu is virtually unrecognized by the average American consumer. Mention of Shochu leaves people fumbling – or worse, misidentifying it with Korean Soju. Pick up a bottle of Shochu and you will see SOJU sometimes written on the label if it contains less than 24% alcohol. There is a lengthy explanation why but for now, we want to focus on ways Shochu is being recognized.

On January 31st, the Consulate General of Japan Los Angeles and JETRO Los Angeles kicked off Japanese Craft Spirits month. The kick-off event brought our own Head Educator, Toshio Ueno, and top-tier bartenders from the West Coast together for a night of Shochu and Awamori. In Japan, Shochu is more popular than Japanese sake. The flavors of Shochu (thanks to its unique distillation) often complement rather than compete with cocktail ingredients. Of course, many Shochu enthusiasts prefer the taste of Shochu on its own – no frills added.

To best sample Shochu, it’s important to note that each Shochu type is defined mainly by its base ingredient. A rice Shochu will have floral and fruity aromas and flavors that are difficult to replicate in a soba (buckwheat) Shochu. Truly enjoying Shochu requires sampling many types, including rice, sweet potato, barley, molasses, sugarcane, buckwheat, and more. Luckily, the Discover Japanese Craft Spirits event enabled us to experience Shochu and Awamori all in one place. Here are a few things we learned while sipping:

1. Shochu is easy to mix.

Just like vodka and other distilled spirits, many Shochu varieties are colorless and provide a neutral base. Of course, the strength of the aromas and flavors depends on the base ingredient. In addition, Shochu aged in cask barrels will have distinctly caramelized, roasted, ripe or dried fruits, and vanilla like aromas and flavors as well. But for cocktails, rice Shochu is definitely a great starting point because the flavor it imparts does not compete with cocktail ingredients. 

Our instructor, Sachiko Miyagi, tried this cocktail that incorporated tonic water and Iichiko Silhouette, a barley based Shochu that is popular for its mild and easy to drink flavor. We were impressed by this non-traditional take on a classic gin and tonic.


2. Awamori is Awamori (not Sake or Shochu or Soju).

Wait, we just explored how Shochu is not Soju but what is Awamori? Awamori is a Japanese distilled spirit that must be made of Thai rice and black koji. These key ingredients differentiate Awamori from both Sake and Shochu. The high alcohol percentage in Awamori can make it a tough drink to take straight. Luckily we were able to try a special Awamori cocktail presented by Graham Kimura of the Harborview Restaurant & Bar. His Aperol infused Awamori cocktail contained just a spritz of soda to give it a bubble and a pleasant sweetness, enhanced even further by the deep flavor of Awamori.


3. Cocktails made with Shochu are limitless.

Throughout the event one thing rang true – Shochu and Awamori are so versatile. Each cocktail offered a refreshing take on Japanese Craft Spirits and left us wondering why Shochu and Awamori remain relatively unknown in the US market. Perhaps it is because many are still learning how to use Shochu in traditional cocktails.

Overall, our team was excited to speak with others in the Los Angeles community about Japanese craft spirits. The dedication to sharing Shochu and Awamori with US fans continues to persist and expand. Even as Shochu educators and advisers, there is always room to learn more. Fortunately, we found a curiosity for Shochu in the LA community created an exciting kick-off for Japanese Craft Spirits month.


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