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A Japanese spirit makes a comeback

The shochu boom

A traditional Japanese spirit is making a comeback

A traditional Japanese spirit is making a comeback

Sarah Birke | April/May 2017

As the spirit revival continues in the West, with ever-more inventive varieties of gin and whisky trickling out of micro-distilleries and into cocktail glasses, a similar reinvention is taking place in Japan. Shochu, a traditional spirit, is making a comeback at home and spreading abroad.

Distilled from various starches, most commonly rice, sweet potato, barley or buckwheat, it is matured for a few months in an oak container. The resulting product is similar to vodka but generally far smoother. The Japanese drink it neat, on the rocks, or mixed with juices. Some are infused with flavours, from plum to green tea; my favourite is ginger.

Shochu originated in Kyushu in the 16th century. But in the last few years it has boomed, shedding its image as a drink for grandparents and becoming a drink for young people. Distillers have benefited from its relatively healthy reputation; producers are experimenting with a range of base starches, from chestnuts to beans.

While foreigners are familiar with sake, shochu has been largely unknown abroad. But mixologists in cosmopolitan cities are lapping it up. Bars specialising in shochu have opened in Britain and America, and it is becoming increasingly common on menus at Japanese restaurants. Roka, in London, whisks up cocktails such as pear-infused shochu with Christmas spices. Aya in New York offers a menu of varieties listed according to base starch. With a lower alcohol volume than many spirits (typically 25% volume, rather than the 35-40% of whisky and vodka), you can afford to try a few. ~ SARAH BIRKE