Despite centuries of history, shochu has only recently found increased prominence in cocktail bars, thanks in part to bartenders like Takuma Watanabe. An acclaimed bartender in Tokyo, Watanabe was inspired by Shingo Gokan and moved to New York where he served as the head bartender at Angel’s Share for 9 years before launching the bar program for Martiny’s, a new bar in Gramercy Park. Watanabe appreciates shochu for its versatility in cocktails. “Because it can be made with a variety of ingredients like barley, sweet potatoes, sesame, and more, it has lots of character, and the koji creates unique flavors,” he says. “The alcohol percentage is usually around 25 percent, so it’s much smoother than other spirits. But nowadays, producers are providing high-alcohol products as well, specifically for cocktails. It can really stir bartenders’ imaginations.”
“It’s one of the iconic shochus in Japan from Oita Prefecture,” says Watanabe of the iichiko brand, which debuted in 1979 from the Sanwa company as a premium style of the spirit known as honkaku shochu. The iichiko Saiten expression was released in 2019 with a higher ABV intended for cocktails, and the spirit nabbed double gold at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition the following year. “It’s a barley shochu that maximizes the taste of traditional Japanese koji (jiuqu),” says Watanabe. “It was born through joint development with a top bartender in San Francisco. With an alcohol content of 43 percent, it’s ideal as a cocktail base.” $29.99, shopwinedirect.com
Kirishima has been producing shochu for more than a century in the Miyazaki Prefecture. Also a premium honkaku shochu, the Aka Kirishima is made from purple Murasaki-Masari sweet potatoes. The polyphenols in the sweet potatoes react to the citric acid produced by the koji, turning the spirit a bright red color and giving the shochu its name. “It’s very easy to drink,” says Watanabe. “It has a well-balanced sweet scent and a mellow and fruity taste. It can also be used for dessert cocktails that are not too sweet.” $28.99, harrisonwinevault.com
At the Nishihira Distillery in Kagoshima Prefecture, all fermentation is done in ceramic pots buried in the floor of the distillery. The Kana Shochu is a honkaku made from rice and black kokuto sugar from Okinawa, and then aged for one year in oak casks. “It’s very floral with a touch of acid, with a caramel-like sweetness in the aftertaste,” says Watanabe. “It’s perfect for tropical cocktails. I’d like to play with this one in a Piña Colada twist.” $69.99, totalwine.com
Produced by the Yanagita Distillery in the Miyazaki Prefecture, the Aokage was first released in 2006 and is produced seasonally in the spring and fall. The distiller created a custom still that allows him to “toast” the liquid—made from 100 percent two-row barley—creating roasty, slightly smoky notes. The Aokage Forty-One is a newer release with a higher ABV (41 percent) to bring a fuller body and flavor to cocktails. “It’s got an attractive, toasted aroma and soft mouthfeel with lots of umami and savory notes,” Watanabe says. “It’s a very fun character and I use it in hot cocktails or dry, stirred cocktails.” See skurnik.com for distribution.
“This one is actually an awamori from Okinawa Prefecture,” explains Watanabe. While shochu can be fermented from a variety of ingredients, awamori can only be made from indica rice and black koji mold. Ryukyu 1429 (referencing the ancient Japanese kingdom of the Ryukyu Islands) is made specifically for mixing in cocktails, and the Kaze is aged for five years. “Using kuro (black) koji makes a very unique and balanced flavor, especially after the five years,” Watanabe says. “The taste is rich umami like a shiitake mushroom, and the end of the glass has a beautiful cacao aroma.” Currently available in Europe, the brand is aiming to launch stateside this summer. See ryukyu1429.com for distribution.