Big in Japan

Shochu: Coming to a bar near you.

When you say shochu to most Japanese, they conjure the 1980s stereotype of the salarymen getting bombed on the cheap after work. Shochu is the Japanese version of vodka, but unlike vodka, shochu is distilled only once so it retains some character from the starches—most commonly sweet potatoes, barley, and rice—that create it. Today, Japan's younger citizens are making shochu as popular in Tokyo as vodka is in Moscow. The liquor became more available in Japan after World War II, when imports like whiskey were either nonexistent or extremely expensive, but its image has always been more moonshine than mainline. Shochu is also catching on in a few larger U.S. markets, like Los Angeles. Thanks to a loophole in California's booze laws, shochu that comes in under 25 percent alcohol is available in establishments that only hold a beer and wine license. This allows for shochu cosmos and lemon drops, without the costlier licenses and insurance—and shochu makers abroad are quickly modifying or creating their products to slip through the loophole. The lower alcohol of shochu has an upside for bartenders, too. Bartenders are liable for the overimbibing of others. Whereas two gin martinis can put some patrons in the danger zone, a shochu substitution cuts potency by a third. Two premium shochus in our market to try: Iichiko Shochu ($25, 750 milliliters), made from 100 percent barley, smells nutty and toasty and feels much richer in the mouth than vodka. Takara Jun Shochu ($17, 750 milliliters) has a little citrus rind and tea aroma to its clean, fruity taste. Both are available through state liquor stores; if your neighborhood outpost doesn't carry them, try the SoDo location on Fourth Avenue. We don't know of any local bartenders mixing shochu cocktails, but it's got to be just a matter of time, don't you think? After all, anything vodka can do shochu can do better. As a martini, it offers a more complex aroma and flavor than vodka, without the full-on pine action of gin. Instead of a splash of vermouth, you could use lemony yuzu juice and add pickled ginger for garnish—or, here's your excuse to finally buy some of those stranger fruits from Uwajimaya. In Japan, shochu is served on the rocks or mixed with water and tart juices like grapefruit. Add fresh lime juice, and shochu makes a killer gimlet. My favorite preparation is two and one-half ounces of shochu, a half ounce of Looza pear juice, and a splash of ginger juice. What's it called? I dunno. I just call it "delicious."

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