Packed with exciting ingredients that fall all across the spectrum of familiarity, our Daijoubu Box is ready to hit the road. The bold and full-flavored cocktails within feature tons of fun touches and represent the personal journeys of their Asian American creators, with each cocktail sharing one common element in a central role: wonderful and delicate Japanese shochu.
Not to be confused with the similar-sounding Korean spirit soju, shochu had its beginnings in Okinawa and then moved up the chain of islands to Kagoshima, where it was first documented in writing in the sixteenth century. As with most spirits, the exact path that led shochu to its cultural home can only be conjectured—but the most likely early contributor is said to have been the spread of arak distilling techniques from the Middle East, which were adapted wherever they took root worldwide according to local traditions and available resources.
For Japan this meant an alcoholic drink typically made from rice, barley, or sweet potato and an ability to de-emphasize yeast in the fermentation stage by utilizing what would become a very trendy seasoning and curing agent: koji. A magical mold responsible for the blast of umami in miso, soy sauce, and other fermented culinary delights, koji is extremely relevant today and a new frontier for experimentation in all sorts of tasty ways. In shochu-making, koji transforms grain into sugar and its cultivation and growth is what’s known as the first moromi, the Japanese term for “mash.” The main moromi comes days later with the introduction of the spirit’s central ingredient.
There is a great diversity in the shochu category owing to the various base options and the choice to either single distill (honkaku shochu), which maintains more taste and aroma from the main moromi, or to continuously distill the product (kohrui shochu) for a more even, mild flavor. The latter method is responsible for the somewhat unfortunate moniker of “Japanese vodka” that sometimes gets flung shochu’s way. On top of all that, there’s also the matter of ageing, which can take place in tanks, oak barrels, or ceramic pots.
As a result, some shochus carry a rice wine–like flavor similar to its brewed compatriot sake, and some give off a subtle earthiness, while others are more neutral in flavor. But there are ample commonalities that have turned the izakaya favorite into a popular choice globally. Notably—though it’s classified as a distilled spirit with the likes of whiskey and gin—the ABV range of shochu has been historically lower (usually around 25%). This lightness and the easygoing flavor profile makes that style ideal to drink enjoy mizu-wari (diluted with room-temperature water) or oyu-wari (diluted with hot water), neat, or on the rocks during mealtime. Long nights in Japan are often spent sharing a table with friends and colleagues, chatting amiably, and clinking glasses of shochu to a boisterous communal shouting of “Kanpai!”
Meanwhile, its role at the cocktail bar is relatively undeveloped but quickly expanding, thanks in part to a trend among modern producers to bottle higher-proof shochus that contribute the same signature flavors but don’t skimp on assertiveness. You can count bartender and Daijoubu co-founder Caer Maiko as a fan of these newer, stronger shochus. “Most cocktails are built for spirits in the 40% or more range,” she says, “so, thankfully, some very talented distillers are able to get it up to 45% in a single distillation, which gives us highly mixable and flavorful shochus.”
They can be used in tandem with a harder spirit to impart brightness and lift up citrus flavors, or occasionally spotted subbing in for the main component of a classic cocktail (with lesser-aged varieties taking cognac’s spot in a sidecar or gin’s in a gimlet or Negroni, and richer, barrel-aged ones taking whiskey’s place in old fashioneds and Manhattans).
Now it’s your turn to discover the artful beauty of one of Japan’s great national exports. So choose your shochus wisely, invite some friends over, and enjoy this versatile and supportive cocktail star in the making!