Shochu, quite simply, is a flavorful, aromatic, usually clear distilled spirit with a rather low alcohol content: around 25 percent by volume, or 50 proof. "It's like Japanese Vodka. That's how I sometimes tell people to think of it," says Andrew Stover, sommelier at Sei in Penn Quarter. The restaurant and lounge carries about 20 Shochus, one of the region's largest selections.
The type of koji is another major factor in shochu's taste, and there are three: White koji creates a fruitier and gentler spirit, black koji creates a more robust taste, and yellow koji is somewhere in between.
The highest-quality Shochu, called honkaku ("authentic"), is single-distilled. In fact, the single distillation, at very low proof, is really what gives Shochu its unique aromas and flavors. Once you start distilling Shochu more than one time, it becomes . . . well, like Vodka.
My recent interest in Shochu was piqued by "Japanese Cocktails" (Chronicle), a new book by Yuri Kato, who is the founder of the Web site Cocktail Times. The author discusses how "the image of Shochu has drastically changed" in recent years as the spirit has grown popular, particularly among Japan's young and hip. At one point in the past decade, Shochu sales in Japan even surpassed Sake sales.
Overall, Shochu provides an incredibly subtle taste experience. My favorites were the barley Shochus, which I felt best balanced robust flavor with the fruit and floral aromas: in particular, the racy Iichiko "Kurobin" (around $50) and the mellow Gokoo "Comfortable Sky" ($40), which is aged in oak barrels for three years and had a whiskeylike profile.
Another favorite was a rice Shochu called Hakushika "Naka Naka Nai" ($35 per 750 ml), which means something like "very limited." It is aged in cedar casks and has wonderful white-pepper notes. I also tasted a fascinating brown-sugar Shochu produced in Japan's Amami Islands. Sei carries one example of this type, and it tastes a lot like a low-proof Cachaca, the Brazilian cane spirit. In fact, the restaurant sometimes substitutes it for Cachaca in a drink called a Japanese Caipirinha.
In cocktails, Shochu offers a lower-proof alternative to many white spirits. The Silver Samurai recipe, for example, is a light mix of citrus, muddled cucumber, and barley or sweet potato Shochu. You'll understand it to be a wonderfully refreshing warm-weather drink in any language. (Washington Post)