Beauty in the world’s most popular spirit you’ve never heard of
This month I am back to my old tricks of exploring and tasting Japan’s food & beverage scene. I will start the article off with a question: can you name the world’s most popular spirit? If you’ve named one that’s popular in the US or Europe, you are wrong. It is not whisky, vodka, gin or tequila. No, in fact it is soju, a spirit that arrived on the Korean peninsula during the Mongol invasion in the 14th century.
Soju is normally made from rice and is typically around 20-25% alcohol (although sometimes more), but it can also be made from potatoes, grains and even vegetables or other roots.
One of the world’s best-selling brands is Korea’s Jinro which sold 86.3 million cases in 2019 and is promoted by Psy, famous for the song ‘Gangnam Style’. Soju literally translates as ‘burn liquor’ and, although some on the more premium end beg to differ, I would hastily agree with this apt name (please don’t ask me to recount the tales!).
The Japanese equivalent is shochu which, like soju, is also produced through distillation. There are two main grades: otsurui (sometimes called honkaku-shochu) and korui. The first is a more premium, characterful liquid, made through a single distillation of whole sweet potatoes/rice/wheat. The latter is a lower grade, lower alcohol variety distilled multiple times.
But, according to my friends in Japan, the real difference between Shochu and Soju is quality as while most soju allows the addition of flavouring, sweeteners and MSG, the rules for shochu are much stricter. They even go as far as to say that a good premium shochu can rival a top whisky in flavour, depth and profile. This is an audacious claim and enough to peak my interest fervently. As a man with Scottish descent I feel that it is my duty to find out for myself. I must try this booze.
If you’ve read any of my previous Traverse articles, you’ll know that after a dramatic beginning, I usually decide to scour the internet for research purposes. But in this instance, I was given a bottle of shochu by a colleague, so I will try the one I have. Incidentally the alcoholic spirit is really not difficult to find online, although you may find the more premium liquid a little rarer.
The brand I have is called Tantakatan and, interestingly, it comes in a cardboard carton (like it could be a milk carton). I’d love it if they did this with spirits in the UK. It would make it so much easier to store and recycle. This one is 20% alcohol and pours clear, like gin or vodka. I decide to serve it up like I serve my whiskey, on the rocks with a touch of water. I hold the glass up and take a swig.
The first thing that I notice is its smoothness. There is really no burn at all which is impressive. This is one quaffable liquid. The taste is more like whisky but has a much more savoury, bitter flavour to it. A herald of umami this drink is. Wow I can knock this back.
It seems I am not alone in the UK in enjoying this drink either. You only have to peer at a cocktail menu in many London haunts over the past few years and you will see examples of shochu. You may even see it used as an ingredient in cocktails. The unique taste will be sure to add an enjoyable punch to your drink.
The brand I tried for this article, Tantakatan, is produced in Asahikawa, Hokkaidō, in the northern part of Japan and is made with Perilla leaves. I could tell you more, but the best way to learn about the Tantakatan brand is to watch this video:
This shochu not only tastes delicious, but the branding and bottle design are pieces of art in their own right. And it seems that this brand is not alone in its beauty. You only have to go into any specialist spirits shop to see what I mean.
So it seems that I have discovered the beauty of a new tasty liquid to add to my drinks cabinet. If, like me, you also enjoy an alcoholic beverage and have been known to drink hard spirits, you should definitely be exploring the selection of Japanese shochu out there. The quality, branding and depth of flavour are downright impressive.
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