If it wasn’t for the presence of the extraordinary yuzu, I would have never mentioned this simple – though excellent – drink I usually have with lime. Yuzu is an Asian citrus (shaped like a small grapefruit and either green or yellow depending on its ripeness) very popular in Japan, but quite difficult to get in Europe, apart from the bottled juice. It was one of the few food items I brought from my recent trip to Japan and also the one I was going to taste for the first time in my life. Since I had only two fruits, I promised myself to use them wisely. I knew that yuzu’s acid juice is often used as a seasoning in salads, but spicing up my weekend glasses of shochu (see below) with slices of this marvellous fruit seemed the wisest – and, frankly, more amusing – option.
I will not exaggerate if I tell you I was spellbound by the compelling aroma of yuzu’s zest. Instead of finishing my drink, I kept on inhaling its magnificent scent which has transformed my good old glass of shochu into a mysterious, sophisticated drink. I thought that this simple but elegant drink was a good excuse to share with you my discovery of fresh yuzu, but most of all to write once again about shochu, my favourite and most frequently drunk Japanese alcohol. (I have talked about it here, here and here)
I still consider shochu the most surprising alcohol discovery of my life because, honestly, I didn’t expect anything special. I have simply fallen in love with the first sip. I don’t know why it took me so many months to finally notice it in my favourite Japanese grocery, but the day I asked about shochu (I had read about it somewhere) I realised that its different brand and varieties filled at least a third of the alcohol shelves in my grocery shop. This is how my adventure began.
Shochu (焼酎) means “burning sake” (sake meaning generally alcohol) and has been produced in Japan since the XIVth century. It is distilled from different ingredients, such as barley, sweet potato, buckwheat, rice… Some shochu are also flavoured (my favourite are flavoured with shiso and… yuzu of course!). Its alcoholic content is usually between 20 – 25 %, but it can be stronger too. Apparently, the consumption of shochu has tripled since the 80s and is rising every year. It is no longer considered cheap alcohol for manual workers, it is produced with more care and some bottles reach very high prices. More and more Japanese women choose it because shochu has very few calories (35 kcal in 50 ml, which is almost 3 x less than vodka for example). Oh, and I would have forgotten to add it doesn’t end up with a hangover the following day, even drunk in big quantities! (This information was checked more than once…).
I think I love all the shochu types I have tasted: the often amber-coloured barley shochu, the nutty soba one (distilled from buckwheat), the subtle rice one or sweet potato shochu which is not sweet and which seems to be the most popular in Japan. Some shochu types (like barley for example) are reminiscent of good quality, single malt whisky, but in a subtler version. Luckily my two Japanese grocers vary the brands all the time, so I keep on discovering new bottles.
Shochu can be drunk alone, warm or cold. When it’s cold, it’s served on the rocks (“shochu rokku”) or in a “sour” (pronounced “sawa”): a weak cocktail with sparkling water and fruit juice or with sweet soda. My favourite way to drink it is on the rocks, especially in Japan where ice cubes are huuuuge and shochu stays cold for eternity without being diluted. At home I often add one or two slices of lime and sometimes just a bit of sparkling water. Of course, the better the bottle, the less you want to dilute it…
During my recent trip to Tokyo, among the glasses of shochu I had practically every night, one has left particularly vivid memories. It was an exceptionally strong barley schochu (40%) called Hundred Years of Solitude 百年の孤独 (Hyakunen no kodoku) and aged in wooden barrels. I will never forget the izakaya (pub) where with my Japanese friend we both enjoyed a glass of this fiery piece of art which seemed a subtler, mellower version of single malt whisky.
TIPS: There are two main types of shochu: produced with continuous distillation (kourui 甲類) and single distillation (otsurui 乙類) (thank you, Hiroyuki!). The latter is considered superior and above a certain price all the shochus are produced this way. The useful word to remember (and ask in a shop) is “honkaku” 本格. Apparently it means “genuine, classical method” and marks a good quality product (but not all the shochu bottles are marked this way, alas).
If you prefer a lighter cocktail with yuzu and shochu, check Nami’s (Just One Cookbook) Yuzu Sour cocktail recipe .
If you don’t have yuzu, you can of course prepare the same drink with lime.
Preparation: 5 minutes
Ingredients (serves one):
a generous splash of a more delicate, not aged shochu variety (I have had rice shochu here, but sweet potato shochu is a good option too)
two slices of yuzu
lots of ice
Put everything in a glass and enjoy.
(You can slightly squash the yuzu slices if you want).