Shochu Worth Seeking
If you've had shochu in the US, it's most likely because you ate in a restaurant without a liquor license. In California and New York, restaurants with a beer and wine license can serve this distilled spirit if it measures less than 25 percent alcohol and is marked as soju. Generally, this has been ko-rui, a continuous-distillation shochu, virtually odorless, flavorless and interchangeable with vodka in cocktails.
Now we're getting past the shochu training wheels, skipping the two-wheeler and moving on to the unicycle with single-distillation otsu-rui shochu. The Fukiage Shochu Co. in Minami Satsuma City, Kagoshima, on the southeastern tip of Japan, sources its water from local mountain springs marked by the influence of the briny sea breeze off the nearby East China Sea. Its flagship is Kaikouzu, made from the kurikogane (golden chestnut) sweet potato, which was nearly extinct before Fukiage started working with local farmers to bring it back. While perfectly transparent, Kaikouzu is anything but odorless and flavorless: It's fragrant with sweet potato notes and filled with slightly earthy-vegetal flavor, verging on white asparagus and Kalamata olives. It's traditionally served with cold or warm water, but try this delicate spirit neat and slightly chilled.
Fukiage Kaikouzu (JFC Int'l., South San Francisco, CA; $32/750 ml)
Whisky, Japanese Style
Japan loves whisky, so much so that major distilleries make Bourbon and Scotch purely for Japanese export. Early single malts from Japan strictly emulated Scotch whisky, with some distilleries even sourcing their water from Scotland. Today, however, Japanese distillers are developing their own style.
Hibiki 12-Year-Old is the only blended whisky of Suntory available in the US. Though chief blender Seiichi Koshimizu sources the barley from Scotland, he strives to create a whisky that's unique: After distillation, he filters it through bamboo charcoal, a little salute to Tennessee Whiskey's Lincoln County Process, with a Japanese twist. Then he ages a portion of the new-make spirit in Japanese plum liqueur casks and tops off the final blend with a vintage whisky aged 30-plus years.
When compared to an iconic Scotch blend like Johnnie Walker Black Label, a relatively light-bodied, lively whisky with notes of citrus, caramel, smoke and wheat, the Hibiki 12 feels more mature, with darker fruit, floral, flint and nutty notes. It seems weightier on the palate, but the alcohol is more balanced, giving it a richer, more decadent character.
Japanese single malts are starting to define their own style as well. For its Yamazaki 12-Year-Old and 18-Year-Old single malts, Suntory ferments lightly peated barley from the Bowmore Distillery in wooden washbacks, fermentation vats that impart a fruitiness to the wort. (Despite this advantage, washbacks are beginning to be phased out from some Scottish distilleries in favor of easier-to-clean stainless steel.) Suntory then blends its single malts using distillates from six different copper stills of three different shapes: straight, straight head and bulge, whereas Scotch distillers usually stick to one type. Lastly, and probably most importantly, in addition to Spanish and American oak, they rest the single malts in Japanese Mizunara oak from Hokkaido, which is tighter-grained but knottier than the American oak traditional to Bourbon casks.
Comparing the Yamazaki single malts to Highland Park's highlights what makes these whiskies unique. In the Highland whiskies, the sweetness seems to come from honeyed and caramel notes; in contrast, the Yamazakis present their sweetness in fruitier flavors. Arguably, the HPs are more complex in their flavors of dark berries, straw, mince and minerality, but the Yamazakis share an acidity that creates elegance and brings their distinctive fruit flavors to the fore. From a tribute to Scotch, they've evolved to become unique expressions of barreling and blending.
Hibiki 12-Year-Old (Skyy Spirits, San Francisco, CA; $55/750 ml)
Yamazaki 12-Year-Old and 18-Year-Old (Skyy Spirits, San Francisco, CA; $45/750 ml and $120/750 ml)
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