Shochu (or shōchū) is a distilled Japanese spirit, usually made from sweet potatoes, rice, or barley. It has seen a surge in popularity because of its relatively neutral flavor and as such, it is a great substitute for vodka in cocktails. No doubt a huge boost to its prevalence is a loophole in California and New York laws which allows shochu and soju to be served at restaurants and bars that can only serve beer and wine, permitting them to serve shochu-based cocktails without a full liquor license.
Iichiko Seirin Shochu is a mugi shochu, meaning it is made only from barley. The barley is steamed, and inoculated with a special kōji mold, which converts the starches in the barley into sugars that the shochu yeast can then convert to alcohol (yay!). The distillation process bumps the booze level up to about 42%, at which point it is blended and diluted with purified water to bring it back down to a mellower 20% abv.
The aroma and flavor of the Iichiko shochu were very clean and crisp. The kōji mold that is used in the shochu is also used in sake production, and is responsible for the pleasant, faint sake notes present. Delicately floral and incredibly smooth, I quite enjoyed it simply served on the rocks. I later threw a few pieces of random fresh fruit in, which not only added a touch of flavor to the shochu, but it made eating the fruit a nice consolation prize once the glass sadly but inevitably became empty.
It was interesting to see how well the shochu paired along with each course that came to the table, whether it was a simple vegetarian preparation of green beans and shishito peppers, or an umami-rich plate of kobe beef and shiitake mushrooms. The shochu was able to accent the heavier dishes, but never once drowned out the lighter fare. And while it may not be as strong alcohol-wise as a vodka, its muted character created a graceful balance that I have yet to find in any vodka or Korean soju. Highly recommended.
(Thank you to Mutual Trading Co. for hosting and inviting me to the tasting.)