Eastern Promises: Shochu and baijiu are entering the Minnesota market—getting them right in a cocktail takes a delicate touch

Photo by Tj Turner

The bottle in question was some type of clear spirit, purchased on a business trip to China, secondhand gifted to me. Its only English lettering was the word “Taiwan” and a three-digit number that I figured to be the spirit’s proof. It smelled like an auto mechanic’s shop on a humid July afternoon—stuffy like hot rubber and spilled gasoline. It rattled my throat and spurred the creation of a strange Instagram video.

On a quest to uncover the spirit that left me in such a tattered state (a strong sorghum liquor, it turns out) I’ve noticed more Asian spirits on our local cocktail menus and liquor store shelves. And I’m not talking about the blue-ribbon Japanese whiskies or their gorgeous new gins. Instead, it’s more traditional spirits, like shochu (SO-chu) and baijiu (BUY-jeo), that are driving some of the most idiosyncratic cocktails around our metro area this spring.

Soju in Hite at Hoban in Minneapolis // Photo by Tj Turner

I set out to right my original wrong—drinking a new thing before I knew how to drink it. But figuring out how shochu and baijiu fit into our Minnesota drinking scene proved a nuanced challenge, and it’s because of how they’re made. They don’t fit perfectly into our standard cocktail formulas, likely because they’ve grown up far away from cocktail culture and globalizing tastes. They exhibit strong aromas and aftertastes we’re not used to in primary spirits. 

In short, these spirits bring the funk—ya dig?

These traditional spirits have been distilled for centuries in countless islands and enclaves of Japan, Korea, and China where they’ve developed a multitude of regional styles. They befuddle our American palates with their wild, starchy flavors because they deliver terroir that we’re not accustomed to in the majority of Western spirits (like, can you taste the Tennessee in Jack Daniels?).

In Japan, they express a sense of place through the variety of starches that can be fermented under the banner of “shochu.” Maybe it’s the famous imo (sweet potato) that’s prodigious on the southern island of Kyushu, the regional heart of Japanese shochu-making. It could be the buckwheat from Miyazaki prefecture that makes heaps of soba noodles but also makes a savory, leathery shochu that’s meant to be diluted with warm soba water. Farther south, it’s made from the sugar cane that grows in the subtropical Ryukyu Islands. Sorghum is a very common base grain, and also rice—many shochus take on the flavor of a bulkier sake.

Its similarity to sake is thanks to its signature ingredient—the conversion of shochu begins with an inoculation of koji, the revered strain of Aspergillus that ferments sake, soy sauce, and miso. Fermentation is often long and slow, sometimes in vessels open to the microbes in the air, further adding to its distinct flavors and stylistic range.

“I think [shochu] has some proximal flavors to American ‘new wave’ vodka,” says Marvel Bar’s Peder Schweigert, “the stuff that 10 years ago wouldn’t have ever been called ‘vodka’ because it has too much flavor.” To oversimplify a diverse category, shochu generally comes in around 25–35% ABV, often clear in color, with starchy, floral aromas, and an emphasis on fermentation-driven flavors.

As for how to drink it, on his culinary sojourns across Japan, author Michael Booth (“Super Sushi Ramen Express,” “The Meaning of Rice”) found joy in shochu diluted with warm water (called “oyuwari”). He also revelled in the spirit’s most popular iteration, found in izakaya restaurants across the country: a simple mix of shochu with almost anything sweet and cold—lemonade, tea, soda, or fruit juices—called Chu-Hai, short for “shochu highball.” He calls Chu-Hai made with lychee juice “insanely drinkable.” (Fact check: it is.)

Lady Killer from Marvel Bar // Photo by Tj Turner

Chu-Hai underscores the spirit’s obvious connection to food. Shochu in Japan is inextricably linked to a multi-hour session of salty snacks, skewers of meat, and tempura-fried everything, alongside sweet and bubbly drinks to chase it down. (Come to think of it, shochu would fit in shockingly well at a Wisconsin smelt fry.) 

“It’s definitely a misunderstood category as far as what it is and how it should be consumed,” says Taylor Stein, spirits manager for The Wine Company, a St. Paul distributor. “A lot of retailers are perplexed as to where it should go on their store shelves. Should it go next to neutral clear spirits like vodka, or does it go by the sake selection?”

It is indeed used like gin or vodka in several cocktails around the metro area. Marvel Bar has served it in place of gin in a white Negroni. Ngon Bistro fortifies shochu with vodka, dry vermouth, and bitters. 

But the highball is a simpler and more direct introduction to shochu. Chu-Hai pairs with everything on Zen Box Izakaya’s menu (yes, get it with lychee), and it would be simple to make at home after a trip to your Asian grocery’s cooler aisle. There are also more intricate highballs on menus that are perfect for summer—Marvel’s Ladykiller cocktail pairs shochu in a long drink with gin, dry vermouth, lemon, rosé wine, and distilled water. At P.S. Steak, a green tea shochu is extended with lychee, lemon, and club soda.

Just when I think I have a better idea of how to drink these spirits, Alec Fotsch hands me a petite glass that holds maybe a third of an ounce of a powerful, funky liquid. We say Ganbei! which means “cheers” but literally translates to “dry cup,” and this tiny sip delivers a wallop of floral and spice flavors like some combination of tequila, moonshine, potpourri, and sambuca. (Which is a revolting description, I know. It isn’t meant to be; rather it owes to the fact that I have very little in my sense memory that compares to that taste, which is the challenge baijiu is faced with if it’s ever to grab a toehold in America.)

Fotsch is the co-founder of Ganbei Baijiu, a brand that is distilled in northern China, then imported to the U.S. and bottled at Lawless Distilling Company in Minneapolis. Their baijiu is made from mostly sorghum, with rice, corn, and wheat making up the balance, and he credits his distiller’s location as part of what makes it an approachable spirit.

“It’s cooler there, the fermentation process is a little slower,” Fotsch explains. “You’ll get some really earthy, funky things out of southern China baijiu. This is a northern ‘strong aroma’ baijiu, so it’s a little cleaner of a profile. We also work with a blender to hit 42% ABV, rather than a traditional 55—that’s really hot—to make it very approachable for this foreign flavor a lot of people aren’t familiar with.”

Ganbei Baijiu Gimlet shaken and poured at Marvel Bar // Photo by Tj Turner

Whereas Japanese shochu is mostly fermented indoors, Chinese baijiu develops its signature funk from a more rustic process. The grain, often sorghum, is steamed and mixed with  (pronounced CHU), a dried starter colony of yeast and bacteria. Unlike koji, which is cultivated with laboratory precision,  is a more wild mix of microbes, full of the ambient yeasts that ferment well in each particular part of the country.

The steamed grain is heaped into a stone jar or buried in a clay or brick-lined pit where the works to convert the starches and ferment them into alcohol. This microbial diversity leads to a wide range of fermentation flavors—the spirit is distinctive for its funky, floral smell (baijiu is categorized by aroma) and an umami aftertaste that recalls soy, anise, and earth. So Ganbei’s founders worked with their distiller to dial up the fruit-forwardness of the spirit for the American market. “I’ve heard pineapple a lot; I think it’s almost more like cotton candy,” Fotsch describes his spirit. “You get a lot of sugary-sweet notes on the front of the palate, and not all baijiu has that.”

But it’s that aroma and savory aftertaste that still makes baijiu difficult to mix into our standard spate of American cocktails. Trish Gavin, a former beverage manager who now works for the distributor Vinocopia, thinks the strong aromatics make baijiu a solid stand-in for the funky rums you’ll see in tiki drinks, but admits that quality has a downside as well. “Its funk, the thing that makes it cool and unique, is what I believe is holding it back in our market,” she says. “The majority of people who taste it seem too challenged by its creamy, almost Bleu cheese-esque notes.”

In the same way that tiki cocktails can tame the funk of a rhum agricole, or wrestle with the rubbery taste of cachaça, I’ve found lime juice and sugar are great partners for baijiu. Mix it into a sweet gimlet and don’t forget the Jamaican #2. “Bitters and lime cut through and link up with some fruity notes in the baijiu and people love it,” says Marvel’s head bartender Matthew Voss. I’ve also enjoyed it extended with club soda into a proto-mojito with a homemade minty lime cordial.

Since these spirits are meant to be consumed a little at a time over a long period of time, it seems as if the best shochu and baijiu cocktails reflect that tendency. Whether it’s tiny tipples shot straight over the course of a few snacking hours, or highballs that dilute down into a long aperitif, a slow and patient approach to these spirits is just right for the warm weather ahead.

Photo by Tj Turner

About John Garland

John Garland is the Deputy Editor at the Growler Magazine. Find him on twitter (@johnpgarland) or in every coffee shop on West 7th Street.