Often said to be the best spirit you’ve probably never tasted, shochu has a long and storied history as Japan’s favourite traditional spirit. Usually single distilled and often sitting at an ABV of around 25%, shochu has always been popular in its native land due to its drinkability.
Yet, as far as cocktails are concerned, it has often been seen as a spirit that can easily be overwhelmed by other flavours. That is until the advent of iichiko Saiten. Distilled by Sanwa Shurui on Kyushu Island, iichiko Saiten has been bottled at 43% and designed specifically to work in cocktails.
To explore exactly what this means we talked to iichiko brand director Tetsuro Miyazaki, brand ambassador Natasha Sofia, and cultural expert Jessica Joly.
Often said to be the best spirit you've probably never tasted, shochu has a long and storied history as Japan's favourite traditional spirit. Usually single distilled and often sitting at an ABV of around 25%, shochu has always been popular in its native land due to its drinkability. Yet, as far as cocktails are concerned, it has often been seen as a spirit that can easily be overwhelmed by other flavours. That is until the advent of iichiko Saiten. Distilled by Sanwa Shurui on Kyushu Island, iichiko Saiten has been bottled at 43% and designed specifically to work in cocktails. To explore exactly what this means we talked to iichiko brand ambassador Tetsuro Miyazaki, brand ambassador Natasha Sofia, and cultural expert Jessica Joly.
Thanks for joining us, everyone.
Thank you very much.
Thank you for having us.
Thank you for having us.
Now, I suppose the most obvious question and the best place to start would be to ask why create a shochu with such a high ABV?
I would say why not? In all honesty, because the bartending community was asking for something in the expression of shochu that could translate more into cocktails and could hold its own with more intricate and more exotic flavours and ingredients. This was kind of like a venture into giving an answer to that question. With the curiosity for exploring the category that has been well-known, it's very important to keep exploring into new flavours, and that's exactly what iichiko did with the proposal of Saiten.
Right. Was it difficult to take iichiko Saiten and make it a higher ABV?
Oh, yes. Traditionally, shochu is around 25% ABV because Japanese people drink shochu while they are eating something. So it's like the same as sake and a beer. So when I moved to the US, 2014, I tried to introduce traditional shochu, 25% ABV, to bartenders. But it was very difficult due to lower ABV for the cocktail scene. So we decided to create a higher ABV shochu for bartenders. Then, so for the shochu process, it's not difficult to create higher ABV, but this is out of traditional way of shochu. That's a challenge for us to create new style shochu.
How did you go about that?
Our helicopter sent R&D department to the US and then we had a meeting with top mixologist in San Francisco. Then we had many meetings and then developed a prototype of shochu. Then finally, we launched in 2019.
Right. People often equate shochu to being like a Japanese vodka. What is it specifically about it as a spirit that people would want to incorporate into cocktails?
I think what makes iichiko Saiten typically an amazing spirit and a focus for cocktails is that I believe people are drawn to the umami because it's so layered and complex. It's not just your simple kind of go-to spirit that's possibly clean and smooth. It has a floral, beautiful nose and the flavor of umami comes through after you've tasted it, and there's this depth of earthy minerality with this long lingering finish that makes it a complex spirit to stand on its own and is a great choice for cocktails. So again, it's kind of captured this niche market, and I think that's what shines so brightly about it.
Talking about the umami flavor, if somebody has never tasted shochu before, what can they expect from the overall taste?
From overall taste I think that the first thing that you get in your palate is going to be kind of like a jasmine tea and you're going to get white peach. But you're going to feel that that white peach is going to end with some salinity and that finish kind of choruses into a little bit of citrus. It kind of begs you to try again. You're like, "Wait, what was that?" Because, spirits aren't usually umami. For a spirit to be umami that means that there has to be traces of amino acids in the spirit, and that's something that usually gets ripped off in distillation.
But with the usage of 100% koji barley for this distillate, you have the opportunity of having traces of amino acids, which is what's giving you that umami, and that's what kind of makes your mouth beg for more. And you're like, "Wait, okay, jasmine, citrus, white stone." Then you go again and you try it, and you have just this complexity of flavors that just kind of opens a world of creativity for you to explore with iichiko Saiten, which is very interesting. That's how I fell in love with it.
Are people going to find the umami element difficult to integrate into cocktails though, if they're not used to it?
Well, I would like to differ on that one because it's something that as somebody that works with a lot of mixologists and a lot of bartenders, I've had the pleasure to present this to so many of them, and it just gives them just an opportunity to incorporate other ingredients that they haven't had the perfect match for. But instead of it being a niche group of ingredients that they can use, it's kind of like endless possibilities. You can use lemongrass, you can use ginger, you can use your usual suspects like yuzu, but you can also use calamansi, you can use sherry. You could put it in so many different cocktail applications from a Sherry Cobbler to a Bloody Mary. You could do a certain very delicate floral cocktail, but you can also make a Yuzu Daiquiri or a Tom Collins. It's a very versatile spirit.
Let's talk a little bit about, actually, mentioning bartenders, have you found that most are adapting existing recipes with it or are people coming up with original recipes to really express the flavor of the spirit?
I'd say a healthy balance of both, at least on my side. I'll let Tetsuro and Jess say for them, but we have friends like The Aviary who have redefined and reinvented cocktails with iichiko Saiten, but then we also have other friends that are building on classics and just elevating the spirit that way.
Yeah. I would definitely agree to what Natasha said. We're seeing very famous cocktail bars here in New York that are using kind of, I guess, normal cocktails that we would see, but elevating it and using also other Japanese ingredients to highlight that kind of essence, whether it be yuzu. But I do think it adds a little bit more of a savory element as well, which I think is what makes this a little bit more complex too. So I agree.
Are you finding that bartenders, when they are adapting it to existing recipes, are more often using it as a replacement for vodka or a variety of different spirits?
I would say a variety of different spirits. Mostly, I've seen a lot of replacing gin and a lot of replacing whiskey. I've also seen a fair amount of replacing tequila. But I've seen more on the gin and on the whiskey replacement of classics.
So in a weird way, if somebody could only buy one bottle for their home bar, something like this would be ideal as it's incredibly adaptable across different recipes?
Yeah. I think there's nothing really like it in the market, which is what makes it so special because you are attracting the consumer who does like gin, who's a consumer who does like whiskey. But in itself it's completely unique, so it allows the guest to kind of have this on their shelf, to bring something new to the table.
Now, let's look a little at the production and how it's made. What grain is used as the base?
So it's a two-row barley and then we polish out the layer of barley about 50% till the flavor more taste and create clean taste. This polishing process is same as Japanese sake and then fermented. Then after that we distill it just one time.
Right. Now, talk to us a little bit more about the single distillation. A majority of spirits distill a number of times to create a more, let's say, pure spirit. Why is shochu only distilled once?
Yeah. So compared to multiple distillation, single distillation can preserve original flavor of the ingredients. We also use stainless single pot still. We don't like to add any flavors from copper. A single stainless pot still is the best way to preserve original flavor of ingredient.
Now, there are meant to be three factors which contribute to iichiko's taste: the ingredients, which would be the grain, the water, and the air. Can you talk us through a little bit more about that, particularly the last two, how they assist in the taste?
So our shochu is made from barley, water, yeast and koji. Also, our distillery is located in Oita Prefecture in Kyushu Island, where it's very famous for hot spring, beautiful hot spring. That means there are many beautiful waters. We are using beautiful, natural, soft water pumped up from 200 meter below the ground. Even washing fermentation tank, we use natural water as well. Also, we are growing shochu grade barley around our distillery, and then our Oita Prefecture is located in Kyushu Island, which is southern part of Japan and then where it's a warm temperature there. So that's our nature around our distillery.
So everything's pretty much onsite if you're growing the grain and the water. Would you say then that it, shall we say, reflect its terroir?
Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yes, exactly.
Also, I would like to just point out, Japan is obviously an island, but Kyushu itself in a region is predominantly known for shochu because of its regionality as well as the weather, which is quite warm. So you see generally more shochu production in the southern part of Japan. So I think specifically where Oita Prefecture is, it reflects that environment that creates such beautiful iichiko products.
Right. Even though the spirit has been designed for cocktails, how would you recommend that somebody first experience it?
I would say Tom Collins is my favorite intro, that or a daiquiri.
Why specifically those two?
I really love how it explains itself in a citrus-forward cocktail. Also, a lot of people that are being introduced to Saiten, Saiten's something that's very unique, so even if you've drank shochu before, you've never drank something like it. So if you have drank shochu before, your first experience is going to be something kind of like a chuhai, which is going to be very delightful. But also, for somebody who hasn't tried shochu before and they want to have this, I think anything that's effervescent and has citrus really also highlights the quality of flavors in Saiten. How about you, Jessica and Tetsuro?
For me, so I like to recommend that to try it as straight first and then you can feel the difference from other sprints. Especially this iichiko Saiten has umami flavor and then aftertaste it's straight. I would recommend to mix with tonic water. I cannot make a cocktail but just a highball. Saiten and tonic water would be you can feel the changing of taste of umami and the sweetness. So umami and the sweetness is good pairing. You can feel, "Oh, this is very special."
Is it one of those spirits that, like scotch, does open up a little bit if you add water to it?
Absolutely. I think again, like we mentioned, it has kind of that floral, citrus, umami. There are so many kind of enjoyable layers that if you have it neat, you kind of sense certain aromas. But when you add just a little bit of water or even just, I think, serving it on the rocks, it completely changes it. Yeah, I totally agree with Tetsuro-san, that if you can't really make a cocktail at home, even just a little bit of tonic water enhances that experience. And the effervescence, to touch on Natasha's point, makes it that much more accessible to anybody and really kind of elevates the simple beverage.
Now, we were talking earlier about the bartender's reaction to the spirit. What sort of cocktails have they been creating with it?
I'd say bartenders have been very supportive. It's always a challenge, as somebody that has represented these spirits before. It's always very exciting, but it makes you nervous because something like this is something that hasn't existed before. So you get nervous when you're presenting it to somebody. Almost every single time, I could say a 99.9% of the times, the reaction has been so positive, overwhelmingly positive, so welcoming. The first thing that I hear out of people's mouth is, "Wow, this is versatile," and bringing into that versatility is absolutely what I think that that is giving the bartenders the ability to be more curious and more wild with their applications of the spirit because their reaction has just been more open to trying new things with it.
That's wonderful because I've been bartending for 15 years and I've been in this industry for that long. So I remember when the cachaça craze came in and when certain rum crazes came in and I also saw the boom of agave and seeing how bartenders took these spirits in and created these new cocktails, created these new categories with them. I'm seeing the same thing happen with shochu specifically through the application of using iichiko Saiten, which is paving the way into cocktails for shochu.
Now, have there been any cocktails that have been created that have surprised you?
I always say all of them, but I think that something I shouldn't have been surprised by but absolutely pleasantly surprised me was the application with different infusions of tea. And not just hot tea, but making cold tea cocktails with it and making tea syrups and seeing those applications majestically unfold in the spirit. With the spirit and cocktails, it's been something so lovely that it's been a pleasant surprise.
Right. Now, this is a question for each of you, if given your head and any ingredients that you could get your hands on, how would you drink the spirit? What would you make with it?
Does it have to be one cocktail or can it be multiple cocktails?
It can be multiple.
I would say I really love Bloody Marys with iichiko Saiten. I really do love Tom Collins. If you could do a lemongrass Tom Collins, just lemongrass syrup, a little bit of yuzu, iichiko Saiten and soda, that's it. It's all you need for the trinity of perfection for me. Yeah, I'm going to stick to those two.
I think, well, we did obviously mention this earlier, but a simple classic highball, whether you are a tonic person or a club soda, I think is great because it does highlight those elements. But obviously, we are in COVID and we can't really go out to those bars that we always used to love. But Katana Kitten is one of my favorites in New York, and there was an article, I think in Forbes, they actually shared one of their recipes.
Yeah, The Wakaba. I can promise you that it is one of my favorites. I always try to kind of mimic it at home. Obviously, I'm not the best bartender, so it's probably not the best rendition, but it is vermouth, Saiten and tomatillo water. And they use, I believe, a little bit of basil. But it's just so refreshing. So, that is my definitely go-to iichiko Saiten cocktail.
So that's a little bit like a martini?
No, it's kind of like a Collins that's clearish. Because they take that tomatillo water and they carbonate it too.
Oh, okay. So, sorry, what is the water?
Sorry, I've not heard that before. What is it?
Tomatillo, it's kind of like a little tomato type family that is green and it has a very different flavor. Mostly used in Mexico and South America.
I think that's like a hard ingredient to have at home. I mean, I've done it with a basil with brown sugar syrup. Obviously, it's a little bit different, but it still adds that herbal, green flavor to it. So again, just finding obviously what works best for you. But it's just so refreshing and it highlights kind of those floral, citrus, earthy notes of Saiten. But I'd be curious to hear what Tetsuro-san likes at home.
My favorite cocktail is same as Jessica-san, a Wakaba at Katana Kitten. I was so shocked. It's so smooth and they're so delicious. I cannot make that cocktail at home, so I usually do a Saiten Sonic. A Sonic means seven part of soda and then three part of tonic water. I usually mix with that so it's not too sweet, but a little bit sweet and then good pair with umami flavor, and then just a squeeze of lemon. So, that's my favorite drink.
So it can be used equally well simply as it can in things that are a little bit more complex?
Yeah. I agree. Definitely.
Now, being so versatile, does that present home bartenders with too much choice as to what they can do with it? How should they start with it?
Well, I think that every bartender kind of has a style, right? There's some bartenders that are very into classic cocktails. There are bartenders that are into more fruitier. I think that it will depend bartender to bartender kind of what are you passionate about? What is your favorite cocktail? And just try subbing the main ingredient from that cocktail that is your favorite and try using iichiko Saiten just for science. It's just for science. We'll do this experiment and then you see how it tastes there and then you go from there. I think that would be the easiest way to go about it. That's how I did it, and that's how I kind of put my toe in the water and felt that it was warm and started doing more things.
Yeah. I also agree, just from a little bit more of a consumer standpoint. I think as an enthusiast or somebody who loves, appreciates the cocktail culture, you're constantly influenced by bartenders. And so when you see bartenders using new ingredients like shochu, you're constantly seeing it and saying, "Oh my gosh, I'm excited to go out and buy it," because you're being influenced by them. You're being influenced by restaurants. So it's kind of like a trickle effect too, I think just from a consumer standpoint.
Now, shochu has a reputation of working particularly well with food. What would you pair iichiko with if you were looking to have a bit of a nibble while you're drinking it?
I personally recommend something strong flavor food like fried chicken, spicy fried chicken or something. Our hometown, Oita Prefecture, is also very famous for Karaage. That is a Japanese style fried chicken. So, that something oily food and something a strong flavor would be good for a very different thing with iichiko cocktail.
I completely agree. I think the first thing that came to mind was yakitori, just kind of simple, straight food, Karaage, which is fried chicken. I mean, short ribs. I think anything that has really kind of meaty flavor, again, highlights those ingredients. And who doesn't love a good barbecue?
Absolutely. I think that the one of my other favorite pairings is going to be Peruvian food. That it can go everything from a ceviche to a really nice steak dish. It resonates what both of you are saying.
That sounds so good.
Obviously, iichiko is available in the US. Is it available in all states?
Yes. Currently our new product, iichiko Saiten is available only in the US. We will expand our market to Australia as well. But the Silhouette iichiko, which is 25% ABV, is now available in over 30 countries in the world, Australia as well.
So it's available throughout the US and you're looking to expand that overseas to Europe and Asia at a later point. Is that correct?
Yes. So especially for the bar industry, we want to expand our shochu culture. And for the world, New York, USA. Of course, USA is important, and then London, Europe, and Asia, Singapore, Hong Kong, and then Australia. We want to go into these country.
I suppose any thoughts of expansion have been made a little bit more difficult by the pandemic?
Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah. In my opinion, this pandemic is very hard, especially for bar industry, restaurant industry. But we want to expose our shochu culture during this hard time. Then we'd like to try to introduce our product.
Are you finding that you're getting a lot more individuals picking up the spirit since bars are closed and people are buying a lot more for their home bars? Are you finding that just individual sales are picking up?
So with COVID obviously, it's impacted restaurants in a difficult situation, but as for iichiko products, we've continuously increased sales still with the pandemic. But I do think that there is an interest in Japanese culture in a sense that I think a lot of people are doing those virtual experiences, whether it be tastings, or cooking, or finding some sort of realm on the virtual segment. So we're seeing an influx in sake, in Japanese shochu. Miyazaki-san pointed out that the Japanese Olympics obviously got pushed back to next summer. So there is that kind of hype of not being able to travel, but looking kind of outside the norm and experimenting with different spirits and specifically shochu or just Japanese sake. Again, anything to kind of relate to Japanese culture.
Oh, that's interesting actually, yes. With the Olympics coming up, I suppose Japanese culture is very much within people's minds at the moment.
Yeah. And I think because we cannot travel, people are seeing palate fatigued and Zoom fatigued. I think more and more people are looking for that kind of interesting niche market in the virtual world, so I've definitely seen that. Natasha, who's obviously in the more cocktail scene, I'm sure she has kind of a certain view on that too, maybe she can touch. But I know a lot of restaurants and bars, they are offering that virtual segment, from what I've seen.
You hit the nail on the head with that one, because it's everything you're saying. A lot of people are very interested in traveling from their seats right now at home safely, and a way they're doing that is doing more virtual tastings, doing more boxed. Restaurants are partnering up and doing cocktails to go with a paired dinner. So while you're at home, we can give you anything from a distillery tour, which Tetsuro was kind enough to do from Japan the other day, and other things like teaching you a little bit about a new spirit for 30 minutes and just making something different happen in the middle of your day while you try something new. That's been a very fun way that iichiko Saiten and Silhouette have found their ways into people's homes and hearts during the pandemic.
Now, obviously, if people want more information, they should go to the website, which is iichiko.com. But they can also follow you on Facebook and Instagram @iichikousa and also on Twitter as iichikoshochu.
Yes. Also, the website you will be able to find where you can buy each iichiko near you, depending on where you are around the US.
Excellent. All right. Well, look, thank you, all of you, for joining us today.
Thank you so much for having us.