A Higher-Proof Version of Japan’s Favorite Spirit Is Coming to America
iichiko Saiten is a new barley shōchū from Japan’s Kyushu Island
Ask a handful of Americans to name Japan’s native libations, and the answers most people will come up with probably be Sapporo, Kirin, Suntory or sake. And while there are no wrong answers in the trust tree of free association, those are all probably different than the answer many Japanese citizens would give: shōchū.
The national spirit of Japan, shōchū is a clear liquor that can be made from rice, sweet potatoes, buckwheat or barley. Usually single-distilled, shōchū is typically bottled at around 25 percent ABV and is meant to be drunk alongside Japanese cuisine without overpowering it. Often confused with sake and soju, shōchū is the top-selling spirit in Japan and, thanks to a single-distillation process and lack of sweeteners, typically retains the flavor profile of whichever grain is used to create it.
But a new higher-proof version of the spirit, which is produced using water, yeast, hand-selected barley and the sweet-and-fragrant Koji mold, is breaking the rules that when it comes to traditional shōchū. Distilled by Sanwa Shurui on Kyushu Island, iichiko Saiten clocks in at a 43 percent ABV and was specifically designed to be used in cocktails.
“Our goal is to make shōchū a clear spirit that is celebrated around the world, on par with the best gins, vodkas, tequilas, rums, piscos and mezcals,” says Sanwa Shurui president Masahiko Shimoda. “Saiten brings a toasty and flavorful barley character that is truly unique and stands out in any cocktail.
Crafted over the course of three years with input from mixologists, bartenders and members of Sanwa Shurui’s team — including Shimoda himself — iichiko Saiten went through at least five or six different iterations before everyone could agree on a final product.
“The most popular one had a strong aroma of Koji. The bartenders really wanted those full flavors,” Shimoda tells InsideHook through an interpreter. “Without everyone’s feedback and opinion, we could never have created this. I’m very grateful.”
Flavorful without overpowering, the revamped shōchū has notes of everything from soy to citrus and, according to Shimoda, won’t give you a hangover despite being 86 proof.
Why is that?
“The basic explanation is that it doesn’t have any additives,” Shimoda says. “We distill it in vats so there’s no transfer into any kind of oak barrel or anything. There are no unwanted enzymes. It’s a very clear, pure product that doesn’t have any kind of additives.”
Bottles of Saiten (meaning “colorful sky”’ in Japanese) retail for $30 and are only available in the U.S. — for now.
“I think it pairs really well with all the ingredients we use on a daily basis,” said Conor McDermott, who tends bar at The NoMad Hotel and has used Saiten in fresh takes on the traditional daiquiri, Moscow mule and Tom Collins. “It is high proof, so it stands out in a cocktail. And last but not least, I think the umami that comes with it plays into bringing out all the other flavors that we’re working with on a daily basis behind the bar. It’s a beautiful spirit.”
Give it a shot (or take one) when you see it this summer, and don’t forget to say “kanpai.”