Sipping Around the Pacific Rim

Shochu, soju, and other Asian spirits are gaining widespread attention at long last.


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Photo by Lori Eanes

When medieval Europeans were perfecting Champagne, brandy, and Pilsner, Japanese were brewing sake and distilling shochu; Koreans were distilling soju and fermenting makgeolli; grain-based Chinese baijiu was already ancient. The West was slow to embrace these spirits, but the hugging has begun.

“Most of what we drink here is regarded in terms of how it pairs with food,” says Jenny Schwarz, bar manager at Oakland’s Hopscotch. Served warm or cold, “sake is amazing because it is so delicate. Its nuance elevates rather than challenges a dish.”

“In the ’80s and ’90s, Asian food was lumped together into one category and was often seen as ‘exotic,’ cheap, and fast. Asian food is now cool and trending, which allows restaurants to better showcase Asian drinks,” notes Jason Kwon, chef-owner of Berkeley’s Joshu-Ya Brasserie.

“These drinks are not new, but are now being recognized.”

“Harsh but smooth,” soju is “perfect with spicy pork-based kimchi stews and sweetly marinated Korean short ribs. Dry cold sake is great with sushi,” Kwon asserts. Made with grain or potatoes and outselling sake in Japan, vodka-ish shochu is “perfect for izakaya bar cuisine.”

If you like sak-tails and soju-tails, say “chukbae” (that’s Korean for “cheers”) to mild, milky makgeolli.

This rice- or tuber-based spirit, traditionally sipped from bowls, is little-known outside Korea, where it’s considered hoary and old-fashioned, “because most people prefer stronger drinks and makgeolli is very low in alcohol. I don’t drink much, and I love makgeolli. It’s sweet, and it doesn’t make you feel full,” says Jessica Oh, co-owner of Oakland’s Bowl’d BBQ, where makgeolli is hand-blended into thick, fruity cocktails.

Compared to strong and also vokda-ish soju, which is traditionally quaffed from shot glasses and “can ruin the taste profile of whatever you’re eating,” makgeolli is “a lovely, soothing drink that doesn’t kill the vibe.”

Increasingly popular stateside, Japanese whiskeys merge Asian and Western artisanship.

“They have a very clean burn to them, and most tend to have mainstay notes of nutty, floral, and citrus flavors,” says Jesse Baughman, bar manager at Berkeley’s BUILD Pizzeria, where Hakushu 12 Year Old was the worst-selling whiskey last year but now outsells European mainstays Glenlivet and Glenfiddich.

“These are amazing starter Scotches” that have “changed the minds of many patrons who were sure that Scotch wasn’t for them,” says Baughman, who now also stocks Yamazaki 12 Year single malt whiskey.

“Japanese whiskeys are, flavor-wise, somewhere between Scotch and bourbon—not as sweet at bourbon but not as smokey as Scotch. They are great sippers,” says Eric Lecours, who on a recent trip to Japan purchased Hibiki 17-Year for Oakland’s Desco, where he is a partner.

East and West also meet in concoctions such as the Pear Aces, created by Ozumo’s mixologist Jessica Frasinetti and comprising 1/2 ounce pear purée, 1/4 ounce yuzu juice, 1/2 ounce tarragon simple syrup, 1 1/2 ounces Nolet’s gin and 3/4 ounce Harushika Tokimeki sparkling sake.

That’s one sweet way to circumnavigate.

Sake 101

It’s Cool in More Ways Than One

Until very recently, most Americans gave sake a wide berth, dismissing it as bitter, murky, and meant to be sipped armpit-hot.

But psst: Served chilled, as it is in Japan, high-quality sake is a crystal-clear elixir evoking fleeting wings and lighter-than-air silk.

Rather than “rice wine,” sake is more of a rice beer. Its 1,300-year-old geek-magnet manufacturing process entails steamed polished rice, koji fungus, yeast starter, fermentation, filtration, pasteurization, maturation, blending, dilution, and bottling.

Like their vinophiliac counterparts, sake snobs speak of percentages, gradations, notes, sourcing, and styles. Its many grades include junmaishu, honjozo, and ginjoshu. Shall we sip a 65 percent polish, 1.5 acidity, +5 SMV, 16 percent alcohol version made from Gohyakumangoku grains?

Lesson 2: All sake isn’t imported. Berkeley’s Takara has been brewing since the 1980s. Other North American breweries have sprung up since then, including Oregon-based Saké One, which debuted its Kibo craft sake at this summer’s Outside Lands music festival.

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