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Stepping on Sake's Terrain

Dana samples a Japanese liquor that's said to be as healthy as it is flavorful.
Tuesday May 20, 2008.     By Dana Kavan
Centerstage Chicago Nightlife City Guide Arts

The Tzushi cocktail
Drink of the week: Tzushi cocktail at Shochu, 3313 N. Clark.

The damage: $9.

Thousands of bars in Chicago, why this one? I'm known as a culinary guinea pig among my friends; the kind of person who will try any food—no matter texture, cooking temp or animal source—at least once, and more often than not like it enough to order it again. For the most part, my tolerant taste buds extend to booze, with sake being the one exception. It took me years to warm up to the stuff, finally appreciating it once I realized it tasted better sipped when cold rather than slammed when drunk. Now I pair sake with everything from sashimi to stir-fry, but I'm not so bonkers about it that I'm not willing to experiment. With sake's biggest competitor, shochu, slowly sneaking into Chicago's bar scene with the recent opening of Shochu restaurant, I wanted to see if my palate would find a new love in the liquor.

How it went down: Shochu, liquor distilled from grains or root vegetables, draws few comparisons to sake, a fermented rice drink, other than that they both hail from Japan, where the former now outsells the latter. This is most likely due to shochu's healthy perks, like having fewer calories than most liquors (15 to 20 per ounce) and allegedly reducing the risk of heart attacks. It's also said to go easy on the hangovers. Stateside, it's still sake that rules as the go-to sushi-friendly tipple, but as mixologists slowly introduce drinkers to shochu by way of tasty cocktails, I suspect it won't be long until we're all fans.

Shochu offers 10 shochu-based cocktails, mostly made with the rice variety, which tends to have a lighter flavor than barley or sweet potato shochu. I relish freshly grated ginger in pretty much anything, so when I saw it was an ingredient in the Tzushi cocktail, I bit. A mix of two-and-a-half ounces shochu, a heavy splash of guava nectar and a quarter teaspoon of grated ginger, the saffron-color concoction tasted earthy with a peppery kick, nicely tamed by the creamy guava. The strings of ginger were like pulp in OJ, sticking to my lips and getting stuck in my teeth. It tasted delicious, but it in no way schooled me on the flavor profiles of shochu. For that, I ordered a flight of four varieties.

Would I want to become a regular? With brick walls, track lighting, photos of Japanese city life, greenery galore and one-sided comfy booths, Shochu's environs strike a nice balance of being modern and sleek without feeling stuffy. The same can be said of the menu, which ranges from $6 chicken wings to $13 kampachi tartare, a delicate white fish mixed with sweet peppers, salty capers and pungent basil. Go with the raw eats and you won't be disappointed—or embrace your inner culinary guinea pig and try it all.

Dana Kavan scours the city for drink deals so good you'll offer to buy a round and creative libations that outshine your average on-the-rocks concoctions. Want to give Dana tips on where to rack up a bar tab? Share your finds before her next night out.


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