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Get Schooled in Shochu

Chicagoans looking for something new to pair with their sashimi will love these shochu cocktails.
Friday May 23, 2008.     By Stacy Warden
Centerstage Chicago Nightlife City Guide Arts

shochu for everyone!
photo: Stacy Warden; Chiyo's sochu selection
When Japan tired of sake, it turned to another indigenous liquor: shochu. This Japanese vodka-like liquor, usually made with grains or root vegetables, packs a ton of natural flavor into each bottle. Aside from its earthy essence, shochu shares several of its best features with wine, like the growing number of varieties available and the way it's often enjoyed with meals (not to mention its heart-healthy benefits). But if wine echoes sophistication, shochu signifies rebellion; it kicks the pretension of proper pairings straight to the curb.

Lacking the complexity of a fine wine, this simple liquor tastes smooth from start to finish, so it complements every plate it encounters, from spicy to sweet and salty to tart. It also does an exceptional job of balancing out pungent meat and seafood dishes by downplaying their robust smells. So the next time you're tempted to order the same old glass of pinot grigio with your sashimi, try one of these shochu-based cocktails instead.

Calpico and Shochu at Chiyo
After a quick lesson from Chiyo Manager Angel Smith, first-time shochu samplers can go head-to-head with connoisseurs. She encourages shochu virgins to own-up to their inexperience, and explains that men usually take it straight, while women prefer to add Japanese teas or sodas, like Calpico, a non-carbonated beverage that looks and tastes like watered-down milk. This traditional Japanese restaurant is so crazy for shochu, it boasts an extensive and eclectic list of flavors, from sweet potato to wasabi. Yep, that's right; the spicy green stuff you love slathering on your sushi can also be savored neat or over rocks at Chiyo.

Try a martini made with shochu
photo: Clifton Henri; the Koji Tini

Koji Tini at sola
Koji, or malted rice, is what separates shochu from American distilled spirits, which generally only use yeast. So it's no wonder that this unconventional cocktail ($9), a mix of shochu, ginger and white grapefruit juice, is named after the stuff. The restaurant serves two different types of shochu: one made from rice and the other from sweet potatoes. And you can opt out of the martini and try both on the rocks for $7.50 instead. Whether you choose to sip fancy or sip over ice, you'll want to pair your drink with some of Chef Carol Wallack's contemporary American fare, like the ginger-glazed salmon or wasabi-crusted mahi mahi.

Sake Martini at Japonais
The downstairs of Japonais, decked out in hand-painted wallpaper, floor-to-ceiling columns and copper chandeliers, exudes a vibe that makes you feel obligated to sip on something swanky. Though the restaurant and lounge has more dining rooms than it does shochu selections, the Sake Martini ($13), with its marriage of Japan's two intoxicating staples, brings out the best of the country. This signature cocktail, a stiff mix of simply shochu and sake, is a great choice for people who still want the taste of shochu without sipping it straight.

The Ginger Martini tastes as good as it looks
photo: courtesy of Bridget Montgomery; SushiSamba's colorful sochu cocktail

Spicy Ginger at SushiSamba Rio
Some people nibble on fresh ginger to cleanse their palates between bites of sushi, but why bother when you can sip it in a sweet martini? It's called the Spicy Ginger, but the addition of raspberry-infused rum and guava and lime juices makes the name somewhat deceiving. Still, spicy or sweet, you won't want to miss out on this tasty amber-hued concoction; it's almost as stunning as the restaurant's illuminated bar. SushiSamba shakes up two other signature shochu martinis, the Chu-cumber (the epitome of summer in a glass) and the Shinsen (a mix of shochu, tequila and St. Germain Elderflower). All three drinks taste strikingly different, yet similarly delicious.

Yofune Nushi at Shochu
It only makes sense to drink shochu when you're eating at Shochu. Make no mistake, this new restaurant in Lakeview took its name straight from the source of inspiration, but can it live up to its moniker? It's certainly headed in the right direction, with a list of 10 shochu-infused cocktails ($9 each), all muddled and mixed with exotic fruits. Try the Yofune Nushi, an invigorating blend of shochu, blood orange, coconut milk and soda. The sweet milk and carbonated soda balance each other seamlessly, and the blood orange flavor lingers long after you've swallowed the sweet nectar. This tropical treat is a great after-dinner drink, but the milky consistency also makes it an excellent choice with spicier dishes.

Soju shots at Jin Ju
So, you've tried every type of shochu under the sun. You even got a can of it from one of those quirky cocktail vending machines that time you were in Japan. So what now? Soju, obviously. This liquor is made in the same fashion as shochu, and tastes just like it, but soju hails from Korea, where it's just as popular with locals as Jin Ju's authentic Korean cuisine is with Andersonville residents; the people hanging out in this cracker box-size spot clearly know how to unwind at the end of the day. And at $3 a shot, who can blame them? When you do finally turn your focus to the food, you'll notice plenty of Korean staples like bi-bim-bap and bulgogi. Get both: You'll need to soak up all those shots you just ordered.


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