Vodka is a go-to choice for bartenders because of its inherent qualities, or lack thereof — it’s a clear, flavorless, odorless spirit that lets the other ingredients in a cocktail shine without asserting its own flavor profile. There are other clear spirit alternatives, such as blanco tequila, gin, or even un-aged whiskey that offer a bit more flavor to the mix. A new option from Japan with its own unique flavor profile is Iichiko Saiten, a high-proof shochu that just launched here in the U.S.
Japanese shochu is traditionally made from barley, sweet potato, or rice, distilled to an alcohol level that ranges from 20%-25%. It’s meant to be drunk with food, either as a shot, on ice, or sometimes mixed with water. Given its low proof, you can drink shochu all night and stay relatively sober, but it’s not always the best option to use for making a cocktail. Iichiko, which makes Silhouette (the best-selling shochu in Japan), has just released its bigger, bolder sister called Saiten. This shochu is made from 100% barley and packs an umami flavor due to the use of koji. Koji is a mold that activates fermentation before distillation and has the added bonus of infusing the shochu with flavor (it’s also used to make soy sauce and miso paste). At 86 proof, there is a bigger but not overpowering kick from the alcohol, and the spirit’s palate is more comparable to a genever or a very light new-make single malt.
Saiten is still gaining recognition, but the bartending community seems to be embracing this new spirit. Several prominent mixologists and owners count themselves as fans: Kevin Diedrich of San Francisco’s PCH, Jack Schramm of New York City’s Existing Conditions, and Masahiro Urushido of NYC’s Katana Kitten, among others.
“Saiten lends to mixing incredibly well,” says Max Green, head bartender at Amor Y Amargo in NYC. “Especially in the spring and summer when you are looking for refreshing and bright patio pounders. The vegetal grassy nature of the spirit matches up perfectly with lighter effervescent cocktails. Exactly what I want on a warm August afternoon.” At the 2019 Wine and Spirits Wholesalers Association convention, Saiten was used in the winner of the Best Long Drink category, the Long Kiss Goodnight (made with Saiten, gin, cilantro syrup, lemon, apple juice, and tonic).
Whether Saiten continues to grow in popularity, and whether other shochu brands follow suit and release high-proof versions, remains to be seen. But it seems like the bartending world is already a fan.
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