Two locations of a Japanese gastropub, Tokyo Guild, opened in Southern California last month, offering something that’s not commonly found in the city: Shochu.
Shochu is a low-alcohol distilled beverage from Japan that typically contains 25 to 30 percent alcohol by volume and is usually made from sweet potato, barley or rice. Surprisingly, it’s a more popular beverage in Japan than sake, but the two drinks are very distinct.
At Tokyo Guild, shochu is most popular in cocktails, and the pubs offer three chu-hai cocktails (often sold as a canned drink, “chu-hai” is an abbreviation for “shochu highball”).
“We use iichiko shochu,” says general manager Joe Ando. “I wanted to showcase shochu's light and crisp nature, and its mild and pleasant barley nose. It’s probably one of the most popular and common brands at any Japanese hole-in-the-wall. Unlike many shochus, iichiko does not have a pungent aroma, so it's easy to make cocktails with.”
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Most guests, he says, don’t know what shochu is, so when he introduces the cocktail, guests typically have questions. “Most people assume it’s soju and I’m fine with that because essentially, it is. Soju tends to be sweet, whereas shochu tends to be really light and you don’t really taste any residual sugar.”
Ando gives guests a quick rundown, tells them it’s low in alcohol, and describes the cocktails. He promotes it as low ABV, and that the cocktails are good for the heavy lunchtime crowd Tokyo Guild attracts. “With a chu-hai, they can enjoy a great drink, but don’t end up drinking too much to return to work,” he says. This also boosts checks, he says, at a time when guests would likely otherwise drink a non-alcoholic drink. They also sell well at dinner time.
The three cocktails cost $10 each. “I wanted to offer them at a lower price for someone who didn’t want to commit to a full cocktail, and with the lower ABV, I wanted to make sure the guest was getting the most value,” Ando explains. The beverage costs for these cocktails are low—about the same as a low-cost well vodka or maybe even a little better, he says, and run between 14 percent and 17 percent.
The three chu-hais are:
- Wild Style, which contains shochu, Lillet Blanc, orange Bang, pomegranate and soda water
- One Two’s ingredients are shochu, Calpico (a Japanese yogurt beverage), lime juice, sugar and soda water
- The Shortkut features shochu, St-Germain elderflower, lemon juice, sugar and tonic.
The most popular, Ando says, is the One Two, but all three pair well with the food served at Tokyo Guild—Japanese sandwiches and ramen. “They have very robust flavors and hold up to the flavors of the food well,” he says. “Customers drink these cocktails through their meal and often switch between them since our menu is so interesting.”
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At the Culver city location of Tokyo Guild there are also five other, non-shochu cocktails which cost $12. However, the new Long Beach location has no liquor license. “I’ve got a craft cocktail guy making cocktails for a place without a license,” Ando says.
Occasionally, Japanese guests might order the shochu on the rocks, Ando says, which is how it’s often drunk in Japan.
Ando sources his shochu through a Japanese distribution company that has a great selection.