Sometimes, in the course of our hectic lives, it’s easy to forget — or not even notice — the little things that make living in Frederick County great. In that spirit, I launched, “What I Love in Frederick this Week”: the best food, drink, shows, shopping, and events coming to the city. If you love something in Frederick, let me know. Submissions can be emailed to email@example.com or tweeted to @kamamasters.
This week: Shochu distilled right here in Frederick
Inside a roughly 200 square-foot room at the Frederick Innovative Technology Center, Taka Amano distills one of the only shochus made in North America.
He started the American Shochu Company with his wife, Lynn (the majority owner, Amano joked), after a career in biotechnology, toggling between Japan and the United States for work and drinking plenty of the traditional spirit along the way.
Shochu has deep roots in Japan, dating back to at least the 16th century. And for the last 15 years, it’s been more popular in Japan than sake, following a similar trajectory to tequila, Amano said.
“Back in the day, you used to have two types of tequila — silver and gold — and they were both nasty,” he said. “But then Patron came along, high-end producers, and now you can find tequila bars everywhere, just like they have shochu bars in Japan.”
Amano and Lynn have spent the past year perfecting the product in a small space that smells almost overwhelmingly of fermenting barley. In June, they added Agnes Kwankam — soon to be the head distiller, Amano said — and are working on scaling up production.
Right now, the company’s only product is Umai! (roughly translated to “That’s good” in Japanese), a 48-proof shochu that Amano likened to white whiskey. But he and Lynn are also planning to introduce Roy’s Demon, an 80-proof shochu named after Amano’s father. The spirit should be available sometime before Christmas.
I’ve loved Amano’s shochu since Valentine’s Day, when Volt sent us a custom cocktail recipe featuring the spirit. Its distinct graininess and gentle aftertaste makes it a great substitute for any variety of cocktails, from Manhattans to gin and tonics. And given its relative obscurity in the U.S., I’m shaking up the format of the column, adding an explainer to offer more details on the little-known spirit.
So...what is shochu?
Shochu is sometimes confused with both soju — a Korean spirit — and sake, a fermented rice drink that’s also popular in Japan. But despite their somewhat familiar names, shochu is a completely separate spirit. If Amano had to qualify it, he’d say shochu was kind of like a whiskey. But also, not like a whiskey at all.
“It has the same graininess, so in that way it’s similar,” Amano said. “But the taste is different, the appearance is different — they’re completely different categories.”
The similarities lie mostly in how the two spirits are distilled. Like whiskey, shochu is single-distilled to maintain the flavor of the base ingredients. But unlike whiskey, shochu can be made from a wide range of grains and starches. In Japan, there’s a total of 49 different ingredients accepted for use in the manufacture of shochu, Amano said. He relies on pearled barley, but other distillers use rice, sugarcane, buckwheat — even sweet potato or chestnuts.
The spirit is usually colorless and the taste is remarkably smooth, with an underlying nuttiness that stands out in cocktails. It’s also not as strong as whiskey. Traditionally, shochu hovers around 25 percent alcohol by volume. Amano’s is a little lower, at 24 percent.
How is it made?
Amano starts with 50-pound bags of organic pearled barley from California. The distiller originally planned to use Maryland grains, he said, but realized there was no barley grown in-state for human consumption.
The grain is steamed and inoculated with koji, a fungus that’s also used to ferment products like soy sauce, sake and miso. Amano employs a specific strain of koji — Aspergillus luchuensis — that’s only used for shochu, imported from a family producer in Japan. The koji is a vital step in the production of shochu, converting starches into sugars and preparing the barley for distillation.
The koji feeds on the grain for a couple of days before Amano begins the mashing process. The barley is stored in white plastic buckets with yeast and filtered water and fermented anywhere from two to six weeks. That long fermentation is another way shochu differs from whiskey, Amano said, which typically only brews for 48 hours. Once the mashing is completed, the barley is distilled and stored in glass carboys for three months until the final bottling.
Is shochu ever aged?
Over the past decade and a half — following Japan’s embrace of the spirit — shochu has improved both in quality and variety, Amano said. As more distillers embrace the spirit, aged shochu has become more and more common. It’s typical to see the spirit aged for three to five years in oak barrels, though there is at least one company aging shochu for seven years in used sherry casks.
How do you drink it?
Like most distillers, Amano enjoys his spirit on the rocks — i.e., without much distraction from the overall flavor. But in Japan, he said, shochu cocktails are one of the most common things to order at bars and restaurants. The most popular drink of them all is something called a chuhai — roughly translated to a shochu highball. The cocktail is often made with a 3 to 1 ratio of shochu to lemon-lime soda, but it can be mixed with any variety of fruity, fizzy drinks. There’s even an oolong-hai: shochu mixed with tea.
It’s common to find canned chuhais in vending machines across Japan, Amano said. He’s continuing the tradition in Frederick, with plans to release a canned shochu drink by the end of the summer.
Where can you find shochu in Frederick?
Amano’s very first customer was Bryan Voltaggio, who’s incorporated the spirit into a variety of cocktails at Volt. Several other restaurants downtown soon followed suit, and you can now find the spirit at Cafe Nola, The Tasting Room, JoJo’s, Firestones, Roasthouse Pub, and Surfhouse Cantina in Urbana (Amano is a fan of the First Class cocktail with almond milk, coconut cream, cinnamon and pineapple leaf). In D.C., Amano distributes to Daikaya and Zeppelin.
Umai! is also sold at several liquor stores in Frederick, all 25 Montgomery County Liquor & Wine stores, and the Total Wine in Laurel.
Follow Kate Masters on Twitter: @kamamasters.