Asian spirits revolution

An agave field for Pistola production
An agave field for Pistola production

Imagine the scene, some 20 years ago, when a fresh-faced, enthusiastic salesperson walked through the doors of one of Glasgow’s most revered Scotch whisky bars. In their hands, a case of Japanese whisky: a spirit already popular in its domestic market, but one which had next to no profile in the UK. To the surprised bar owner it must have seemed like the whisky equivalent of bringing coals to Newcastle or selling ice to Eskimos.

Today, however, after two decades of awards and glowing opinions from whisky drinkers and the spirits industry alike, Japanese whisky is a spirit at the very top of the tree in terms of perceived quality and consumer demand.

The huge fascination with Japanese whisky has, to an extent, led to a growing interest in other Asian-distilled spirits, too. Many do not have a western equivalent and their distinctive culture is the very basis for their individual flavour profile. In fact, delve a little deeper into the eastern repertoire and you’ll discover spirits which are not only unique but have truly mind-boggling domestic sales, and some have now started to trickle through to the UK…


Whisky and beyond

Shiso Pineapple Punch with Ukiyo Japanese Rice Vodka. Credit: Christopher Heaney

The growth of Japanese whisky has really piqued an interest in all drinks from the country, including premium sake [made from fermented rice, not distilled], which is finding favour with sommeliers and in some of the more illustrious restaurants in the UK. There are now nearly 30 operational whisky distilleries in Japan – a far cry from the handful that had dominated the scene for decades – including the well-known Yamazaki and Hakushu (from Suntory, marking its 100th anniversary this year), Chichibu and Yoichi. A few of the more craft-oriented operations, such as Kanosuke in Kagoshima, are now grabbing the attention of UK whisky connoisseurs.

Also coming up fast is shochu, the domestically produced spirit that’s distilled from barley, rice, buckwheat or potatoes. Mostly bottled unaged, shochu can be single distilled (which gives a more distinct impression of its base ingredient and comes in at under 36% abv) or distilled multiple times in pot stills (not unlike Scotch whisky) and bottled at or below 45% abv. Shochu – like its close relation awamori, a rice-based spirit native to the Okinawa prefecture – has broad flavours ranging from sweet notes of dried flowers to more coastal, saline and fermented orchard fruit notes.


Home to the biggest spirit in the world

Korean soju is the world’s biggest-selling spirit

Yes, you read that correctly. While you may not have heard of it, Korean soju, a rice-based distillate, can lay claim to being the most popular spirit on the planet, with mega-brand Jinro selling a staggering 100 million 9-litre cases in 2022 alone – far exceeding the likes of Johnnie Walker or Smirnoff vodka globally. The secret to its success perhaps lies in its versatility. Not unlike vodka, soju is colourless, with little residual flavour, but clocks in at a very low abv – usually under 20%. This makes it easy to mix in cocktails or to add potency to a beer, which is a popular serve domestically.


Back to the roots of distilling

While western spirits such as Cognac and Scotch whisky have found favour in mainland China, the same can’t really be said in reverse – perhaps until now that is. Baijiu, one of the most characterful and enduring spirits produced domestically, possesses a unique flavour profile, which is now gaining greater attention in the west, thanks to its distinctly savoury notes. China has been distilling baijiu for more than 600 years, using fermented sorghum grains as its base. It is aged in clay vessels, which are porous enough to allow the spirit to mellow over time, leading to some distinct notes: stylistically ranging from a heavily fermented, yeasty character, to a bold soy sauce and an almost dry, dark cocoa powder…

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