Review: Iichiko Kurobin Shochu and Yuzu Liqueur

iichiko Kurobin

We last visited with two of Iichiko’s shochus in 2013. Today we look at a third variety from Iichiko, plus a liqueur made from yuzu fruit. Thoughts follow.

Iichiko Kurobin Shochu – No production information available; “Kurobin” means “black bottle.” Heavy melon notes on the nose, with a touch of sugar distinctly sake-like. Nose and palate are both very, very mild, offering basic of honeydew notes, a pinch of sea salt, and just the barest essence of citrus. The most neutral shochu I’ve encountered, this is an elegant, if uncomplex, spirit that would work well as a lower-alcohol alternative in any drink that calls for vodka. 50 proof. A- / $32

Iichiko Bar Fruits Yuzu Liqueur – An Asian spin on triple sec, made from barley and natural fruit juice; this is essentially watered-down, flavored shochu, tinted just the faintest shade of yellow. On the nose, distinctive notes of lemongrass, lightly tropical elements, and a bit of Meyer lemon rind. The body folds in a slightly vegetal cilantro character which adds some balance to what could have been overly sweet The very low alcohol level might cause this to get lost in a complex cocktail, but give it a try in a margarita, sidecar, or similar. 16 proof. A- / $11 (375ml)

iichiko.co.jp

Review: Kai Lemongrass Ginger Shochu, Lychee Vodka, and Coconut Pandan Vodka

kai

Vietnam’s only vodka comes from Kai, which distills rice into both vodka and shochu (aka soju — it puts both names on the bottles), in a variety of flavors. Kai (slogan: “Taste the pleasure”) sent us three expressions of its Asian-inspired spirits for our investigation. Thoughts follow.

Kai Lemongrass Ginger Shochu/Soju – Very light and fragrant. The shochu starts with lemony notes and a heavy floral character on the nose. The body is moderately sweet, with plenty more of that flower-meets-citrus character throughout. The ginger kicks up at the end, but it’s more candylike than fresh ginger root. At just 24% alcohol, the spirit is lacking in heft but it makes up for it with that punchy, powerful fragrance. 48 proof. B+ / $30

Kai Lychee Vodka – Milder on the nose than expected, but the body is a fruity and largely authentic recreation of lychee fruit. Similar to, but not as sweet as elderflower, it offers perfumy aromatics and a surprisingly chocolaty finish that creeps up on you in time. Some mild astringency keeps this with one foot solidly in the vodkaverse and firmly away from the world of liqueurs. 70 proof. B+ / $35

Kai Coconut Pandan Vodka – Technically this reads “rice alcohol,” not vodka, but it’s really the same thing (and newer bottles appear to be updated to read vodka). Pandan is a tropical, palm-like tree that bears a fruit with some vanilla characters. The pandan gives this vodka a bit of an edge, turning the straight coconut notes into more of a savory, grilled-coconut affair, the equivalent of the coconut flavor you get in a Thai curry rather than an Almond Joy. More almond-focused than vanilla, it’s got a uniqueness you won’t find in other coconut vodkas, or even most coconut rums. 70 proof. A- / $35

kaivodka.com

Review: Liqueurs of Vietnam’s Son Tinh

son tinh boxAnd now for something completely different…

Son Tinh is a liqueur producer based in Vietnam. The company makes a wide range of spirits, including a shochu-style liqueur, bitters, and fruit-based liqueurs. At present the company makes 11 products, 6 of which we (miraculously) got to sample, delivered via an awesome, custom-made wooden crate straight from Vietnam!

Here’s a look at the nearly full lineup. Son Tinh’s liqueurs are slowly making their way to stores — the company did win Distillery of the Year at the New York International Spirits Competition in 2013 — with wholesale pricing of between $9 and $16 per 450ml bottle. Availability is expected in late 2014.

Meanwhile, thoughts follow.

son tinh minh mangSon Tinh Nep Phu Loc – A clear sticky rice liqueur similar to shochu. Fragrant, grassy nose. Moderately sweet on the tongue, similar to a western-style vodka, with some marshmallow/nougat notes and a slightly earthy undertone. Simple and quite pleasing, could be used interchangeably with either shochu or vodka as a base spirit in cocktails. 76 proof. A-

Son Tinh Minh Mang –  A light amber herbal liqueur that boasts 19 ingredients, matured from 3 to 5 years before bottling. Intense and immediately pungent, with a nose of bitter roots, dirt, and Thai basil. The body hints at sweetness before delving back into a hefty bitter character, dense with licorice, burnt orange peel, and more tough root character. A bit of a tough slog, even for amaro lovers. 76 proof. C

Son Tinh Nhat Da – A dark brown herbal bitters matured from 3 to 5 years, the name means “one night.” Complex nose of coffee grounds, licorice, tar, and burnt lemongrass. The body is overwhelmingly bitter (plus a touch of that unavoidable sour edge), offering intense licorice and absolutely blackened coffee character. Strong and punchy, it never lets up with even a hint of sweetness to even things out. I’d say you’d get used to it, but you won’t. 76 proof. C

Son Tinh Chanh Leo – Passion fruit liqueur. Pale gold, some edgy sour fruit notes on the nose. The body is full of sour apple and pear notes, with candied lemons and dried mango character. It’s a bit scattered, falling back on a brewed tea character before a modestly bitter finish takes hold. 54 proof. B-

Son Tinh Mo Vang – Apricot liqueur. Deep amber, with musky perfume on the nose. A taste on the tongue arrives with a rush of sugar… before cascading into an intensely sour experience. The apricot is initially vivid, but leaves an aftertaste of bitter roots and fruit vinegar. 54 proof. B

Son Tinh Tao Meo – Rose apple liqueur, based on the rare fruit of the rose plant. On the nose, a mix of fruit and flowers, as the name would imply. More perfume than fruit, and blessedly dialed back on that sour character. What remains is a somewhat Madeira-like spirit with notes of raspberry and rose petals. 54 proof. B+

sontinh.com

Review: Iichiko Shochu – Silhouette and Frasco

frasco_main_1Shochu is something we see so seldomly here at Drinkhacker that we don’t even do! have a category for it. (I’m putting it in the sake category for lack of a proper one.)

Shochu has many of the same flavor characteristics as sake, but it can be made from other starches than rice — namely barley, potatoes, or even chestnuts. The shochus reviewed here are all barley-based.

As with sake, the barley is polished until just a core remains, purifying the grain. It is fermented and mixed with a specific type of barley mold, then (unlike sake) distilled, typically just once, and can be . This raises the alcohol level to 25 to 30 proof, considerably higher than sake, while keeping that unmistakable melon character intact.

The two shochu bottlings below are from Iichiko, the best-selling shochu bottler in Japan. Thoughts follow.

Iichiko Silhouette Shochu – Polished to 60% of the original grain. A typical shochu, with modest, crisp melon on the nose. Underneath there’s fresh grain character — think white whiskey — but more of that melon on the finish along with a touch of dried herbal character. Nice and fresh, a solid example of what a simple shochu should be like. 50 proof. B+ / $23

Iichiko Frasco Shochu (pictured) – Polished to 50% of the original grain and produced with a more delicate and expensive method that I won’t try to explain here. This is a fruitier and slightly sweeter style of shochu, with a lasting finish that offers lots of melon but also pepper, and — late in the finish — neat butterscotch notes. Very silky and well-balanced, a lovely and elegant sipper. 60 proof. A / $70

iichiko.co.jp

Review: Ty Ku Soju

The only sane thing to do here is to explain what soju is. It’s not sake, though sake drinkers will notice some similarities in the flavor profile. While sake is more akin to wine or beer, soju is a Korean distilled beverage, more like vodka.

But not exactly: At just 48 proof (Ty Ku’s alcohol level is typical), most soju wouldn’t pass for any serious spirit. Instead it occupies a middle ground between wine and liquor… and one which will probably suffer confused consumers for years to come. (To further complicate things, in China, shochu is about the same thing as soju.)

Ty Ku’s blue-bottled soju (the actual spirit is clear) is a crisp and pleasant spirit that I like a lot. With fresh melon notes like the best sakes, this soju is brisk and easy to drink on its own or with mixers. (Ty Ku positions it as a “modern update” to soju and as a substitute for vodka in mixed drinks as a way to cut calories. Not a bad idea.)

Distilled from barley and made in Japan (not Korea), a touch of sweetness is evident in the body, but it fades fast, leaving behind that honeydew character that begs you to take another sip.

Very easy to drink and worth a try in any vodka-based cocktail… but only after you give it a whirl on its own.

A- / $30 / trytyku.com