During Shochu Week, bar tastemakers showcase their individual flavor and cocktail flair by incorporating shochu from different Japanese regionalities and ingredients into a special, limited-time cocktail menu running through March 31st, 2022—learn more and find a bar near you.
It makes sense that an individual who literally grew up in the restaurant industry would focus on culinary flavors and techniques when working behind the bar.
“I like playing with ingredients and flavors,” says Aidan Bowie, bartender at Dead Rabbit in New York City. “I like trying to home in on specific flavors.”
This flavorcentric approach has evolved over a lifetime. “My dad was a chef in Scotland,” Bowie recalls. “From a young age, I’d help out [at the restaurant]. I’d work there part-time while I was at school to make a little extra pocket money.”
Following that, he went on to Glasgow to study civil engineering at a university; while there, he began a bartending job at a newly opened hotel. “They took cocktails really seriously,” he says. “I fell in love with bartending there.” He entered a cocktail competition sponsored by Auchentoshan whisky, and won what would be a fortuitous prize: a two-week trip to New York to work at Dead Rabbit.
A few years later, he moved to London to take a job at Dandelyan—a bar known for conceptual, sometimes whimsical drinks, often made with surprising ingredients and high-end techniques—where he worked with Ryan Chetiyawardana and Iain Griffiths. “They were great mentors,” Bowie says. In 2017, he went to New York to join Grant Achatz and the Alinea team as they opened NYC’s outpost of the modernist cocktail bar The Aviary (and its speakeasy sibling, The Office), becoming beverage director for the program. He later moved over to BlackTail, a Cuba-inspired bar in New York’s Financial District owned by the Dead Rabbit team; when that bar closed in January 2020, he returned to Dead Rabbit, closing the loop begun in his university years.
With those experiences under his belt, Bowie says that today, he values drinks that are “playful, but have a point of intrigue.”
For example, his Red Clay Bamboo—a cocktail developed for this year’s Shochu Week cocktail competition, in partnership with the Kagoshima, Miyazaki, Kumamoto, and Oita prefectures—is all about showcasing the flavor of a Japanese shochu made from sweet potato and rice. Bowie begins the drink by muddling Red Satan shochu with sushi rice; the addition amplifies the subtle flavors found in the shochu itself. The additions of amontillado sherry, coconut water and saline solution “season” the sweet potato without overpowering it.
“I like clean flavors in cocktails,” Bowie notes. “The other ingredients add layers and depth to that one flavor.”
The drink is then strained into a clay pot, a reference to Red Satan’s aging process: After distillation, the shochu is aged in clay vessels for one year. “Similar to the way that whiskey will integrate with wood, shochu integrates with clay,” he explains, “so it picks up this gorgeous, chalky minerality. I wanted to use that as a reference point for the drink.”
A round slice of fresh banana garnishes the drink as the finishing touch, adding a hint of tropical fruit. The end result is “a nice, rich, salty Bamboo,” he says, with the flavor of the shochu as the star.
Learn more about Shochu Week
To celebrate this original craft spirit, the Kagoshima, Miyazaki, Oita, Kumamoto Prefecture have partnered with some of the best bars across the country, and avid shochu admirers to offer 30 signature cocktails through March 31st, 2022.
All the entrants in the Shochu Cocktail Competition found inspiration in the storied history and wide variety of flavors within the category—the result of many factors, not least of all the base ingredients used and the particular terroir of the region where each one is produced. Kira Webster, for example, was drawn to a bottling from Kumamoto prefecture, which is known for its “high-quality natural water”; she loved how the “cleanliness of the rice” shone through in her Fit for Himiko cocktail. Raphael Lester, meanwhile, was drawn to iichiko Saiten from the Oita prefecture, which was developed specifically for use in cocktails and which features a higher proof and a rich barley flavor profile. And it was the smokiness of a sweet potato shochu from the Kagoshima prefecture that led Daniel Alifonso to try the spirit in classic Scotch-based drinks, a process of trial and error that resulted in a shochu- and cinnamon-fueled variation on a Morning Glory.
Bowie praises this versatility and wide spectrum found in the category, which makes shochu amenable to mixing into different types of drinks. Although his stirred-style cocktail came away with top honors, he observes that an incredibly broad range of styles were represented amongst the other entries, “from highballs to fizzes.”
Finally, most appealing to him are the complex, varied flavors found in shochu. “It’s unlike any other spirit,” he says, noting that up to 50 ingredients can be distilled into shochu—and for sweet potato shochu in particular, over 100 varieties of sweet potato are grown in Japan.
“You can really home in on what exactly that ingredient is and the way that it’s distilled, and the koji can really accentuate the flavors of that,” he says. “So when you think about cocktails and flavor, when you’re using shochu, you’re just using pure flavor.”