4 awesome Asian spirits you need to try

Learn how to tell your baijiu from your sake and soju

When it comes to spirits, it's worth looking across China's borders for your alcoholic hit.


Distilled spirit


What’s in the bottle?
Sochu is a Japanese distilled clear spirit. Similar to vodka and whiskey, it tends to pack more of a punch than brewed spirits. The alcohol by volume (ABV) falls between 15-25 percent, but it can be as high as 38 percent. Sochu can be made from almost anything with a high starch content. Modern distilleries use barley, sweet potatoes, rice, buckwheat, brown sugar, chestnuts and even carrots.

How is it made? The strength of sochu is a product of distilling. To make sochu, a pulp of the starch is fermented with water and specially selected moulds, distilled then diluted with sugar and water to the desired alcohol content. There are two main types of sochu: single- and multiple-distilled. Sochu is not usually aged for more than a few years. One notable exception is the southern Okinawan variety, Awamori, which can be aged from 10 to over 100 years.

Where to try? Try the Asian State (88RMB), a light, nutty cocktail at modern rooftop bar restaurant Unico.


Brewed rice wine


What’s in the bottle?
All sakes are made from rice that is tougher and higher in starch. The highest quality sakes are pure rice and use highly polished grains, while cheaper brews use lower grades of rice and are beefed up with grain alcohols.

How is it made? Sake is considered a wine, but it’s brewed to render alcohol from the starch, making it technically more of a beer, in spite of its lack of carbonation and higher ABV (11-18 percent). Sake rice is cleaned then polished to remove the bran, leaving only the starch. It’s brewed through multiple fermentations, turning the starch into sugar then alcohol. The sake is then filtered, pasteurised and aged for less than a year. Some brews skip the filtering, pasteurising and aging. Namazake sake is unpasteurised and must be refrigerated; Muroka and Nigorizake are unfiltered with a milky colour and thick, sweet favour, while Shiboritate is not aged.

Where to try? Pick your poison at Japanese fine dining joint Yotsuba.


White spirit


What’s in the bottle? The Chinese spirit is the most widely consumed alcoholic beverage in the world. Baijiu is the blanket term for a broad family of clear spirits that have been brewed and distilled (32-66 percent ABV). There are four groups of baijiu: strong, light, sauce or rice. Sauce has a strong favour reminiscent of fermented soy sauce. Light baijius tend to be drier, with a cleaner mouth feel. Rice is perhaps the oldest variety. It has a mellow flavour and aroma.

How is it made? Baijiu is distilled from sorghum and gets its high alcohol content from a double semi-solid fermentation process. Baijiu relies on microbial agents to change the starch into sugar and then alcohol. The most common baijiu in Beijing, Erguotou, is fermented in large earthenware jars before distillation. Several iterations of the fermentation process give Erguotou its signature strong favour and pungent aroma.

Where to try? Try a tasting flight at baijiu bar Capital Spirits and The Distillery.


Rice wine


What’s in the bottle?
Mijiu is Chinese rice wine. Brewed rather than distilled, its main ingredients are rice, water and starter yeast. The alcohol content is also similar to sake, usually hovering between 11-18 percent, with some stronger brews making it up to 25 percent. Mijiu is commonly produced in the southern regions of China. In fact, the beverage is so simple to make it’s often produced at home rather than bought in shops.

How is it made? The glutinous rice is washed and cooked with water, mashed into a slurry and recooked. After fermentation, mijiu can be filtered and aged in wood, which gives it a golden colour and a more complex flavour, but most home brews skip this step. Home brews have a milky colour and sweet floral finish with a lower alcohol content. Our favourite varieties are filtered then matured in wood for a year or more. With a mild sweetness and ripe fruit favour, these mijiu are more similar to a white port.

Where to try? Rose-infused wine (98RMB) at Nuoyan Rice Wine Bar.

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