It may come as a surprise to some armchair mixologists that there is more to Japanese drink than the sake and lager beers that are exported to the United States. And the Japanese whiskeys, which have become so popular in recent years that the oldest and most prestigious marques are in perennial shortage. But there is another spirit that, while still obscure, is starting to make its way onto American back bars and menus. Shochu originates from the island of Kyushu and is distilled from rice, barley, or sweet potato. One of the hallmarks of the spirit is its low proof; whereas most spirits familiar to Americans are distilled more than once, clocking in at around eighty proof, shochu traditionally gets a single distillation and is often cut with local water to the distiller’s taste.
At Austin’s Kemuri, the izakaya-meets-roadhouse concept from the Ramen Tatsu-ya family, bar manager Michael Phillips has focused his attention on designing cocktails that highlight traditional Japanese ingredients, including a variety of shochus. To that end, he’s come up with the Puff Puff Pass, a punch whose ingredients will change throughout the year. For this iteration, the base is a traditionally produced sweet potato shochu that has been fermented in a porcelain pot and passed once through a wooden pot still. The shochu is fortified with Caribbean rum and falernum, the lime-and-clove liqueur. Fresh grapefruit and lime juice are added to the mixture, which is then sweetened with a house-made pecan liqueur crafted in the style of orgeat, the almond cordial popular in France. Taking a cue from the tiki playbook, the bar serves the drink in a puffer fish chalice, but don’t let the whimsical vessel fool you—this punch packs a punch.