Japanese spirits and cocktails

Japanese whiskey has taken the U.S. by storm. Some are light and smooth while others lean toward a rich scotch experience and most are daringly delicious. Drink too much and you’ll be dancing in no time.

Try the Grapefruit Shōchū Sour at the Red Light

Bartender Dave Monachello at Cottonwood Restaurant turned me onto my Japanese whiskey obsession. He poured me a glass of Hibiki Harmony with a cube on the side; one sip and I fell in love. I drank it neat. Hibiki Harmony is light and easy to drink. Monachello also had a Yamazaki 12 Year Old single malt, which was more like scotch than the Hibiki and had a peatier flavor. Both were delicious.

He poured me a glass of Hibiki Harmony with a cube on the side; one sip and I fell in love.

Ryan Dierks, co-owner of the Truckee Tavern, offers a number of Japanese whiskeys. He poured me a glass of Akashi that rivaled Hibiki. He served it with his signature hand-cut ice cube. If you find me at Truckee Tavern, this is what I’ll be sipping.


“Akashi is an entry-level-priced blended whiskey. This is the candy cigarette of Japanese whiskey. Nikka, Hakushu, Yamazaki and Hibiki are truly incredible and rival any scotch,” says Dierks. “Masataka Taketsuru is kind of the godfather of Japanese single malt. He learned from masters in Scotland and brought it back to Japan. He was focused not only on distilling and aging but water source, grain quality, elevations, climate. If I understand the story correctly, he bought an entire watershed surrounding one distillery to ensure that no contamination of his pristine water source could happen. Every detail is observed and constantly improved upon in small ways to produce the most subtly nuanced whiskies I’ve ever had.”

Bottles of imported Japanese whiskeys don’t come cheap. The price tag for a bottle of Hibiki Harmony is about $70, Yamazaki 18 Year Old will run around $275 and Hakushu 18 Year Old is about $250 a bottle.

Zanders Spirits in Truckee carries a variety of high-end Japanese whiskeys and owner Tina Zanders-Aldridge is knowledgeable.

Hibiki Harmony

“Hibiki Harmony is a blend because they couldn’t keep up with the age statement and demand,” she says.

According to Zanders-Aldridge, the demand is big because of social media and because of the quality. “It’s good. Japan shares the same profile as Scotland being on the ocean. The Suntory Distillery has been around for a long time and Yamazaki has been perfecting their craft.”

If you lean to a sweeter libation, Japanese cocktails are plentiful. Drunken Monkey Sushi in Truckee offers a selection of Japanese whiskey and sake, including a number of infused sake drinks. Redlight Truckee offers an entire menu of sake and shōchū cocktails. Shōchū is distilled and less sweet than its sake cousin, which is fermented. Shōchū tends to be a bit more earthy and nutty and is slightly akin to vodka in flavor. It originated in the Kyūshū region of Japan but is produced in locations throughout the country. It is made from rice, barley, sweet potato, brown sugar or soba; some distillers use chestnuts, sesame seeds or potatoes or blend more than one ingredient to produce shōchū.

One of my favorite Japanese cocktails is the Grapefruit Shōchū Sour, which I was introduced to while in Japan. The simple recipe is grapefruit juice, soda water and shōchū.

Abby Polus, co-owner of Redlight, designed a version of the Shōchū Sour for my birthday. It’s sour and sweet, grapefruity and delightfully refreshing. She added egg whites for a fun froth. Shōchū can be upwards of 24 percent alcohol content and they can sneak up on you. In addition, other cocktails at Redlight include a Japanese Ginger Mule, a Lavender Lemonade Shōchū Cocktail and a Redlight Russian made with local Dark Horse coffee, vanilla bean infusion and shōchū.

Redlight now offers a Priya Sour on its menu; ask for it and give it a try. Tell the folks behind the bar you read about it in The Tahoe Weekly.

Priya Hutner is a writer, health and wellness consultant, and natural foods chef. Her business, The Seasoned Sage, focuses on wellness, conscious eating and healthy living. She offers healthy organic meals for her clients. She may be reached at pria78@gmail.com or visit theseasonedsage.com. Visit TheTahoeWeekly.com to read more.