Near the end of the 13th century, when the Koryo dynasty ruled the Korean peninsula, the Chinese introduced a rice-based liquor to their neighbors to the east. The Koreans, and later the Japanese, embraced the elixir as their own, eventually helping to make soju what it is today: the world’s top-selling distilled spirit. Despite its provenance and popularity elsewhere, soju has remained virtually unknown in the United States–a knowledge gap the importers of Tori Kai, a 500-year-old brand of premium Japanese soju, hope to fill.
Soju first arrived in the United States five years ago, but the low-quality brands that were imported left early adopters wondering why this firewater–which outsells vodka three-to-one worldwide–was so sought-after in other countries. A potential explanation surfaced last summer, when Progressive Beverages, a Los Angeles—based distributor, introduced Americans to Tori Kai.
Tori Kai’s fruit and floral bouquet and melon and citrus flavors distinguish it from lesser brands of soju, and the spirit, which comes in a handblown, frosted bottle with a rice-paper label, recalls the finest examples of its close relative from the wine world. “Because it’s rice-based, it mimics a Dai Ginjo, the highest quality of sake,” says Bill Palmer, president of Progressive Beverages, the only distributor of Tori Kai outside of Japan. “It’s made in a small-batch pot-distillation process that captures a lot of the flavors and aromas from the rice grain, but it’s fermented the same way that a sake is. It goes through the milling, and the refining, and the filtering processes the same way.”
Best served chilled with a thin slice of cucumber floating on the surface, Tori Kai traditionally is paired with spicy meals. However, says Otto Turley, general manager of Los Angeles’ White Lotus restaurant, the spirit complements more than Szechuan and tuna rolls. “You can drink it with just about any kind of food.”
Tori Kai is also an adaptable mixer that partners especially well with exotic fruit juices and ginger liqueur. “The biggest advantage soju has over other liquors is that it’s so versatile,” adds Turley. “You can do just about anything with it.”
At White Lotus and other restaurants in California, Hawaii, New York, Illinois, and Texas–the states where Tori Kai is available–bartenders are experimenting with a number of soju-based cocktails. “We’ll interchange it with some of our specialty drinks, like our lychee martini,” says Turley. “Rather than make it with vodka, we’ll do it with Tori Kai and garnish it with a lychee.”
“Soju is the bridge between sake and vodka,” says Palmer. Indeed, Tori Kai has a lower alcohol content (24 percent) than vodka, and it will therefore solidify and suffer in flavor when stored in the freezer. On the plus side, unlike perishable sake, Tori Kai will keep in the cocktail bar indefinitely.