Your guide to five Asian alcohols and where to find them
Not so long ago, Columbus restaurant fare like authentic ramen, lechon kawali (a Filipino pork dish) and grill-it-yourself Korean barbecue all seemed fairly exotic. As the city has become ever-more cosmopolitan, though, the genie of genuine Asian cuisine has seeped out of the bottle. Also out of the bottle: Asian booze.
This really hits home at Gogi Korean BBQ. That big and bustling Northwest Side operation offers a must-try Korean hooch sampler that corrals beverages such as makgeolli and soju that are likely still exotic to many Ohio-raised imbibers. Here's a get-to-know-me glance at five such libations.
Sake has been available for decades in Columbus at places such as Akai Hana and Kihachi. But what do you really know about the amber-tinged liquid? Yes, this brewed-and-fermented rice “wine” (about 18 percent ABV) is heralded as the national beverage of Japan. But, perhaps contrary to your experience, most serious sakes are sipped chilled, not warmed, because heating can mask the fruity, floral and caramelly accents that distinguish top-shelf sake from less-nuanced stuff that recalls woodsy-scented steamed rice. Important terms: Ginjo guarantees high-quality, honjozo means alcohol has been added to aromatize the sake and junmai is pure rice sake.
Lambanog is a Filipino spirit derived from coconut flowers and much loved in its homeland. How loved? Professional producers—and many moonshiners—risk serious injury and devote boatloads of time to climb into coconut trees to fetch precious little nectar from each tree. This “sap” is then fermented and distilled à la tequila. Although not regularly available in town yet, you can sample sweet-and-smooth, 80-proof lambanog at Bonifacio during the stylish Filipino restaurant's kamayan—a family-style feasting party held monthly. Other kamayan refreshments at Bonifacio include a citrusy, lambanog-based cocktail that teases out the liquor's toasted-coconut notes and Filipino rum.
That clear beverage you see folks eagerly knocking back in shots at Korean restaurants such as Poong Mei and Diaspora is usually soju, aka “Korean vodka.” Actually, most sojus, which are traditionally made with distilled grains like rice and barley but are often fashioned with starches like sweet potatoes, usually contain half the alcohol of vodka. This relatively moderate dosage (in the 40-proof ballpark), along with a welcoming sweetness and neutral flavor, make chilled shots of soju a popular, palate-cleansing accompaniment to the boldly flavored dishes that compose a Korean meal.
Makgeolli rhymes with “broccoli” but tastes more like sake. There's a reason for that: Makgeolli, like sake, is made predominantly from fermented rice. The differences between unfiltered, milky-white Korean makgeolli and sake extend beyond color and opacity, though. A good rule of thumb is to think of sake as wine and makgeolli as beer. Long-popular with farmers and blue-collar workers before it became hip to sip in trendy restaurants, easy-drinking, sweet-and-tangy makgeolli is slightly fizzy and sports an ABV in the ale range (around 7 percent). It can be found at restaurants like Diaspora and Restaurant Silla.
Shochu is still making inroads in the States and tends to turn up locally only at esteemed establishments such as Ba Sho Japanese Restaurant and Akai Hana. But the clear spirit, which is typically distilled from rice, barley and/or sweet potatoes, has become so popular in Japan that sales of it there over the last decade have surpassed sake sales. Think of shochu as sake's burlier brother—shochus often share sake's steamed rice flavor, but hover around the 50-proof neighborhood. They're rougher around the edges and occasionally nutty or fruit-hinting.