It all started over a drink. As things do.
Bentley Gillman, Tattersall’s chief distiller, is a bit of a mad scientist messing with side projects that may or may not see the fast track of the distillery’s production line. One of the projects he had been working on earlier this year was a rice-based spirit in the style of shochu.
Shochu is a distilled spirit with traditions that date back 500 years in Japan. Typically it’s made from rice, but barley, sweet potatoes, and buckwheat are also used. It usually carries a punch, with an ABV of about 25-30%, which is lower than whisky but higher than sake (which is fermented with rice, while shochu is distilled). Korean soju is also a distilled rice spirit, but is usually lower in alcohol and may contain flavors and additives beyond the distillate. In Japan, shochu is more popular than sake, accounting for 15% of alcohol consumption in 2020.
Gillman wanted to road test the flavor of his project, so why not go to an expert. With Taylor Stein, Tattersall’s sales director, Gillman brought it along to a dinner they had planned at Billy Sushi. Cautiously, they offered Billy Tserenbat, the iconic and fearless Mongolian sushi maker, a sip.
“I thought no way man,” Billy says of being told that someone was making shochu in the area, “No way can this be good, that guy is crazy for thinking he can make it. But then I tasted it and realized he was the right kind of crazy. It was so good! I was like, sit down man, you’re not going anywhere we have to talk about how you came up with this!” If you’ve seen Billy in full Mongolian dress sitting court-side next to A-rod at the Timberwolves game, you know crazy-smart recognizes crazy-smart.
So the two began their journey to create the perfect recipe for what is now known as Spirit of Sushiman. It’s not shochu in the strictest sense, it’s more inspired by the process.
Gillman and his team spend a lot, like a lot, of time balling up rice. The labor intensive process is one of the reasons why they are limiting the production to about 500 bottles for this first round.
Gillman breaks it down like this: “Rice is cooked and cooled and inoculated with rice yeast balls known as jui qu, jing bao, or simply qu. These balls have a combination of yeast, mold, and bacteria that work together to liquify, saccharify (convert the starch to simple sugar), and ferment the rice grains. The liquid produced from this process is similar to a rustic sake, though sake production has a couple of added steps. It is most similar to rural Chinese rice wine called mijiu, and Korean rice wine called cheongju or makgeolli, or rural Himalayan rice beer called chhaang at this point. It’s tart, with a subtle sweetness, and boozy. From here this rice beer/wine is distilled twice into the Spirit of Sushiman. This finished product is called soju in Korea, shochu in Japan, shaojiu in China, and raksi in Nepal.”
Billy and Gillman have been working the recipe together, refining the technique to create a spirit that is clean, clear, and easily sippable on its own or within cocktails. Stein recalled when he first started tasting shochu, how hot some of the spirits were when they were only clocking in around 25% alcohol. “The alcohol burn always surprised me and that made some of them harder to work with in cocktails, so I started drinking more rice-based spirits and thinking about how we could tame that burn down.”
“I think it’s perfect right now,” says Billy. “We played with wild rice and buckwheat and it was so funky.”
Gillman adds, “It’s a challenge enough to get people to try new things like this, but once they taste this I think they’ll really love it. And then from there maybe we can play with more funkier flavors.”
Having sipped the spirit, I can say that it’s definitely not too hot on the tongue, and it has a much richer mouthfeel than anything that is incorrectly referred to as Japanese vodka, as shochu often is. I’d almost say creamy. It’s very clean tasting and carries just a bit of floral, of sweet breadiness that makes it an ideal sushi companion sip. It also layers nicely into the few cocktail creations I’ve tried, particularly the Bee’s Knees with honey ginger syrup. But I loved it in the highball with acidified lemongrass syrup, if felt like the right light undertone in that fizzy refresher.
You’ll be able to find Spirit of Sushiman at Billy Sushi in North Loop, of course. If he doesn’t have it in a hip holster by the end of the week, color me shocked. That might be your best bet to get a taste before buying a bottle, which will run about $45 at local retailers. Surdyk’s will host Billy on September 10th from 2-4 p.m., where he’ll be pouring samples and signing bottles.
But if you really want to get in on the full Sushiman experience, make plans (read: find a driver) for the official bottle launch on Sept. 22 at the Tattersall River Falls facility. During the launch from 6-9 p.m., Billy will do a demo on breaking down a whole blue fin tuna, you’ll have small plates to snack from, sampling of the spirit neat and in three different cocktails created specially by Tattersall founder Dan Oskey: There will be the Bee’s Knees riff, a Sushiman Daiquiri, and the take on the highball called a Billy Collins. Tickets are $75/person and space is limited, so if you’re hoping that a bit of crazy-smart rubs off on you, don’t delay.