Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk |

Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk

Kelly J. Hayes
Aspen Times Weekly

Shawn Gallus, the Shochu soldier, has done it again.

This past Tuesday, Gallus held a cocktail contest at Matsuhisa in Aspen, continuing his quest to introduce Americans in general, and Aspenites in particular, to the distilled liquor that has become one of the world’s most popular beverages. The turnout for the event was impressive as the downstairs dining room was filled with the smell of perfume, the sound of music, and, of course, fresh cocktails built around a new spirit called Ty Ku Soju.

Shochu is an Asian spirit made from various high-starch grains like barley, rice or from vegetables. (Yes, there are alternate spellings of Shochu. Ty Ku Soju is a brand name that uses the Korean spelling for obtuse legal reasons that have to do with U.S. liquor laws. Don’t ask.) It is clear and clean, and perfect for mixing in cocktails that normally feature vodka or light rums. And perhaps best of all, it has only about a third of the calories found in vodka.

Gallus, following a trip to Japan, became an evangelist for the drink. Earlier this year I tasted a number of Shochu, ranging from those made with sweet potatoes to others made from barley that were aged. My take-away was that the health benefits, the tradition and history of the spirit, and the adaptability of Shochu as a mixer combined to make it a natural for a U.S. market that increasingly seeks out the new and exotic.

Matsuhisa, at Gallus’ behest, has been pouring a number of Shochu-based cocktails this year. So when a 32 year-old, Ivy League-educated entrepreneur named Kirk Spahn created the barley-based Ty Ku Soju for a class project at Columbia a couple of years back, it was inevitable that he and Gallus would get together.

At the event Gallus and Spahn (who flew in from New York specifically for the tasting), spent the evening smiling proudly as partygoers sampled Ty Ku Soju, most for the first time. The competition featured five local bartenders who were given the product and asked to develop new concoctions for the attendees to taste, enjoy and, ultimately, vote on.

Birthday boy Greg Jefferson, who mixes cocktails at Social, went fruity with a delicious and refreshing cocktail that featured muddled kiwi fruit, rosemary, a simple syrup made with thyme and the Ty Ku Soju. Jefferson told me that he “dreams cocktails” and has been known to wake up and go to his living room for a pad and pencil to write down variations that come to him in his sleep. This particular drink was a “summer refresher,” he noted, and would be great around the pool.

Dylan Regan, the DJ and mixologist who plies his trade behind the bar at Jimmy’s, poured a drink he called the Pan Asian. It was a mixture of the Ty Ku Soju, St. Germain Elderflower liquor, the French aperitif Lillet and a splash of Aperol, an orange-flavored mixer from Italy, all shaken with fresh pears and strawberries.

New Zealand native Chris Mundy represented Belly Up and poured my personal favorite, which was likely the simplest drink of the night. In a glass rimmed with agave nectar and toasted organic coconut, he served up a mixture of Ty Ku Soju and fresh coconut water for a drink that was about as healthy as a cocktail can get. Chris spent the day buying up all the coconut water in Aspen and toasting coconut for his entry.

If you’re sensing a summer theme here, Farrah Keanaainia of Jimmy’s Restaurant took advantage of both the cool night and the Asian heritage of her ingredients and created a tasty Ty Ku Soju hot toddy, mixing the spirit with jasmine tea. Shochu, by the way, translates to “Fiery Spirits” in Japanese, and Keanaainia captured the meaning in her cup.

But the winner came from Alexa Fitzpatrick of Zane’s Tavern Aspen and the recently opened La Palapa. Fitzpatrick blended muddled fresh green grapes, organic basil and Welch’s fresh white grape juice with Ty Ku for a fruit-driven cocktail she called a Basil-White Grape-Soju Mojito. It was a perfect combination that took full advantage of the clean fresh flavors of the Soju.

Not only was the evening fun, it was productive too, as virtually of the bartenders indicated to me that the Ty Ku Soju would be a welcome addition to their bars. And for Gallus it was another step in the creation of an army of Shochu soldiers.

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