Getting a liquor license in Chicago — or anywhere — can be extremely difficult. In the Windy City it will put businesses out by thousands of dollars in fees, and a slew of requirements must be met before they are even considered. Many opt for a license that only allows for beer and wine, leaving hard liquor out of the shelves and the profit margin.
But if Prohibition taught us anything, it’s that cocktails will be served, one way or another. Fortunately, there are legal ways for restaurants today to craft a cocktail list that will satisfy customers without breaking into any hidden hooch. To hack the system, all you need are some low-proof spirits that won’t upset any local governments or regulations.
The Korean staple soju is one such hack. By the numbers, it’s the best-selling alcohol in the world — Jinro Sujo sold 71 million cases in 2014 alone — and it’s consumed throughout its homeland Korea, Japan, and China. In fact, the beloved rice spirit accounts for 97 percent of South Korea’s alcohol market, and boy do they love it, making them the heaviest drinkers in the world.
While American consumers may not recognize soju on a menu, the taste will be quite familiar — in that they might not taste anything at all. While various ingredients can be used to make soju, traditionally it retains little to no flavor, acting as a neutral alcohol agent not unlike vodka.
This makes it a blank canvas for curious bartenders, who can toss it into a plethora of mixes, and makes for happy customers, who can go to their favorite spot and enjoy a delicious cocktail. In fact, it’s practically designed for restaurants, in that it is usually served with food. And most importantly, it’s only a little over than 20 percent alcohol, avoiding the hard liquor designation of most jurisdictions.
A natural transition from soju is, of course, sake. But before adding the Japanese alcohol to any menus, I’d highly recommend reading this myth-dispeller from Eater, which clarifies that it’s not a rice wine but is fermented, more like a beer. This perhaps explains why a sake bomb tastes as good as it does. In addition to soju, sake can add another layer to a restricted cocktail set-up.
But if your restaurant-goers are unconvinced by these Asian imports, it’s also possible to supply the classics. Premium Blend has been concocting alcohol substitutes to get around hard liquor laws for decades. They make everything from tequila to triple-sec, so no establishment has to go without.
How do they get away with this you may ask? Their varietals are fermented, not distilled. One of their customers, Chillbar in Florida, was featured in a New York Times piece about the relatively small, but profitable imitation booze market. They serve up Bloody Mary’s and other cocktails with the stuff and the owners say no one really notices the difference.
The Chillbar brings up another interesting point; many people drink hard liquor not just for the taste, but for the alcohol content. Those who use substitutes like Premium Blend say no worries, as all bartenders have to do is double-up on their already cheaper concoctions. According to the article, “Two ounces of Premium Blend’s 48-proof Candian Wicket packs about the same punch as one ounce of a traditional 80-proof bourbon.”
With a little creativity and an eye for loopholes, any restaurant can have a blossoming cocktail menu, even without their top shelf.