I've always loved shiso's distinctive peppery-bright flavor. While the softly furred, frill-edged leaves have the texture, piquancy, and slight sweetness of fresh mint, their complex flavor also brings to mind the savory pungency of basil with gentle undertones of sultry cumin. This is an herb with personality - and potential.
And while I'd long enjoyed shiso (also known as perilla or beefsteak plant) in Japanese dishes (fresh leaves wrapped whole around pieces of sushi, or sliced into thin ribbons and added to hot rice, or in dark, briny strands pickled with umeboshi plums...) it wasn't until I'd visited that bento box of a cocktail bar, Angel's Share, that I first tried it in a drink.
I was sold.
The cocktail was called "The Groovy." It was unlike anything I'd ever tasted, a tantalizing combination of shiso-infused vodka, yuzu (an Asian citrus fruit), and shiso leaves, served in a tall glass over ice. It was compellingly subtle: tart, herbaceous, refreshing. A keeper.
Back at my home bar, I wanted to see what else shiso could do. I did a bit of Googling and found recipes using the leaves as a zinged-up alternative to mint in classic cocktails such as Mojitos and Mint Juleps. And while these both sounded delicious, I remembered the astringent, grapefruity-lime taste of the yuzu juice, and how naturally it played with the shiso. Somehow it seemed key. So I headed down to Katagiri, my local Japanese grocery store.
While no fresh yuzu fruits were to be had, bottled juice was available, and there were also intriguing-looking packets of zested rind in the freezer case. Always preferring fresh-squeezed citrus juice to bottled, I chose the pungent rind, reasoning that I could always supplement it with fresh lime juice.
I decided to make a kind of shiso-yuzu mojito. I had light rum on hand, but not the all-important Brazillian cane sugar liquor, Cachaca. However, I did have some Stoli Citros vodka leftover from making Cosmopolitans. Why not use that as a base? After a bit of experimentation in the cocktail lab, I was quite pleased with the results:
makes one drink
1 1/2 ounces Stoli Citros vodka
1 tablespoon brown sugar
4 or 5 fresh shiso leaves
1 teaspoon of zested yuzu rind
juice of 1/4 lime
Tear the shiso leaves into large pieces (reserving one whole leaf for a garnish) and muddle with the brown sugar and yuzu rind in a mixing glass ("Muddling" is the simple technique of crushing and bruising herbs and fruits to release their essential oils and flavors. Use a cocktail muddler or large pestle if you have one - the back of a spoon will work too). Add the vodka, lime juice, and a few ice cubes and stir. Pour into an old-fashioned glass and top up with club soda and more ice as necessary. Garnish with a shiso leaf.
(Images: Nora Maynard)