Shochu is a distilled spirit, ranging between 25–35% alcohol content and produced from various ingredients, most commonly sweet potato, sugar cane, or grains such as barley, rice or buckwheat. The base ingredient is fermented using a koji starter before yeast and water is added to give the finished spirit its desired strength. Finally, the last step in the process is distillation, and there are two types of shochu: once-distilled shochu (otsu-rui) and multiple-distilled versions (ko-rui).
This spirit has been a delicious secret for a long time – all that’s changed is that consumers around the world are waking up to Japan’s most cherished distilled beverage.
Round one: Shochu vs. whiskey
Perhaps the closest comparison to traditional malt whiskey is shochu produced with barley. While both use a barley base, whiskeys use malted grains while shochu is made with polished barley, slashing the weight of the product. Another key difference is the way sugars are released in the fermentation process. Shochu relies on the reaction between koji, a mold cultured on cooked rice, and barley to produce sugars. On the other hand, whiskeys use sugars created when the barley is malted, a process by which grains are germinated and then toasted.
In terms of distillation, barley shochu usually only undergoes one round of distillation while malt whiskies endure multiple, which results in higher alcohol percentages in the end product. Finally, the last key difference between shochu and whiskey is the aging process. While shochu is typically bottled immediately after distillation, whiskey is aged for a period of time. This aging process results in whiskey having a darker color and a more robust flavor profile compared to barley shochu which is light and refreshing, with a subtle hint of toasted barley.
Round two: Shochu vs. vodka
Shochu, like vodka, is a clear spirit. However, the distillation process for shochu and vodka are quite different. Shochu is distilled in a pot still, while vodka requires a column still. The column still allows for a higher level of purification than the pot still, resulting in vodka having a pure taste with no distinct flavors.
Shochu distillers, on the other hand, prefer to celebrate the flavor of the raw ingredients and use other, less intensive filtration methods, or opt to serve the spirit unfiltered. This results in shochu having a distinct flavor that reflects the ingredients used in its production, whether it be sweet potato, barley or rice.
Round three: Shochu vs. gin
Perhaps the biggest gap between well-known spirits and shochu is the difference between it and gin. While the distillation methods for gin are relatively similar to vodka, and the resulting spirit is clear like shochu, the addition of aromatics make gin a very different spirit altogether.
To be a gin, there must be juniper berries. These are powerful ingredients that give gin a flavor that is nothing like that of shochu. However, juniper berries aren’t the only aromatic. Each gin uses a series of herbs and botanicals to give the spirit an often floral flavor, which is locked in through redistillation. Gin is usually paired with a mixer like tonic, similar to vodka and whiskey. While some drink shochu neat, it’s also commonly enjoyed mixed with water, hot water, or so, and many Western bartenders are using shochu today to create new and exciting cocktails with a Japanese twist.
Overall, while Japanese shochu has many similarities to whiskey, vodka and gin, it has numerous unique characteristics that make it a must-try for any spirits enthusiast. In moderation, some might even say that authentic Japanese shochu is healthy in moderation!