Shochu, a potent distilled spirit of Japan’s warm southern isles, is a clear, aromatic beverage with diverse but punchy flavorings. Stronger than sake, but weaker than vodka or gin, its alcohol content ranges between 20-35 percent, which is just enough to get you buzzing without knocking you flat.
To understand shochu, look at how it is made. A first mash of steamed rice is fermented before a second ingredient is added, this new mixture is further fermented, and then it is distilled. It is the second ingredient that is important as it gives the shochu its flavor and though this ingredient is often sweet potatoes, rice, buckwheat, or barley, it could really be anything. Brown sugar, perilla leaf, or chestnut shochu are popular specialties, while more adventurous makers will use carrots, peanuts, or even milk.
Your first shochu: It’s not sake, so how do you drink it?
There are two main types of shochu and how you drink it will depend on the type. Honkaku shochu – literally “authentic shochu” – is the good stuff. Distilled just once, it retains more flavor and aroma and so is suited to quiet, contemplative drinking. True aficionados will sip honkaku shochu straight to thoroughly appreciate its complex flavorings, but if that proves too challenging, try a gentler mizuwari mix of shochu and water, a refreshing glass on the rocks, or an oyuwari mix with hot water — perfect for the cold winter months.
Korui shochu goes through multiple distillations, and so has more alcohol but less flavor. This is your party drink — you can mix it with juice, tea, iced coffee or your favorite liqueurs. Perfect for cocktails, it is also popular in shochu highballs, called chuhai, which are a fizzy mix of shochu, soda and fruit flavorings.
Discover an amazing array of flavors from a plethora of ingredients
So what does it taste like? Well, that depends on what you put in it, and this is where shochu gets interesting. Because shochu can be made with so many different ingredients, the range of possible flavors is virtually endless.
Novice shochu drinkers should probably start with mugi-jochu, made with barley, or soba-jochu, made with buckwheat. These varieties have light, refreshing flavors and go well with water or on the rocks. Imo-jochu, made with sweet potatoes, is a more acquired taste. With a full, sweet flavor and fruity aroma, it is often served warm or mixed with hot water. Kome-jochu uses rice as its primary and secondary ingredients, and unsurprisingly has a quite strong rice flavor. This flavor is perhaps best sipped straight with a side of sashimi.
Regional specialties include kokuto shochu, a crisp and refreshing brown sugar shochu from the Amami Islands, and Awamori, a mellow Okinawan shochu made with Thai rice. These can be served straight, on the rocks, or also mixed in cocktails.
Looking forward: Shochu grows up and finds its way overseas
Shochu distillation began around 500 years ago in the southern prefecture of Kagoshima. Once regarded as a rural specialty of that region, shochu has been enjoying a boom throughout Japan, and is now more popular there than sake. This shouldn’t be too surprising as this Japanese spirit has something for everyone. More meditative drinkers can enjoy honkaku shochu’s diverse flavor profiles, while party-goers can imbibe korui shochu in light, fruity cocktails that won’t get them smashed too quickly.
Thanks to these splendid qualities, shochu is now making its mark overseas. Prestigious competitions such as the International Spirits Challenge and the International Wine & Spirit Competition regularly award shochu varieties top prizes. Mixologists across the world are beginning to employ shochu as a versatile cocktail base. And some Japanese distillers are developing shochu brands exclusively for overseas sales. Sample a few and see what tickles your palate. Whether you prefer a light, nutty barley shochu, a lip-smacking brown sugar variety, or the fuller flavors of sweet potato, somewhere out there is the shochu for you!