A Guide to Shochu

When most people think of uniquely Japanese alcoholic beverages, things such as sake and maybe even awamori are the first and often only drinks which come to mind. But unknowingly to most, it’s distilled shochu that surpasses both of these in popularity and frequency consumed. Never heard of it? Don’t worry, most other gaijin haven’t either. Here we will tell you what it is, how to enjoy it, and uncover the different varieties.

  • What is shochu?
  • How to drink shochu
    • Clean / Ice
    • Mizuwari
    • Oyuwari
    • Chu-hai
  • How it’s made
  • Different types of shochu
    • Imo shochu
    • Kokuto shochu
    • Kome shochu
    • Mugi shochu
    • Soba shochu
  • Popular shochu brands
    • Funaguchi kikusui
    • Iichiko silhouette
    • Kannoko
    • Satsuma musou
    • Tori kai

What is shochu?

It’s a distilled Japanese spirit that can be enjoyed in many different ways. Also, it goes perfectly with any food dish. Strangely, it’s hardly known outside of Japan, but inside Japan, its popularity far surpasses that of nihonshu.

What is shochu

How to drink shochu

There are various ways to enjoy this uniquely Japanese drink, and each method has a different effect on the taste. Here are the different ways you can enjoy it.

Clean or with ice

Consuming it clean or on the rocks is the best way to get the full aroma and taste of this drink. It may not be for everyone, as some find the smell and taste a bit overwhelming. Others prefer to enjoy it slightly heated or chilled as each of these affect the taste in a somewhat different way.

Mizuwari

Mizuwari is what you get when you mix the drink with cold water, and it’s a great way to release the hidden flavors contained within. Most izakayas will mix at a 40% water ratio while others use a higher 70%.

Oyuwari

When mixed with warm water, it’s called Oyuwari and is blended at the same ratio as mizuwari. The idea of combining warm water with alcohol is a strange concept for Westerners, but it’s pretty standard throughout Japan, especially during the cold winter months.

It’s also important to note that it has to be mixed in a particular way. Simply adding warm water to a glass of shochu will cause the water to cool at a quicker rate, which results in an overwhelmingly dry and robust taste. The correct way is first to warm the water in a Japanese teapot and then pour it into an empty glass. The shochu is added last because it is heavier than the water and therefore mixes naturally. It releases the hidden subtle flavors and has a gentle warming effect, which is excellent for those cold winter nights.

Chu-hai

Many people prefer to have it as a cocktail. These cocktails are known as Chu-hai, and the varieties are almost endless. Some standard mixers include yogurt, oolong tea, soda water, and various fruit juices such as orange, grape, Japanese plum, kiwi, etc.


How it’s made

Shochu is made from natural spring water and a base ingredient – which can be barley, sugarcane, sweet potato, rice, or buckwheat. It can be single distilled or distilled multiple times. Brands that are distilled maintain the flavors and aromas of their base ingredients. These are also best enjoyed clean, on the rocks, or watered down. Multiple distilled brands have a much more apparent taste, and most of these varieties are well suited for use in cocktails.


Different types of shochu

The base ingredients define types. Although there are almost no restrictions on the kind of base ingredient one can use, most distillers only choose from a small set of options. The main base ingredients include potatoes, wheat, barley, sugarcane, and rice.

Imo shochu

Imo is the word for Japanese sweet potato, and as the name suggests, it uses it as the base ingredient. Many people often describe the taste as sweet and strong – also, some of the best selling shochu brands in Japan use imo as the base ingredient.

Kokuto shochu

Kokuto shochu is made from brown sugar. It undergoes a process where the sugarcane gets harvested, converted into brown sugar, and then into distilled spirits – usually with rice added as an extra-base ingredient. Although less popular than the other types on the list, it still has a pleasant sweet taste. Most kokuto varieties are versatile, as it’s enjoyable as a cocktail, on the rocks, or watered down.

Kome shochu

Kome is a rice-based variety and shares some similarities with nihonshu. The taste is described as light and refreshing with a rich aroma. Some sake distilleries will also have a section where they produce kome shochu because of the shared base ingredient – rice.

Mugi shochu

Mugi, a variety made from barley, is one of the easiest types to drink and is, therefore, a popular choice among beginners. Most distilleries which specialize in this type are located in the Nagasaki, Oita and Miyazaki Prefectures. You get two kinds of mugi shochu – clear and amber. The amber variety is aged in oak barrels for a couple of years and therefore has a similar taste to whiskey. And because it is aged, it costs more than the clear versions.

Soba shochu

Soba shochu uses buckwheat as the base ingredient. It’s the newest of the varieties and has only started being produced as recently as 1973. The Unkai Brewery Company was the first to produce it, and it has since caught on thanks to its pleasant and mild taste.


Popular shochu brands

Now that you are more familiar with this Japanese drink, we will reveal some famous brands. We also included a few varieties that are ideal for beginners.

Funaguchi kikusui shochu

This spirit is famous for its use of a very rare sweet potato as its base ingredient, and many people compare it to being remarkably similar to a high-quality whiskey.

Iichiko silhouette mugi shochu

The single distilled and incredibly smooth Iichiko brand has a reputation for being the best introductory shochu for beginners. This light tasting drink is made from wholesome spring water and barley in Oita Prefecture by the Sanwa Shurui Distillery. Iichiko Silhouette is easily found in most stores, and izakaya’s across Japan.

Kannoko shochu

Kannoko means ‘river protected by the gods’ and is named after a stream in southern Kagoshima where its water is used as an ingredient. High-quality barley is the base ingredient, and it spends three years aging in oak barrels before hitting the shelves. Because of its strong whiskey nature and taste, its best enjoyed clean, on the rocks, or the mizuwari way.

You will easily find this brand in the southern regions of Japan – most specifically throughout Kagoshima. It becomes rarer and harder to find the further north you go.

Satsuma musou shochu

The Satsuma Musou brand is named after the region it’s made in – the Satsuma region in Kyushu. Sweet potatoes are used as the base ingredient and its known for its mild, slightly sweet taste which makes it easy to drink. It’s not a brand that is readily available throughout Japan as its region-specific. To obtain a bottle, you will have to be in the Kyushu region or a major US city. The reason being that this particular brand gets exported more than what it’s consumed in Japan.

Tori kai shochu

The Tori Kai variety uses polished rice as its base ingredient, while its taste is best described as fruity and mild. Additionally, it has no strong aftertaste, and therefore it’s an ideal brand for first-timers. Tori Kai is often described as silky and is perfect on the rocks, hot, cold, or even as a cocktail.


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Further reading

Find some shochu cocktail recipes at the JapanCentre website here.

The drink sounds very similar to an unrelated Korean drink which has gained popularity in the West. It’s known as Soju and you can learn the difference between the two here.

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