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 the distilled shochu which surpasses both of these in popularity and in 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?
Shochu is a distilled Japanese spirit which 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.
How to drink shochu
There are various ways to enjoy this uniquely Japanese drink and each way 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 aroma and taste to be a bit overwhelming. Others prefer to enjoy it slightly heated or chilled as each of these affect the taste in a slightly different way.
Shochu mixed with cold water is known as Mizuwari and is a great way to release the hidden flavors contained within. Most izikaya’s will mix at a 40% water ratio while others use a higher ratio of 70%.
When mixed with warm water it’s called Oyuwari and is blended at the same ratio as mizuwari, ‘cold water’. The idea of combining warm water with alcohol is a strange concept for Westerners but it’s pretty common practice throughout Japan, especially during the cold winter months.
It’s also important to note that it has to be mixed in a very specific 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 strong and dry taste. The correct way is to first warm the water in a Japanese tea pot and then pour it into an empty glass. The shochu gets added last because its heavier than the water and therefore mixes naturally. This releases the hidden subtle flavors of shochu and has a nice warming effect which is great for those cold winter nights.
Many people prefer to have it as a cocktail. These cocktails are known as Chu-hai and the varieties are almost endless. Some common mixers include yogurt, oolang tea, soda water and various fuit 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 which are distilled once maintain the flavors and aromas of their base ingredients. These are also best enjoyed clean, on the rocks or watered down. Multiple distilled shochu has a much clearer taste and most of these varieties are well suited for use in cocktails.
The different types of shochu
A shochu’s type is defined by its base ingredient. And although there is technically no limit on the type 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 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 uses imo as the base ingredient.
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 too as it can be enjoyed as a cocktail, on the rocks or watered down.
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, a variety made from barley is one of the easiest types to drink and is therefore a popular choice among shochu beginners. Most distilleries which specialize in this type are located in the Nagasaki, Oita and Miyazaki Prefectures. You basically get two types of mugi shochu – clear and amber. The amber variety is aged on oak barrels for a couple of years and therefore has a similar taste to whisky. And because its aged it costs more than the clear versions.
Soba shochu uses buckwheat as the base ingredient. This type is the newest of the varieties and has only started being produced as recently as 1973. The Unkai Brewery Company were 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 popular 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 extremely similar to a high quality whisky.
Iichiko silhouette mugi shochu
The single distilled and incredible 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 means ‘river protected by the gods’ and is named after a stream in southern Kagoshima from where its water is used as an ingredient for this shochu. High quality barley is used as its base ingredient and spends 3 years aging in an oak barrel before hitting the shelves. Because of its strong whisky nature and taste, its best enjoyed clean, on the rocks or the mizuwari way.
You will find this brand easily in the southern regions of Japan – most specifically throughout Kagoshima. It becomes rarer and harder to find this quality single distilled shochu in the northern parts of the country.
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 easily available throughout Japan as its region specific. To obtain a bottle you will have to be in the Kyushu region or in a major US city. The reason being that this particular brand gets exported more than it’s consumed in Japan.
Tori kai shochu
The Tori Kai variety uses polished rice as its base ingredient while its taste can be 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 oftentimes described as silky and is perfect on the rocks, hot, cold or even in cocktails.
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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.