Almost everyone has heard of Japanese sake before, but what about shochu? Shochu is another of Japan’s traditional alcoholic beverages that, much like sake, comes in a huge variety of flavors and types.
Shochu production started about 500 years ago in southern Japan. An authentic Japanese spirit resulted from a combination of the basic sake brewing technique and the distillation method. The development of this unique method itself underlines the history of shochu.
What is Shochu?
There are two classifications of Shochu in Japan.
The first One is Honkaku Shochu (Single distillation Shochu) and the other is Korui Shochu (Consecutive distillation shochu ). They are categorized by Japanese taxation law based on the ingredients and manufacturing method. The word Honkaku is translated as traditional, authentic or genuine.
Honkaku Shochu has restrictions on the ingredients and it has to be made by single distillation, which allows Honkaku Shochu to retain the rich flavor and aroma of its main ingredients.
Kourui Shochu is made by consecutive distillation, which creates a clear taste with no aroma suited for use with cocktail mixers. Their ingredients are varied like molasses, alcohol, and grains. Even though both Honkaku Shochu and Korui Shochu are both called Shochu, they have different qualities and charactors.
Types of Shochu
Two Distilling Methods
Shochu is broadly classified by the distilling method used. This difference affects not only the taste but also the classification under Japan’s tax laws.
Types of Shochu Based on Ingredients Used
Imo-Jochu (Sweet Potato Shochu)
One of the most common types of shochu, imo-jochu is distilled from sweet potatoes, which have plenty of natural sugar in them and give the drink a sweetness and strong aroma.
Mugi-jochu (Barley Shochu)
Compared with imo-jochu, mugi-jochu is typically a bit cleaner tasting, with a fruity aroma that makes it fairly easy to drink even for shochu beginners
Kome-Jochu (Rice Shochu)
Most types of shochu use malted rice as a base for the mash, but kome-jochu uses it as the main ingredient, as well. Kome-jochu made in the traditional way features a rich aroma and full body that can be a bit intense for some shochu newbies but is enjoyed by shochu lovers. However, some newer “soft type” kome-jochu instead has a light and crisp taste, so be sure to try both kinds.
Kokuto Shochu (Brown Sugar Shochu)
Kokuto shochu is only made in the Amami Islands off the southern coast of Kagoshima Prefecture, making it one of the more unique types of shochu. It’s known for having a clean and easy-to-drink flavor that is quite refreshing.
Soba-jochu (Buckwheat Shochu)
Compared to the most common types of shochu (sweet potato, barley, or rice shochu) soba-jochu has an even cleaner taste and gentle sweetness that makes it popular with shochu beginners and people who don’t like overly pungent alcohol. It is also lower in calories, making it slightly healthier than the other varieties as well.
Awamori (Okinawan Shochu)
Okinawa’s special type of shochu, called “awamori,” is made from Jasmine rice (instead of Japanese (Japonica) rice, as with kome-jochu) and uses a particular kind of malted rice called “kuro koji” as the base of the mash. The resulting liquor has a mellow flavor and is quite refreshing, even though the alcohol content can sometimes be as high as 43%. Awamori is generally considered to be the oldest type of shochu in Japan, with a history going back more than 500 years, so be sure to give it a try.
Increasing Demand for Shochu and “Awamori”
During the Edo period (1600-1868), shochu was one of the many gifts sent to the Shogunate. It had value not only as a beverage but also as a disinfectant for sword wounds. Quickly, the Okinawa islands and southern Kyushu regions could no longer fulfill the increasing demand. As a result, officials started to order sake breweries in their regions to produce shochu from sake lees. This is when the term “awamori” started to appear in official documents to differentiate this locally produced shochu and valued Okinawan liquor. The name has been used ever since.
Shochu in Japanese Tradition and Culture
Today, shochu is a largely casual drink enjoyed throughout Japan. However, it has also played special roles in rituals and celebrations. Shochu was a way to communicate with gods, welcome important guests, and to build communities with friends and family.
The First Drink Is for God
Symbolic rituals involving shochu flourished in parts of Kyushu and Okinawa. One custom involved pouring the first drop of shochu in the corner of the room or somewhere close when drinking outside. This was an act of offering the shochu to god, showing their gratitude for the drink. In Miyako, the first cup was called “kaminumun” which means “one for god.”
Festivals and Celebrations
Shochu played a part in various festivals and celebrations in Kyushu and Okinawa. In many regions, people celebrated the planting of rice seedlings and harvesting of rice with rounds of shochu. Also, in other areas, such as Iki, shochu was an integral part of the summertime bon celebration. The bon festival celebrates a time when the ancestral spirits are believed to come back for three days. In Okinawa, drinking parties took place at almost all important life events, including birth, marriage, late-life birthdays, and even the completion of construction of a new house. In many places, drinking meant celebration.
Ecocycle and Shochu Making in Communities
Shochu is a distilled liquor, meaning it is made in the same way that whisky, vodka, and other distilled liquors are made—by boiling a fermented mixture of grains or potatoes called a “mash” and recondensing the captured alcohol vapor (which boils at a lower temperature than water). In contrast, sake or “nihonshu” as it is called in Japanese, is brewed from rice in much the same way that beer is brewed from grains.
As such, shochu has a fairly high alcohol content (usually between 20 and 45%) whereas sake is closer to wine (usually around 15% – 20%). The flavors and uses of the two drinks, too, are quite different, each with its own unique characteristics.
How to Drink Shochu
Shochu is commonly enjoyed on the rocks, cut with water or tea, or used as a base for myriad mixed drinks and cocktails. It can basically be thought of as Japanese vodka!
Let’s enjoy shochu, an alcoholic beverage that is still relatively unknown.
Sake is the first alcohol that comes to mind when you think of Japan, but shochu is also not to be missed. Did you know that it’s versatile, delicious, and much deeper than it seems?
You can also enjoy it at our group restaurants Tamon, Osha, Ajido Sawtelle, and Hachioji Ramen.