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The Japanese Spirit More Popular than Saké and Whisky: Shochu / 焼酎

Some of the Japanese spirits that you haven't heard of (Hiroharu Itaya,
"Night procession of one hundred demons" circa 1820)

 

The world is familiar with Japanese alcohol. Sake is widely drunk all across Asia and in parts of the West. The global demand for Japanese whisky reaches peak after peak of nose-bleeding heights. But there’s this new spirit gaining traction – and it is arguably Japan’s original and true spirit.

 

 

We’re talking about shochu (焼酎), a (typically) unaged spirit made from a wide range of base ingredients. Written with Kanji characters “burnt” and “wine” that suggest the heating of alcohol, shochu is the national spirit of Japan. And although it is uncreatively written with the same traditional characters as Korean soju or Chinese shaojiu, it is a distinct in flavour and craft from these other East Asian spirits.

Most of us living outside Japan might be more familiar with sake or Japanese whisky. Yet in Japan, shochu has consistently outsold both sake and Japanese whisky over the past decade.

So why haven’t some of us heard of shochu? Some speculate that it’s probably the language and labelling of these drinks.

 


Whereas Japanese whisky and sake bottle labels tend to contain foreigner-friendly English descriptions, the shochu industry had remained focused on the domestic market and had been slower to adopt English labelling. Most shochu bottles feature large Japanese calligraphy splayed across the label with little to no information in English.

All this has slowly changed in the recent years.

 

 

iichiko, the world’s most popular shochu brand, is much more mindful of consumers outside Japan. Its labels are more foreigner-friendly with English descriptions, and it also manages a full English-language website that outlines the ingredients, environment, history and process of shochu-making.

 

So, why drink Shochu?

It’s stronger than a beer, but not exactly a spirit either. There are occasions – perhaps while enjoying Asian food – when one craves a good alcoholic drink that is a little stronger, but not too much. In such instances we can think of shochu as a bit of a halfway-house between a tame sake (about 15% ABV) and a Western distilled spirit (about 40% ABV or more).

Shochu is a distilled alcoholic drink that only comes in at about 20-30% ABV, making it significantly easier to drink neat than a gin, whisky or rum, and also easier on our waistlines since it is lower in calories.

 

 

What makes shochu an interesting drink, however, is that it is a world unto itself. There is a huge variation of styles, ingredients and complexity of flavours. Shochu made from rice, for instance, will taste very different from shochu made from barley or sweet potato. With over 200 distilleries that produce thousands of different expressions, there are countless flavour profiles to choose from and possibly a shochu to suit every individual and dish.

 

(Image Source: Julien Miclo)

 

Pot still, Column still or Blended Shochu

 

As seen on iichiko’s website.

 

Established shochu brands such as iichiko and Satsuma Shiranami tend to proudly proclaim that they produce only “Honkaku Shochu”. This is a legally-recognised shochu production category very much analogous to “single malt whisky”.

 

Traditional Japanese pot stills (Image Source: Hamada Syuzou)

 

Honkaku shochu is translated as “traditional shochu”. This is shochu that has been made using a traditional pot still and distilled only once. To be labelled a honkaku shochu, the production must also comply with a complex list of requirements on base ingredients under Japanese law. It to be made using one type of base ingredient- whether it is a grain, sweet potatoe (or sugar), then fermented using a specific strain of mold called Aspergillus oryzae, or koji. This process ensures a richly-flavoured shochu with the aroma of the base ingredients.

 A column still.

 

Korui shochu is the latter category of shochu which does not have to comply with the complicated requirements listed above. Much like cheaper grain whisky (from Scotch tradition), it is made using column stills and a consecutive distillation process, resulting in a clean and crisp taste with little to no aroma of the base ingredients – more often used in a cocktail.

 

 

The advantage of making Korui shochu lies in the efficient process of using continuous distillation. There’s also the fact that sugarcane can be used to make Korui shochu, thus bypassing the need to saccharify any base ingredients to create the alcohol required.

For the rest of this guide, we would be focusing on honkaku shochu

 

Sweet Koji

 

 Barley koji.

 

Chefs and beer enthusiasts are familiar with the malting process where raw grains are tricked into converting their starch into sugars, a necessary ingredient for alcohol fermentation. Chemists describe this process as saccharification (i.e. creating “saccharides” or sugars).

Saccharification is also used in shochu making, but in a uniquely Japanese way. All honkaku shochu are made by saccharification using a special mold called the aspergillus. The mold is introduced using “koji”, a mixture of steamed rice, barley or sweet potato inoculated with the mold.

Adding koji to the base ingredients convert the starches into sugar for shochu production. There are also different varieties of koji, such as “black koji”, “white koji” or “yellow koji”. Black and white koji are usually used for producing shochu. Yellow koji are usually used for sake production.

 

Main varieties of Honkaku Shochu

There are 6 main styles of honkaku shochu made from different base ingredients with a highly diverse range of flavour profiles.

 

Mugi Shochu (Barley / 麦)

Barley (or mugi) is the most popular choice of ingredient for shochu production – more than half of all shochu is produced using barley. Of the many varieties of shochu, mugi shochu also has the most accessible flavour profile that appeals to new drinkers, or fans of Japanese whisky.

Such shochu tend to be mildly sweet with crisp grassy and earthy notes. A sub-genre of mugi shochu known as yakimugi (焼麦) shochu is made using barley that had been roasted first, giving the resulting shochu a distinctive rich and nutty flavour.

The best-known brand of barley shochu is none other than iichiko produced by the Sanwa Shurui Company in Japan’s Oita Prefecture.

 

 

The entry-level iichiko Silhouette shochu is delicate and aromatic with a clean texture, a sweet-savoury palate of fresh lychees, toasted cereal and roasted walnuts.

 

Imo Shochu (Sweet Potato / )

Sweet potato (or imo) shochu is the most classic variety of shochu which originates from Kyushu where sweet potatoes are widely grown. They tend to have richer fruitiness and floral notes accompanied by mild smokiness, with sometimes a very light medicinal note reminiscent of tequila.

 

 

A well-known brand of award-winning classic sweet potato shochu is Kurokirishima. Its entry-level expression has a round sweetness, mild citrus notes and a distinctly crisp aftertaste. The crisp flavour profile of this brand is often a recommended pairing with oily Japanese pub (Izakaya) food.

 

Kome Shochu (Short-grain Japonica Rice / )

Many sake breweries around Japan eventual began producing rice shochu as well, often to minimise ingredient wastage by using flakes of rice that had been polished off rice grains earlier used for sake production.

Rice shochu tends to be the closest in character to barley shochu with its mellow and crisp texture, albeit that it has a very sweet aroma reminiscent of sake.

 

 

The most popular brand of rice shochu is Torikai Ginka. This is smooth, gentle on the palate, with a very sweet and floral aroma reminiscent of sake.

 

Awamori (Long-grain Indica Rice / )

Awamori is classified as a type of shochu, but is historically seen as a distinct class of spirit produced in Okinawa with a history dating back several hundreds of years. According to some historians, awamori’s story began in the 15th century when distillation technology from the Siam Kingdom (present day Thailand) was introduced to people in Okinawa (then, the Ryukyu Kingdom).

 

The Kingdom of Siam, painted by a Johannes Vingboons in the 1600s.

 

Interestingly, a small scrap of Siamese heritage is retained in Okinawa over hundreds of years. Awamori is distilled not with short-grain Japonica rice, but with long-grain Indica rice grown in Thailand. And while most shochu producers use white koji, awamori producers use black koji for saccharification.

 

 

While rice is also used to make awamori, awamori traditionally has much richer flavours with more savouriness, earthiness, stronger fruitiness and floral notes. That said, modern awamori expressions are moving towards a lighter and cleaner profile to appeal to more drinkers.

 

Hana Shimuata is quite possibly the most popular brand of awamori. This has a light mouthfeel, a hint of sweetness, but with rich floral notes and a depth of umami and earthy funkiness.

 

Kokuto Shochu (Brown Sugar / 黒糖)

This is the “rhum agricole” of the shochu family. Brown sugar shochu is produced on the Amami archipelago between Kyushu and Okinawa, where sugar cane is harvested to make brown sugar.

 

(Image Source: Visit Okinawa Japan)

 

Brown sugar shochu is made with this unrefined brown cane sugar, giving it a flavour similar to rum. One of the most popular brands is Lento Shochu which comes in a distinctive turquoise bottle and is approachable, sweet, grassy with light tropical fruits on the palate. The notes are somewhat comparable to a light white rum.

 

 

Sakekasu Shochu (Sake Residue Cake / 酒粕)

 

 

Finally, here’s an ingredient you wouldn’t expect. A by-product of sake brewing, sakekasu or sake lee is a sweet white paste-like substance with high nutritional value that is often used to marinate meat and vegetables in Japan, and even used in cosmetics and skincare.

Sakekasu shochu is made with this substance, and often has a distinctive note of sake with a more elegant and complex flavour profile of sweetness and savouriness.

 

 

Shichida Ginjo is a well-known brand of sakekasu shochu made from brewing Junmai Daiginjo sake.

 

 

Legally-protected Geographical Indications

Much like how “Scotch” for Scotch whisky and “Champagne” in Champagne wine are legally-protected geographical indications, shochu from select regions in Japan also enjoy a similar type of protection.

 

(Image Source: Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association)

 

Iki shochu (壱岐焼酎) is barley shochu made in Nagasaki Prefecture’s Iki Island. This must be made with a rice-to-barley ratio of 1:2. Iki shochu is crisp and refreshing with a steamed barley aroma and a rich sweet taste of rice koji. The mineral-rich local groundwater also enriches the flavour and provide a pleasant and clean finish.

 

Iki Island has a warm, oceanic climate with an average annual temperature of 16.1°C (Image Source: Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association)

 

Kuma shochu (球磨焼酎) is a rice shochu produced in a valley near the Kuma River of Kumamoto Prefecture. Kuma shochu is light, refreshing and has a mellow sweetness of rice wine.

 

Located within a valley surrounded by the Kyushu Mountains, the Kuma region experiences cooler and windier climate. The average annual temperature is about 15.5°C (Image Source: Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association)

 

Satsuma shochu (薩摩焼酎) is a sweet potato shochu produced in the Kagoshima Prefecture. They tend to be smooth and crisp with balanced sweetness with floral notes.

 

Kagoshima is primarily warm and humid, with an average annual temperature of 17.5°C (Image Source: Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association)

 

Ryukyu awamori (琉球泡盛) simply means awamori produced in Okinawa. It has notes of sweet vanilla, and an earthy mushroom-like aroma derived from the black koji mold.

 

Okinawa has a subtropical climate, with hot humid summers where temperatures exceed 30°C and mild winters that do not go below 10°C (Image Source: Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association)

 

Amami kokuto shochu (奄美黒糖焼酎) or simply kokuto shochu is brown sugar shochu produced in the Amami Islands. This tends to have a pleasant, sweet flavour reminiscent of certain rums.

 

The Amami Islands have a subtropical climate and experience warm temperatures throughout the year (Image Source: Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association)

 

How to start drinking Shochu

 

 

Unlike baijiu or sake (which are traditionally drunk with cute tiny cups), shochu should be poured into a medium sized cup and sipped.

 

(Image Source: No Recipies)

 

The Japanese also have surprisingly elaborate practices of cutting shochu with all kinds of different mixers – whether it’s with cold water to bring down the ABV, hot water for a warm toasty hug in winter, oolong tea for a boozy tea cocktail and fruit juice for a light alcoholic punch drink.

Shochu is also becoming increasingly popular in the United States in recent years, possibly rivalling "Western spirits" like rum, vodka and gin as a base alcohol for highballs, martinis, Negroni and especially umami cocktails (e.g. Bloody Mary, Bloody Caesar, Dirty Martini with brined olives).⁠

 

 

The popularity of shochu as a cocktail spirit has prompted larger shochu brands to develop punchier "bartender edition" shochu that are great in cocktails. The iichiko Saiten (which was awarded Double Gold in the 2020 San Francisco World Spirits Competition) comes in at 43% ABV with rich and complex aromas of jasmine tea, white peach, minerals and mild brine. iichiko touts this as a modern bartender's shochu that is ideal for making cocktails. 

Are all these styles too complicated to remember? Just drink shochu the way it's traditionally meant to be – straight. Most shochu have rather mild ABVs (of 20-30%), so any drinker would be comfortable sipping it neat anyway.

 

 

@CharsiuCharlie