The liquor you’ve probably never heard of before
When people think of Japanese liquor, sake is of course the first thing that comes to mind (in fact, the term osake translates literally to ‘alcohol’), but what about the hidden treasure that is shochu?
Not to be mistaken with the similar Korean soju, shochu is a distilled liquor that’s generally light in colour and sits between 20–30% ABV.
Shochu production began in the south of Japan 500 years ago using a similar method to sake brewing, said Honkaku Shochu and Awamori. However, the distillation process didn’t start in Japan. In fact, it wasn’t until the country started trading in the 15th century through the tropical Okinawa islands that the distillation technique transformed the traditional sake into another, stronger type of alcohol
The oldest record of shochu comes from the 1546 essay, “Report on Japanese Matters,” by Portuguese merchant Jorge Alvarez. In his report, Alvarez wrote “people were drinking [a spirit] made from rice in the Yamagawa area,” or today’s Ibusuki City in Kagoshima Prefecture. In 1559, a carpenter in northern Kagoshima wrote the word “shochu” in a complaint about his employer. It read “the head priest was so cheap that he never offered us shochu.” Interestingly, this is the oldest domestic written record of “shochu”.
Like with the sake-making process, shochu was originally made out of rice. The South American sweet potato or ‘imo’ arrived two centuries later on to the island and started thriving within the fertile region of Kagoshima — which grew to be one of the most popular varieties in Japan to this day.
Another key element to shochu making is the fermenting agent called ‘koji’. No one really knows when koji was found and put to use, but the first written recording was dated back to the 8th century Nara period — when rice became more common on the Japanese iles.
As we’ve mentioned before, koji (in layman’s terms) is a class of mould that supports the fermentation process by breaking down the sugars — a process known as saccharification. If you like beer-making, koji would basically be the shochu and sake version of malt.
Depending on what colour koji is used with each starch, the flavour can be full and robust, toasty and aromatic, or even floral and crisp. Black koji, originally from Okinawa, was one of the first strains used for shochu, with the white koji strain later being found to have developed from the black variety. (Sake, in case you’re wondering, usually uses yellow koji.)
So now that we know a bit about the history, what exactly are the main classes of shochu and how do they taste?
As stated above, the sweet potato category probably has the biggest range and selection if you were to enter into a classic izakaya and have a glass with your yakitori. Leaning more towards the full-bodied and perhaps intense flavours, imo shochu can be found in most places that serve shochu in the first place.
While some lists may seem overwhelming, try starting with the ‘Hozan’ trio. The three most popular versions are: ‘Kiccho Hozan’, ‘Hakuten Hozan’, and ‘Tomi no Hozan’. These are all made by the same company and would be a great ‘entry’ to your shochu journey.
Kiccho Hozan is the strongest and one with the boldest taste — typical of traditional imo shochu that old Japanese guys like to drink. ‘Hakuten Hozan’ is a nice middle ground with a clean aftertaste that goes great in a highball glass with some ice, soda water, and lemon zest. Lastly, ‘Tomi no Hozan’ was made to be a ‘new style’ shochu that appealed more to the younger generations who pretend to prefer lighter and crisper flavours in their drinks.
Some may say ‘Tomi no Hozan’ was made more for a women’s palate, but we know some tough ladies who can handle a lot more than a glass of liquor ;)
Barley or Mugi, is the second most populous shochu varietal that mainly comes from the Kagoshima region on the island of Kyushu. This category would probably be the most accessible to drinkers familiar with whiskey and vodka since this is another grain-style distillation. While it doesn’t necessarily give off a toasty or nutty flavour for the most part, it is an excellent selection for those wanting a crisp, clean, and fragrant glass that wouldn’t interfere with your palate when having a meal. (I mean, you can have any category you want with your meal; barley, from personal experience, just tends to do well across the board.)
One famous brand that can be found all over the world is ‘Iichiko’ — a smooth and mellow flavour that is actually made with barley koji as well to give it that distinctive, subtle flavour similar to brown rice.
Rice or ‘kome’
What’s the difference between rice names? I thought ‘gohan’ was rice?
Kome refers to the fine uncooked rice that is typically used to make beverages like sake and shochu. Gohan refers to the eating rice that you’ll have as a part of your teishoku meal set or at the foundation of your donburi!
Rice shochu is made with 100% rice from the base starch to the fermenting agent. In fact, rice-based shochu is the first distilled spirit native to Japan, reported Japan Distilled. This honour is so protected that “Rice shochu produced in the Kuma River Basin in Kumamoto using local spring water and Japanese rice is eligible for the Kuma Shochu WTO designation.”
(Think those PDO and AOC certifications on authentic wine and olive oil bottles)
If you just love sake or are unsure of the other flavour profiles so far — kome might be the right starting place to have a glass with a bit more body and naturally a touch more sweetness when compared with the previous starches. But don’t get confused — due to the distillation process, the shochu version will be much less sweet than sake.
Other base ingredient categories may include: Okinawan Black Sugar Cane, Thai-style Long Grain rice, and Buckwheat grain which all give their unique flavour profiles and bodies that can vary even by the bottle! Check out your local Japanese restaurant specialising in liqueurs or your local Japanese grocery store for some great options imported from the islands.