Everything You Want to Know About Shochu (But Were Afraid to Ask)

By B.E. Mintz |

In Japan, western style whiskies have been booming for the last decade, However, in the West, the trendy new spirit is a traditional Japanese drink. Shochu is popping up in markets across America, but still remains a mystery to most westerners.

In the spirit’s home country, shochu has even surpassed sake in sales. Hiromi Iuchi of the Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association explained one aspect of the appeal. “After three glasses, I get tired of sake and switch to shochu. Shochu you can drink forever. You can have it before the meal, during the meal, or after the meal.”

Shochu ambassador Stephen Lyman added some background. “In Japanese culture, one does not just drink. They eat and drink. Essentially everything is paired with food and shochu is a perfect match whether straight or diluted.”

500 to 600 years ago, shochu rose to popularity on the island of Kyushu according to Lyman. The first written mention of the beverage appeared in the year 1559. Two construction workers wrote graffiti lamenting that their “stingy” boss refused to ration out the drink. The beverage maintained this blue collar reputation until recent years. In fact, early on, a regular ritual evolved whereby workers would bring clay pots from their house directly to the local distillery for refilling.

But what is Japanese shochu exactly? 

That definition is broad (maybe a bit ambiguous), but one can find some common defining parameters in history and geography. At the simplest level, shochu is a spirit distilled from a local Kyushu product such brown sugar, rice, barley, or sweet potato. Originally, poor citizens would bring the distillery a portion of their crops to ferment and then return for their share of the clear, slightly sweet alcohol at a later date.

Like sake, a koji (or aspergillus) is used for fermentation. To the uninitiated, this fungus might also be recognized as the catalyst in soy sauce or rice wine vinegar. The initiated will note that Kyushu’s environs throw a few curveballs into the typical koji process. The island is too hot for traditional yellow koji which sours in the climate. So, most shochu makers opt to use heartier black or white koji instead. Iuchi speculated that early producers actually tried to make sake with these koji, but the resulting acidic taste inspired them to add the distillation step as a balance.

The next step involves a trip to the pot sills. Iuchi stressed that the base ferments can then only be distilled once. She also noted, “Nothing can be added post distillation except water. No flavorings, no herbs, no botanicals.”

The juice is then matured in glass lined stainless steel vats, clay pots, or wood barrels for a period typically ranging from three to twelve months.“They don’t cut the head. So, the esters and all that stuff needs to burn off after distillation,” said Lyman. (Koshu is shochu that has been aged for more than a year).

The end result normally clocks in at 20 to 30 percent alcohol by volume (a.b.v.) Anything above 45 percent is prohibited.

The experts note that this process distinguishes Japanese shochu from other liquors—especially Korean soju. According to Iuchi, Koreans use multiple distillations, additives, and different regulations concerning a.b.v.

5,000 to 6,000 brands of shochu are available in Japan. Worldwide export is a new phenomena. The spirit ambassador stated that originally the spirit was shipped to the States for sale to Japanese ex-pats, but the audience blossomed to include many Americans as well.

Lyman offered a few suggestions for newbies. He theorized that beer and whisk(e)y drinkers will like barley based shochus, sake drinkers would most likely gravitate to rice bases, and red wine drinkers will be partial to sweet potato bases. There are few formal rules surrounding the working man’s drink, but in Japan, one should not fill their own glass. Likewise, one should take care to refill their drinking buddies’ glasses.

Shochu is fairly dynamic. It can be drunk straight. When mixed with food, many prefer to dilute; hot water, cold water, or calpico (a yogurt concentrate type soft drink) can be added. Of course, shochu can also be mixed into a cocktail.

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