Shochu, though less well known than sake, is a versatile drink widely enjoyed by people in Japan.
When dining at an izakaya in Japan, one is bound to notice the word shochu (pronounced show-chew) while glossing over the list of alcoholic beverages. Typically lesser known than the popular “sake” (which refers to nihonshu), shochu is a widely enjoyed versatile drink that is created through a fairly intricate brewing process. Shochu specifically goes through distillation, a process that was introduced to Japan in the early 15th century. Although it is easy to liken it to other distilled beverages such as vodka, soju (Korea), and rum, there are several characteristics that distinguish shochu as a unique Japanese beverage.
Origins of Shochu
One of the closest relatives and predecessors to shochu is known as awamori, a distilled beverage originating from Okinawa that can be commonly found throughout Japan. It is categorized under the umbrella term shochu, though one of the main differences is the type of rice that is used: long-grained indica rice. The method by which distillation technology entered Japan is still unclear, but there is evidence that supports a variety of theories. One of these theories points to a trade route between Siam (present-day Thailand) and Ryukyu (present-day Okinawa), and records indicate that by 1477, people in Ryukyu were creating distilled drinks using long-grained rice to compete with alcoholic beverages that were being imported from Siam.
Production of Shochu
There are over 5,000 different brews of shochu available today, and this wide array of tastes is created accordingly from a plethora of base ingredients, including sweet potato (imo), barley (mugi), rice (kome), brown sugar (kokutō), buckwheat (soba), aloe, pumpkin, milk, chestnut, sesame, carrot, kelp (kombu), perilla (shiso), cactus, tomato, and Japanese radish (daikon). Regarding sweet potatoes alone, there are over 40 varieties used to create shochu, each yielding a unique final product.
Most shochu is generally produced using the same process, but the magic behind shochu production lies in the usage of koji mold, which is a major factor that differentiates shochu from other types of distilled beverages. Koji mold is the same ingredient that is used in the production of miso (soybean paste) and shoyu (soy sauce), and in the case of shochu, it is used to provide the enzymes necessary for converting starches into sugar.
Koji mold is cultivated in a step called “preparation,” which precedes a two-step fermentation process. The koji spores are allowed to grow, in most cases on rice, for a window of approximately 40 to 42 hours. Following preparation, water and yeast are added to the koji, and the yeast works on the mixture creating ethanol in the first stage of fermentation. After approximately five to eight days of bubbling, a large amount of starch (main ingredient) and water are added and allowed to mix for another eight to ten days.
Once the second stage of fermentation is complete, the mixture is moved to the still, where the distillation process takes place. The alcohol is boiled off the mixture and removed, creating a raw, undiluted form of shochu known as genshu. This is typically aged at the discretion of the brewer. After the aging process, the shochu is diluted with water (honkaku shochu is typically bottled at 25% ABV-alcohol by volume) and then filtered (unfiltered shochu isn’t unheard of, though). Finally, the shochu is bottled and the process is complete.
Comparing Apples to Oranges
Sometimes referred to as “Japanese vodka,” shochu is often related to other distilled beverages in order to help those unfamiliar with shochu better identify it. Despite certain similarities, shochu is created using a unique process and should be given its own separate category.
The main and representative type of shochu is called honkaku shochu, a term given to shochu that has been distilled only once. This single distilling preserves the details and natural flavors of the original ingredients so that they can be savored aromatically and with each sip. On the other hand, repeatedly distilling a spirit will remove the colorful flavors of the main ingredients, and shochu that has been distilled multiple times is referred to as kōrui. Multiple-distilled spirits include vodka and Korean soju. Between these two, soju would be considered more similar to honkaku shochu than vodka, as traditional soju also uses koji in the fermentation process. However, most soju today is not made in the traditional style, and starch substitutes such as yams and tapioca are often used instead of rice.
Awamori is considered to be the most similar to honkaku shochu, with the main difference being that awamori uses long-grained indica rice in the koji preparation and fermentation process instead of the short-grained japonica rice, which is used in honkaku shochu. Also, the fermentation process in making awamori consists of one stage instead of two, and awamori only uses black koji mold, while honkaku shochu can use black, yellow, or white koji mold.
As a side note, nihonshu is similar to honkaku shochu in that it uses rice as one of the four most common base ingredients, and also uses the same type of koji spores. However, nihonshu is not distilled like honkaku shochu, and its brewing process is rather similar to beer.
Regional Specialties and Characteristic Traits
Although shochu is produced in all 47 prefectures in Japan, there are four famous locale-specific specialties designated by base ingredient, each with a regional appellation: “Satsuma”-potato shochu from Kagoshima, “Iki”-barley shochu from Nagasaki, “Kuma”-rice shochu from southern Kumamoto, and “Ryukyu”-awamori from Okinawa.
Besides variations in base ingredients, the type of koji mold that is used also has a major influence on the resulting taste of the shochu. Black koji mold tends to highlight and amplify the flavor of the ingredients. On the other hand, white koji mold has a tendency to round or soften the flavors of the ingredients. Yellow koji, although definitely not as common as white and black koji, will produce a much lighter and fruitier result than the other two.
Other factors such as the atmospheric pressure during the distilling process as well as the type of container used during aging (oak barrel, stainless steel tank, clay pots) will also have an effect on the flavor profile of the shochu.
The Most Versatile Spirit
Besides an astounding variety of shochu available on the market, there are also numerous ways to enjoy it. Because honkaku shochu preserves trace flavors of the original ingredients, many will agree that it is best enjoyed neat (straight), on the rocks, or mixed with water in order to fully appreciate those delicate notes. Mizuwari refers to adding mineral water to shochu, with the standard ratio being 6:4 (shochu to water). In the case of mizuwari, it is important to pour the shochu first and then add the water slowly. On the other hand, cooler weather might prompt one to mix shochu with hot water, known as oyuwari. For the case of oyuwari, the hot water (approximately 70-80 degrees Celcius) should be poured first and the shochu added last. Many choose to mix their shochu with water in order to lower the alcohol content, but doing so can also help mute any strong flavors that might overpower the taste buds. Some people also enjoy mixing shochu with oolong tea or carbonated water, and sometimes izakaya create special cocktails using shochu as a base. It is this versatility that has led shochu to become the best selling spirit in Japan, and it was in 2003 that shochu surpassed nihonshu in domestic sales. Despite the over 1 million kiloliters of shochu shipped in 2009, it is said that supply is barely keeping up with demand.
Shochu is nowhere near as popular as Japanese whiskey in the international market, but recently it’s apparent that Japanese shochu is becoming recognized as a highly versatile spirit with a wide range of character profiles. On top of its tendency to leave drinkers without hangovers after a night of drinking, shochu can possess an extraordinary amount of different flavor bodies and subtleties. Why not give it a chance; shochu just might become your new choice of drink!