If you live in Japan and you’re looking to have a big night out—not some sedate evening of sushi and sake, but a real rager, going bar-hopping and probably ending up doing late-night karaoke—you’re going to be drinking shochu.
Shochu is Japan’s national drink, consistently outselling sake domestically. It’s associated with wild good times, it’s being imported into the U.S. in increasing quantities, and there’s just as much to geek out over about it as there is with whiskey. It’s time you learned a little bit about this popular category.
Let’s start with the basics: Shochu is made by distillation, just like vodka, gin and whiskey, as opposed to only fermentation, like beer, wine or sake. It originates on Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan’s four main islands. Beyond that, things get complicated.
“Shochu is an incredibly diverse and complex spirit,” says Christopher Pellegrini, a former beer-brewer in Vermont who moved to Japan in the early 2000s and became obsessed with shochu. In time, Pellegrini turned himself into the spirit’s foremost English-language authority, becoming an officially certified shochu sommelier, writing The Shochu Handbook, and starting shochu.pro, a website dedicated to shochu news and reviews. “I think that a lot of people find shochu unapproachable because there are so many different drinks that are all called the same thing,” he says.
But one thing that holds the shochu world together (and separates it from other types of spirits) is the mold used to ferment it. Koji, also known as aspergillis oryzae, is a type of fungus used to make sake, soy sauce, tofu, miso and rice wine vinegar in addition to shochu. It converts starch into simple sugars, which can then be fermented into alcohol and distilled. (In most Western spirits, especially whiskey, an enzyme found in malted barley serves the same chemical purpose as koji but generates very different flavors in the process).
As with other spirits categories around the world, there are both artisanal, hand-made shochus and also mass-produced cheap ones. The latter are distilled multiple times, producing a neutral-flavored spirit much like vodka called korui shochu (more about it later). But what shochu connoisseurs focus on is the stuff distilled only once, which retains much flavor from the base used to make it, called honkaku shochu. “Whenever people are talking about Japanese shochu, they are almost always referring to honkaku,” Pellegrini says.
More than 50 different base ingredients have been approved to make honkaku shochu, and the particular one used makes a big difference in flavor. “Sweet potato [satsuma-imo in Japanese] is my favorite for shochu lovers,” says Yoko Kumano, the co-founder of Umamimart, an online and real-world shop based in Oakland, Calif. that sells imported Japanese barware and glassware as well as beer, sake and more. “It’s a bit mushroomy, quite earthy, cozy and good for warming you up.”
Kumano grew up in the Bay Area but lived in Tokyo for most of the first decade of the 21st century, witnessing a huge boom in honkaku shochu’s popularity there. “When I moved to Japan, I had no idea what shochu was, but after I got to Tokyo, it was everywhere,” she says. She moved back to the States in 2010 to run Umamimart full-time but got a full education in Japanese drinking before that.
Though sweet potato shochu is Kumano’s favorite, she admits that “people who try shochu and don’t like it probably tasted a sweet potato shochu.” For beginners, she recommends shochu made from short-grain rice (kome), which produces the most gentle and easy-to-drink spirit, or barley (mugi), which has a clean but somewhat whiskey-like flavor. Other common bases for shochu in Japan include buckwheat and brown sugar, but there are also shochus made from weirder stuff, like sesame seeds or carrots. There’s even one regional specialty shochu, called awamori, which must be made on or near the island of Okinawa and only from long-grain rice, using one specific type of koji. Kumano calls awamori “a bit more herby” than other rice-based shochu.
In Japan, honkaku shochu is almost never made into cocktails: People drink it straight, or mixed with cold water (that’s called mizuwari) or hot water (oyuwari). It’s typically bottled at 25 to 35 percent alcohol (50- to 70-proof), which puts it right between wine and whiskey in terms of strength. “Shochu is a big part of izakaya culture in Japan,” Kumano says. “It’s really good with yakitori and other drinking food. Sake works too, but shochu is fun—it’s a bit more working-class. Sake is the drink of the previous generation.” In reality, shochu today outsells sake in Japan by a good margin.
Pellegrini also traces the growth of shochu in the U.S. to an izakaya trend on our side of the Pacific. “Shochu exports to the United States have risen steadily over the past five years, indicating a growing awareness of, and thirst for, honkaku shochu among the country’s larger markets,” he says. “This growth coincides with an increase in the number of izakaya in major cities and should continue into the foreseeable future.”
American bartenders are of course experimenting with shochu cocktails, and its lower proof means that many bars with beer-and-wine-only licenses can legally serve it instead of other distilled spirits. In the States, Pellegrini says, “It is increasingly common to see shochu used in signature cocktails as mixologists catch wind of the immense variety of aromas and flavors that are represented in this relatively unknown category.”
Plenty of American bartenders are using honkaku shochu, but many of shochu’s cocktail applications are better served by korui shochu, which is distilled multiple times at very high-proof for purity of alcohol and then watered down, much like vodka. In Japan, korui is incorporated into chuhai, a simple cocktail combining shochu, club soda and fruit juice, thanks to its very neutral flavor. In this respect, korui shochu is much like soju, Korea’s version of the spirit. (The main difference between them, Pellegrini says, is that Korean soju can also contain added sugar while shochu cannot. Soju is also typically bottled at an even lower proof than shochu, helping ensure that American bars with beer-and-wine-only licenses are allowed to serve it.)
Shochu is still a fairly niche spirit in the US, meaning that while it has certainly seen huge growth in this country in the past few years, your best bet for finding it is still in your local Asian market. (Kumano suggests looking at Korean- or Chinese-owned shops as well if there isn’t a Japanese market in your town.) With that in mind, here are a few brands imported to the US that both Kumano and Pellegrini recommend.
Made from a mix of barley and rice, this is one of the easier shochus to find in the U.S. It’s mellow, sweet and bottled at comparatively high proof, making it a good introduction to the category.
This sweet potato-based shochu is one of Kumano’s favorites. “It’s a good, very economical one,” she says.
Made on Kumejima, a small island off the coast of Okinawa with its own spring-fed water source, this is a very traditional awamori brand with more than 600 years of history. It’s Pellegrini’s top pick in the category for American drinkers.
Barrel aging is unusual but not unheard-of in the shochu world. This particular bottling is made from 100 percent barley and then aged in oak for three years, yielding a fairly whiskey-like spirit that Kumano enjoys very much.
Buckwheat is a fairly unusual shochu base ingredient, typically mixed with rice or barley because it’s difficult to ferment on its own. This bottling uses 100 percent buckwheat, giving it a deeply nutty and fairly funky flavor that you don’t usually find in shochu, Kumano says.
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