Shochu 101: Discovering Japan’s Best-Selling Spirit

When I mention shochu to my friends in New York, where I live, the two most common responses are, “Oh, that Korean drink?” or “Shochu… that’s like a cross between sake and vodka?”  Apart from that, the blank “I have no idea what you’re talking about” stare is pretty popular too. And it’s understandable. Shochu is the most popular spirit in its native land, outselling even sake and whisky. But to the rest of the world, it’s still a well-kept secret — only about 1% of global shochu sales are outside Japan.

Shochu Is Not Soju!

Before we get into what shochu is, let’s first get out of the way what it isn’t.  Japanese shochu is frequently confused for Korean soju, and while there are similarities between the two that go beyond their names, they’re generally distilled differently and use different ingredients. Now that we’ve got that out of the way….

Shochu Also Isn’t Sake Or Vodka

Shochu’s history dates all the way back to the 1500s in Japan. It’s most often made from barley, but other grains or starches are also commonly used, including rice, sweet potato, and wheat. Like sake, shochu is fermented using koji mold and yeast. You’ll also hear a lot about barley and rice-based shochus being “polished,” similar to sake. That means the grains are milled, not down to a flour-like substance, but to roughly 60-70% of their original size. The greater the polishing, the more refined the spirit. The big difference between sake and shochu — and it’s a really big one — is that sake is brewed like a beer, while shochu is a distilled spirit.

As for the vodka comparison, some shochus are distilled three times, which can give them a smooth, mild, somewhat vodka-like flavor. But higher-end shochus, known as honkaku shochu, are distilled a single time (by contrast, Scotch-styled whiskies are generally distilled twice), so the flavor of the distillate really comes through in the final product. In the case of barley-based shochus, there are distinctive malty and umami notes, while rice and sweet potato shochus have softer, sweeter flavors.

How To Drink Shochu: A Few Suggestions

The lion’s share of shochu is made in Kyushu and Okinawa — hot, humid islands which are inhospitable for sake brewing. Shochu, however, is a distilled spirit, so it can be produced anywhere, regardless of climate. And it doesn’t hurt that a shochu on the rocks is a most refreshing drink on a hot day!

Most shochus are rested in clay pots, where the aromas and flavors become more balanced and rounded over a period of several months to several years. But barrel-aged shochus do exist — for example, the Tarusky Ariake Signature Imo, which was matured in ex-sherry casks for 10 years. Shochu is usually bottled at around 25% alcohol by volume (50 proof), which is low in comparison with whisky and other distilled spirits, but can be bottled up to 45% ABV.  It’s a versatile spirit which can be served neat, on the rocks, or even hot. Like Western amare or vermouth, it makes terrific lower-proof cocktails. One of my favorite drinks is a daiquiri which switches out rum for a barley-based shochu such as Iichiko Special. I call it an “umami daiquiri” because the savory umami notes of the shochu complement the lime and sugar so beautifully, even at low proof. I’d say it’s a great summertime drink, but it’s pretty delicious any time of year!

Discover Shochu With Dekanta

Throughout most of its long history, shochu flew under the radar even in Japan. It was produced and consumed, for the most part, locally, and was never held in the same esteem as sake or, later, whisky. But over the last few decades,  distillers — many of them current or former sake brewers — have gotten serious about their craft, and have been making some groundbreaking and delicious shochus. And for a selection of some of the best and most desirable expressions, look no further than dekanta’s own shochu category. You’ll find extraordinary expressions made from barley, sweet potato, wheat, and rice, along with noteworthy barrel-aged bottles and incredibly rare gems. Shochu is a new and delicious world that’s ripe for discovery.  Happy hunting and kanpai!