Thanks to Genghis Khan, the Arabic process of distillation spread to Asia in the 13th century. This birthed a number of spirits ending with the word ‘chu’ or ‘ju’, made from a number of base ingredients. Shochu was born in the late 15th century in Kagoshima, Kyushu, in the south of Japan. Nowadays, Kyushu is home to the majority of shochu producers, housing around 300 of the nearly 500 distilleries, producing roughly 5,000 brands. It is now Japan’s most popular national beverage (even ahead of sake).
It’s a beverage that’s widely misunderstood and when considering the range of flavour profiles on offer, it’s easy to see why. Let’s try and break things down. Shochu can be made from any of around 50 grain and vegetable base ingredients with rice (kome), barley (mugi) and sweet potato (imo) the most common. The distiller’s objective is to celebrate and showcase the flavour of the raw ingredient. Similar to sake production, the base raw ingredient is milled or peeled, washed, soaked and steamed prior to the application of koji (a mould applied to break down the starch into fermentable sugars). After water is added and it’s given the opportunity to ferment, it is distilled to anything between 25% and 45% ABV – although most are 25%, to avoid heavy taxation. Added to this, shochu can be aged in various vessels, including earthenware pots or wooden barrels imparting more flavour still.
Sake, meanwhile, is brewed – not distilled – from rice, and as such has a lower alcohol content, of around 14-18% ABV, and a more delicate flavour profile. Soju, the Korean spirit, is usually made from rice and is slightly sweeter than shochu. Baiju, the Chinese spirit, is made from sorghum wheat and typically weighs in between 35% and 60% ABV.
You might hear people talking about awamori in the same sentence as shochu, and that’s because it is actually shochu. The difference is that awamori is only made on the island of Okinawa and only from Thai rice – a legacy of Okinawa’s key role as a trading hub between South-East Asia, Japan and China.
For a first-time drinker, rice-based shochu is a good place to start as it is usually very clean with subtle flavours and a touch of sweetness that sake, vodka and even gin drinkers will appreciate. Barley is another good entry point as it’s quite mellow. Shochu can also be barrel aged, bringing a rounded complexity, good for sipping, which might interest bourbon drinkers. Sweet potato is more round and smoky, a nod to the whisky drinkers, and also does well drunk warm. Awamori, due to its slightly different production process, is usually more complex and should really only be drunk neat (or with iced coffee, which is now in fashion). Always look for ‘Honkaku’ (authentic) on the label; this means it has been single distilled in a pot still and is usually the best quality.
With such a variety of flavours, there’s a multitude of ways to enjoy shochu – neat, on the rocks, with cold or hot water (oyuwari), with juice or tea, in cocktails and – probably the most popular – with ice and soda water in a highball, or Chu-Hi.
To add even more fragrance, pour hot water into your glass – 60°C is good – and then top with shochu in a ratio of 60% spirit to 40% water. It’s very important that the spirit goes in last so it doesn’t cool the drink too quickly. Sweet potato shochu works best. Due to the lower alcohol content, shochu typically has a lower caloric value compared with other spirits – great news for everyone. And if in doubt, order it on the rocks and go from there.
One thing to remember: shochu is usually drunk in Japan with food, and is usually diluted to be the same alcohol as a glass of wine or sake.
However, if you are diluting, keep in mind that a typical highball would be 1 part whisky to 3-4 parts soda. As shochu is 25% ABV and not 43% ABV, try a 50/50 shochu and soda mix. Otherwise you may dilute it so much you don’t really taste the spirit. It’s also worth noting that some shochu doesn’t go well with soda or hot water, so best to experiment to see what you like.
Takahashi Shuzo Hakutake Shiro (A$49) (rice) showed sake-like delicate banana, green melon and hint of vanilla on the nose, with a balanced, precise, almost butterscotch finish. Quite vodka-like but softer.
Koyomi (A$45) (barley) displayed bran, barley and cough-drop characters with whispers of menthol, aloe, agave, candied lemon peel and jasmine flower. Smooth and rounded on the palate with a lingering flavour of barley.
Sanwa Shurui Iichiko Special (A$85) (barley) took my attention first for the beautiful, vintage decanter-style bottle. This would be a great gift or water bottle at home. This was more complex on the nose having more sweet spices. Cinnamon, nutmeg, toffee, brown sugar and crème brulée with jasmine tea and the familiar agave/vegetal note. A beautifully rounded palate, finishing with a clean intensity of sweet toffee and barley. Very rye whiskey-like and with a slightly higher ABV of 30%, this would work well in cocktails and was delicately softened by hot water.
Hombo Shuzo Arawaza Sakurajima (A$70) (sweet potato) showed enticing tropical aromas of kiwifruit, strawberry, mango and pineapple along with pear and fennel, and an almost coffee-ground earthiness. Super smooth and clean with a warm slightly sweet finish. This worked well with hot water also – sweeter on the nose with pear and yellow apple coming to the fore and an even softer finish.