In beverage choices, just like in life, it pays to be curious and adventurous. Every culture has its own distilled alcoholic beverage of choice, whether it is part of a ceremony, to celebrate an event, drown sorrows or just to have a good time. England has gin, Italy has grappa, Mexico has tequila, Venezuela has cocuy, China has baiju, and Japan, for centuries, has produced shochu.
Some theories trace shochu’s roots back to China via Korea, and that’s how we’ll view it. Shochu arrived in Japan in the 1640s to the town of Kagoshima, located in Japan’s South Island of Kyushu.
On a recent trip, I got to immerse myself in the rich culture of the South Island in a quest to find out more. To better understand shochu, we must dig into its ancestor, soju. You might have seen soju at a number of establishments, don’t have a liquor license but do have a beer and wine permit, which allows to serve alcoholic beverages that are 20 alcohol by volume and below. Soju and some shochu happen to fall in that category.
Soju is produced in Korea; the main difference from shochu is the relaxed regulations and styles. You can find some soju examples with flavor added and in some cases even vitamins. Soju is generally flavorless otherwise.
Don’t get me wrong, soju can be amazing with friends in a fun setting like a Korean barbecue or at someone’s house while watching the sun creep in through the windows and realizing you are a few bottles deep.
Shochu is Japan’s “craft” spirit. Production is concentrated in the South Island and with drastic regional differences within. It is no secret that every area of Japan takes pride in its own styles and traditions.
Let’s take noodles, for example: Hokkaido style is quite different than Hiroshima, Tokyo and Niigata, produced with each prefecture’s resources. For Shochu production, the Kagoshima prefecture is gifted with sweet potatoes. This creates an earthy and masculine style called Imo Shochu, which is just like licking a potato right out of the ground. This style is the most popular throughout Japan.
Kumamoto Prefecture produces Kome Shochu, made of rice, which is widely planted around this region. This style is cleaner, simple and soft. Oita Prefecture is known for barley; this style is called Mugi, and the final product is a complex and layered style akin to whiskey in terms of complexity and richness.
The Island of Okinawa makes Awamori, made with Thai rice, aged in clay pots and widely recognized as one of the stronger styles of shochu as far as alcohol goes.
Other styles include soba (buckwheat) concentrated in the eastern part of Kyushu. It shows a dried cereal nuttiness. Kokuto Shochu is made of molasses; the nose is akin to maple syrup, the flavor is soft and creamy.
On my trip, I became acquainted with Ochiai Shuzo, a distillery that experiments with several styles including a pumpkin shochu and a delightful ginger shochu soon to enter the U.S. market.
There are many ways to enjoy shochu. I like a couple ice cubes, in a similar fashion to whiskey, to bring out the flavor and balance the kick. It can be enjoyed with water, either hot or cold, green tea, or soda water.
Kome Shochu is great on ice with a lemon peel to enhance the aromatics. There are also plenty of cocktail applications in which it can be enjoyed.
Shochu contains no carbohydrates and no sugar, and it has no impurities making it a healthy choice with no hangovers.
Studies have shown a number of health benefits. Shochu boosts urokinase enzymes in the body, preventing blood clots in the body. In essence, it’s easy to metabolize and good for you.
The hope is that shochu, like sake will start crossing boundaries to be offered at non-Asian establishments. Efforts are being made by JETRO (Japanese External Trade Organization) as well as a number of Industry professionals like Master Sake Sommelier and Sake Samurai Toshio Ueno who has been tirelessly promoting shochu throughout the United States.