Get to know this versatile Japanese liquor

Featured picture ©Kagoshima Prefectural Tourist Federation / ©JNTO

Whether you choose to drink it straight up, on the rocks, mixed with water, with tea or fresh juice, there is a shochu drink to please almost every tastebud.

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Go to the right place, and you’ll have your choice of shochu

Picture©halfrain (www. ickr.com)

Originally hailing from the Kyushu region of Japan, shochu is a Japanese traditional hard liquor that is also the most versatile of spirits. Unlike sake, perhaps Japan’s most recognized drink (at least outside of the country), shochu is distilled with grains or vegetables, rather than fermented. Shochu should also not be confused with the Korean rice liquor soju, which is often compared to vodka, and which has a very strong alcohol taste. The most common base ingredients for shochu are sweet potato, rice, barley, buckwheat, soba and sugar cane or brown sugar. Perhaps not surprisingly, the properties of shochu made with different ingredients are quite unique and distinct—the variety in flavours and aromas ranges from mild, sweet and fruity to earthy and pungent. Some types of shochu lend themselves more readily to sipping in a cocktail, pairing it with food, or drinking it either straight up, mixed with water or on the rocks.

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Strong Zero, a highball made with shochu, is an affordable, trendy and very boozy canned cocktail.

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Shochu diluted with water, then served over ice, is a favourite way to enjoy the delicate aromas and flavours of the liquor

Shochu is already very popular in Japan, perhaps even more so than sake in many areas. However, it has only recently started to gain attention outside of Japan. Unlike sake, shochu is relatively easy to store; in a cool area away from sunlight, it can be kept for many weeks. While shochu is sometimes referred to as the “Japanese vodka,” it is not all that similar to vodka, having a more complex taste profile and, in general, a much lower alcohol percentage.

With a complex blend of flavours, enticing aroma, and an alcohol content that commonly ranges from 25–30% (though some brands such as Awamori from Okinawa have an alcohol content as high as 40%), shochu is not as strong as many other spirits, making it a lighter alcohol choice for cocktails. There are many cocktail variations that use shochu as their base, from classic cocktails like theWhiskey Sour or Martini, to unique flavour combinations with Japanese ingredients such as yuzu. Another way to drink this popular spirit is to mix it with Japanese tea, commonly Japanese oolong or green tea, a combination that is not overly sweet and lends itself well to Japanese cuisine pairings.

When looking to buy shochu, look for honkaku (which means “top-quality”) shochu. If you can, try different kinds of shochu first, perhaps at an izakaya bar or restaurant, before buying as some varieties are definitely more of an acquired taste. In addition, some types of shochu can be quite pricey to buy. Fortunately, many LCBOs carry a wide assortment of shochu to choose from. Try hosting a tasting event with friends and introduce everybody to what might be their new favourite drink!


 

The many types of shochu

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Shochu is categorized as a distilled spirit, and it can be made with a number of different raw ingredients, lending this drink a great diversity of flavours.

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Kome shochu is made from rice and has a very mild flavour. It is a great introductory shochu and pairs well with light food such as sashimi or miso-marinated black cod.

Sweet potato

Imo shochu, shochu made with sweet potato and a rice koji, has an earthy and natural sweet taste that pairs well with tempura, yakitori and other heavier and oily foods, and is excellent enjoyed warm.

Barley

One of the more common varieties, mugi shochu made with barley and barley koji has a rich, mellow flavour with a fragrant and pleasant aroma. Pairs best with lighter foods such as sashimi, sushi or grilled fish.

Brown sugar

Kokuto shochu is harder to ndand often comes from the Amami Islands in southern Japan. Contrary to what one might think, this shochu is not overly sweet and is full-bodied and well-balanced, pairing well with grilled meats and pasta.


Koji, a necessary component

Koji is the mould used in the production of shochu to break down the starches into fermentable sugars in order for the yeast to convert them into alcohol. There are three kinds of koji that are used to make shochu:

Shiro koji (white koji): Shochu made with shiro koji often has a light-bodied, sweet and gentle flavour. This koji has a very strong enzyme power.

Ki koji (yellow koji): This koji is very sensitive and its temperature is difficult to control. The taste of shochu made with this koji is fruity, light and smooth.

Kuro kojii (black koji): Black koji is very strong and is famous in the making of Okinawan Awamori shochu. Shochu made with kuro koji is often full-bodied with a bold taste.


 

Ways to Enjoy Shochu 

There are a myriad of ways to enjoy this versatile Japanese spirit, with or without water, without adulterating it by adding any other flavours.

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Straight up (neat)

The simplest way to enjoy shochu is one of the easiest but also most dangerous ways of drinking it. While delicious, the alcohol taste is so high that it can mask the subtleties of this complex liquor.

On the rocks (rokku)

Probably the most popular way for foreigners to drink shochu, this method really brings out the flavours of the liquor. The only down fall is that the drink should be enjoyed in a time-dependent manner so that the ice does not melt completely and hide the flavours.

Mixed with cold water (mizuwari)

Mixing shochu with cold water releases some of the drink’s more complex flavours. The typical ratio of shochu:water is 6:4, though it can sometimes be as low as 3:7.

Mixed with hot water (oyuwari)

Very popular in the winter months, in this method hot water is poured into a glass before adding the cold shochu. This method of drinking shochu releases its aromas and flavours.

Warmed

Recommended for sweet potato or rice shochu, warming the shochu (to about 45 degrees Celsius) creates a soft, mild and sweet taste that is slightly different from adding hot water to shochu. The usual ratio of shochu:water is 6:4.


Chu-hai:shochu cocktails

Shochu makes a nice and easy cocktail base, and it can be mixed with many beverages, making it a convenient and tasty choice.

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While many different ingredients can be used to make shochu, generally all types of shochu can be mixed with the same bases, making things less complicated; however, the lighter-tasting and frequently cheaper shochu are often the preferred alcohol to use in cocktails, known as chu-hai. Popular cocktails include fresh fruit chu-hai, made with soda and fruit syrup or fresh fruit juice (lemon, grapefruit, yuzu and ume are top choices); tea-based chu-hai, often made with oolong or ryokucha (green tea), which are not as sweet as other cocktails and pair nicely with Japanese cuisine; and Hoppy cocktail, which is a mix of a zero-alcohol beer-tasting beverage and shochu. Some mixologists have found a winning combination by using shochu in place of vodka, whiskey, gin or champagne in classic non- Japanese drinks such as an Old Fashioned, Moscow Mule, Martini or Whiskey Sour. When making these traditional cocktails, the type of shochu used becomes more important.


Fill Your Glass

Need some help choosing a shochu brand to sample? Here’s a rundown of some of the best varieties worth looking out for.

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Nishinomiyako Kuro

Using carefully selected kogane sengan sweet potatoes from South Kyushu and pure saitokiyomizu water, this shochu has a moderate depth and richness. Enjoy straight, on the rocks, or mixed with either cold or hot water. (upper line 1st from the left)

Fushigiya Honkaku Mugi Barley Shochu

Produced using barley from Oita Prefecture and ancient traditional methods, and made at a higher distillation temperatures than your average shochu, Fushigiya boasts a unique roasted barley flavour and mellow taste. This variety is best served over ice. (upper line 2nd from the left)

Hakutake Rice Shiro Shochu

This carefully made rice shochu uses only the highest-quality ingredients, including carefully selected rice as well as the pure, mineral-rich water of the Hitoyoshi Basin in Kumamoto Prefecture. The result is a fresh, light-tasting and fruity beverage. (upper line 3rd from the left)

Kuro Yokaichi Imo Sweet Potato Honkaku Shochu

Kuro Yokaichi Imo Shochu is the finest sweet potato shochu. It is made from only the highest-quality ingredients and with age-old techniques. This clean-tasting and pleasant shochu is great to try on the rocks or straight up. (upper line 3rd from the right)

Yokaichi Mugi Shochu

Yokaichi Mugi combines age-old craft and modern technology to offer the finest quality of barley shochu. This beverage’s clean, crisp taste and pleasant barley aroma are best enjoyed on the rocks or mixed in a cocktail. (upper line 2nd from the right)

Jinmatsu Amami Kokuto Brown Sugar Cane Shochu

Hailing from the legendary Amami Islands in southern Japan, this premium brown sugar shochu is a beautiful pale amber colour with a slightly sweet aroma. Jinmatsu is aged in sherry barrels, lending it an almost whiskey-like flavour.  (upper line 1st from the right)

Ikkomon Imo Sweet Potato Honkaku Shochu

Ikkomon is a sweet potato shochu with a difference: it’s made with imo (sweet potato) koji, rather than the rice koji used in most other beverages. This gives Ikkomon an authentic and distinctive imo flavour. (bottom line 1st from the left)

Beniikko Imo Sweet Potato Honkaku Shochu

Beniikko is a unique Honkaku Shochu distilled from 100% beni-satsumasweet potatoes. Like Ikkomon, rather than using rice koji, this brand of shochu uses koji that is also made from sweet potatoes. This is the secret behind Beniikko’s magnificently rich taste and aroma. (bottom line 2nd from the left)

Kurokame Imo Sweet Potato Honkaku Shochu

Kurokame is made according to a traditional method using kuro koji, with the fermentation process taking place in a kame (a large porcelain pot). This process imparts Kurokame with a rich and bold taste reminiscent of traditional sweet potato shochu. (bottom line 3rd from the left)

Kurouma Kuromaru

Made from 100% Japanese domestic barley and brewed with black koji, this shochu has a smooth, yet lively flavour, with a settled earthiness and gentle roasted nature. You can enjoy this beverage straight or on the rocks. (bottom line 3rd from the right)

Kurouma Amagake

Originally made for sale exclusively in eastern Japan, this special bottle is full of the richness of barley. The label’s illustration is the work of Masayuki Kojo, a bujinga (warrior painting) artist who has created official warrior paintings for Star Wars and Marvel films. We recommend keeping this bottle after enjoying the shochu inside. (bottom line 2nd from the right)

Takara Shochu – Perfect for Chu-hai

Gentle and refined, with a quiet beginning and rich, complex, slightly menthol finish, this shochu is great served along side a savoury dish like chicken and grilled peppers. It’s also the best-selling shochu in Japan for making cocktails. (bottom line 1st from the right)