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What is Shochu?

Shochu is a Japanese traditional clear distilled spirit that has been made at least from the 16 century in Japan. The main difference between Sake (Nihonshu) and Shochu is simply the process of making. Sake is brewed and its main ingredient is rice whereas Shochu is brewed then distilled and its main ingredients are various. Shochu can be made from a variety of ingredients such as sweet potatoes, barley, buckwheat, rice sweet corn or brown sugar. A few other products like sesame or chestnuts may also be able to form the base of Shochu. Even though there are so many ingredients used to make Shochu, there are only two main types in Shochu, called Korui and Otsurui.

Korui is distilled several times. Repeated distillation forms ethyl alcohol of high purity which has a taste of little distinction. Water is then added, and this water is the main source to determine the taste and palatability of Shochu. Because of the low manufacturing cost, Korui is suited for mass production and lots of major liquor companies have released their own brand Shochu. Korui is often thought best in cocktail and mix with soft drinks.

Otsurui is distilled only once. This is a traditional way of making Shochu and single distillation leaves a smell of the source ingredient and strong individual character in a taste. Lots of small sake distillers believe in their own traditional methods to keep their own Shochu flavour different from others. Otsurui is often enjoyed on the rocks or mixed with water. In general, Otsurui Shochu is usually considered of a higher grade than Korui Shochu and preferably called Honkaku Shochu meaning a REAL Shochu.

  Otsurui (Honkaku Shochu) Korui
Main Ingredients Sweet potato, barley, rice, buckwheat, sweet corn etc grain mainly Brown sugar, cane etc
Saccharification Yes. Done by Koji Mold No.
Fermentation Parallel Multi Fermentation Single Fermentation
Distillation Single Distillation Multiple Distillation
Alcohol Contents Under 45% per a volume Under 36% per a volume
Flavour Natural flavour from main ingredients Smooth & clear taste

The home of Shochu in Japan is the Kyushu Island (most southern island of Japan). Kyushu Island is not suit for Sake (Nihonshu) making because of its warm climate. So sake brewers in Kyushu Island started making Shochu instead of sake from the old time. Even though Shochu is made everywhere in Japan nowadays, Kyushu Island is a still the centre of real Japanese Shochu.

The average alcohol content in Shochu is 25% that is stronger than beer, wine or Sake, but not as strong as whiskey, vodka or gin. Shochu has become a very popular drink in Japan since 2004 for many young people, especially for young women because of the fact that Shochu is much lower in calories compared to other hard drinks. Shochu can be consumed in a variety of ways. It can be drunk straight up, on the rock or even mixed with hot water sometimes. Many young adults who drink Shochu, especially young women, mix it with fruit juice, oolong tea or sweetened green tea. Another popular drink is Chu-Hi, which mixes Shochu with soda, flavoring and ice.

Process of Making Shochu

Nowadays, most of Otsurui shochu is Moromitori shochu. This name originated from its production process. Here are typical 5 production stages to make Moromitori shochu.

1. Raw material treatment
Generally, rice or barley is steeped in water, then steamed to activate starch gelatinization and cooled.
2. Koji production
Koji mould spores (Kojikin) are sprayed over the material to form Koji mould which creates enzymes as it grows. The enzymes transform starch into sugar that can be fermented. (This process is called saccharification.)

3. Primary fermentation
The Koji is mashed by adding water and fermented for 1-2 hours in a tank, vat or sometimes earthenware pot to form unrefined alcohol. That is called Moto (or first stage Moromi).
4. Secondary fermentation
The steamed main ingredient and water are added to Moto and fermented again to form (second stage) Moromi. The ingredient added during this stage determines the variety of shochu, such as sweet potato for Imo Shochu, barley for Mugi Shochu and rice for Kome Shochu etc. (term: 1-2 weeks)

5. Distillation
Purification of the unrefined Moromi alcohol. (These whole processes are called Moromitori)

6. Aging

In contrast to Moromitori Shochu, there is Kasutori shochu which is made by distilling the sake lees left over from the fermentation of sake. Kasutori shochu used to be a label for a cheap quality Shochu but these days, it has been improved. There is Kasutori Shochu using Daiginjo lees that has a nice fragrance like sake. It's become a type of Honkaku Shochu now.

What is Koji?

Koji mould has a main effect on the final taste of shochu. There are three varieties of koji mould with different characters.

White Koji (Shiro Koji)
A natural mutation from black Koji discovered by Mr. Genichiro Kawachi in 1918. This Koji is named Kawachi White Koji and has been spread all over Japan as the most popular Koji to be used for Shochu productions since 1970's. The reason is that white Koji is easy to cultivate and its enzymes promote fast saccharification. The taste is refreshing, mild and sweet.
Black Koji (Kuro Koji)
In contract to white Koji, black Koji produces a lot of citric acid which helps to prevent souring from Moromi. Of all three Koji, black Koji most effectively extracts the taste and character of the base ingredients, giving its Shochu a rich aroma with a slightly sweet, mellow taste. Black Koji spores disperse easily, covering production facilities and workers' cloth in a layer of black. As a result, the flavour of black Koji fell down since late 1960's. But these days, the interest has come back and a lot of Honkaku Shochu makers started having exclusive products using black Koji.
Yellow Koji (Ki Koji)
Yellow Koji was originally used only for sake brewing and at one time all Honkaku Shochu producing. Because yellow koji is super sensitive, it was very difficult to be used in warmer regions such as Kyushu. However, some Shochu makers still use yellow koji to discriminate the refreshing rich taste and fruity fragrance of its product from others. Shochu made from yellow Koji is popular for women and young people in Japan.

Drinking Tips

Please remember that taste of shochu is different from taste of sake. And it is usually far less fruity and depends strongly on the nature of the starch used in the brewing process. Its flavour is often described as nutty or earthy. It is a little bit like vodka or Scotch, sometimes Bourbon in a way. You can enjoy Shochu in several ways of drinking as your preference.

To get the full aroma and real flavour of Shochu, it's good to sip Shochu as straight at first.
Mix with hot water
This is a traditional and very popular way to drink Shochu. When mixed with hot water, Shochu's taste and fragrance harmonize perfectly. To drink sweet potato Shochu, first pour Shochu in a glass then add boiling water. This method produces a drink with a sharp bite. On the contrary, if you first pour the hot water in a glass, then adding Shochu after water has cooled down a bit, it develops a well-rounded, sweet flavour. Try and enjoy the difference of tastes.
Mix with cold water
You can mix Shochu with water just like whiskey. Usually 6 Shochu 4 water is a good balance of mixing but obviously it depends on your preference.
This is a same way as above, mixing Shochu with cold water. You can mix Shochu with water by 50/50 then leave it for a day or two. (Or even up to 1 week) Shochu and water will be blended very well by time and the taste will be much milder than before. It's called Warimizu. In Japan, this is a popular way for the advanced Shochu drinker.
On the rock (with the ice)
Pour Shochu over large chunks of ice to create a refreshing and exhilarating drink. You can also add a slice of lemon or lime for an extra freshness.
Mix with tea or fruit juice
Shochu mixed with oolong tea, cooled straight tea, green tea or fruit juice is a popular way of drinking shochu for Japanese women because these mixed drinks are generally lower in calories and healthier than other hard drinks.
Mix with soda, ice and flavorings (Chu-Hi)
Shochu mixed with soda, ice and flavorings such as lemon, lime, grapefruits, apple or plum is called Chu-Hi which refer to shochu highball. This is another popular way to consume shochu in Japan because of its sweetness and low alcohol contents per glass. Try and find the best shochu mix as your preference!

Here is a list of Shochu categories from its main ingredients.

Kome Shochu
Ingredient: Rice
Famous Region: Kumamoto, Niigata & Akita
General Character: Rich taste and fragrance are similar to Ginjoshu. It's Easy to be drunk for Shochu beginners.
Mugi Shochu
Ingredient: Buckwheat
Famous Region: Oita & Nagasaki
General Character: Taste like whisky. Smooth finish. Good to be mixed with soda or soft drink.
Imo Shochu
Ingredient: Sweet Potato
Famous Region: Kagoshima & Miyazaki
General Character: A strong taste (reminding almonds) and distinctive smell of sweet potato. It sharply divides drinkers into those who do and don't like it.
Kokuto Shochu
Ingredient: Brown Sugar
Famous Region: Amami Island
General Character: Sweet taste and fragrance of brown sugar. This is a very popular shochu for Japanese women.
Soba Shochu
Ingredient: Buckwheat
Famous Region: Miyazaki, Nagano & Hokkaido
General Character: Nice aroma of buckwheat. Taste milder than soba shochu. It's best to be enjoyed with ice.

Courtesy of Hamada Shuzo