With attention on Japan for the 2020 Olympics and its world renowned whiskies, I have a question for you readers: What other alcoholic beverages is Japan known for? I’m sure you’re aware of sake, beer, umeshu…but what else is there?
One of the misunderstood alcoholic beverages by westerners is shochu, which is often mistaken as Japanese vodka. Shochu was founded in Kyushu even though it is produced all around Japan.
Shochu is a Japanese distilled beverage with less than 45% abv. It is typically distilled from rice, barley, sweet potatoes, buckwheat or brown sugar. Sometimes it is produced from other ingredients such as chestnut, sesame seeds, potato and carrots.
Traditionally shochu is distilled once, in a pot still or wooden still, and usually contains 25% abv. There are also versions of multiple distilled shochu, which are made more for the purpose of being used in mixing drinks, as they tend to contain 35% abv and are usually blended.
The aging process varies based on the chosen storage vessel, which ranges from stainless steel tanks, clay pots and wooden barrels to casks, and is also dependent on locations, with minimum variations in temperature and humidity (tunnels and limestone caves). During the aging process, the flavor and aroma of shochu settles. It is usually aged for 1-3 months or 3-6 months where the sharpness mellows down more and more, with the longest aging of up to 3 years. It is rarer that shochu is aged for too long (post 3 years), however there is an exception called Awamori, which I will introduce you to in future posts.
The most common varieties of shochu are Kome-jochu made from rice, Imo-jochu made from sweet potato, Mugi-jochu made from barley and Soba-jochu made from buckwheat.
Through all my research, I have found many ways to enjoy shochu that I am excited to share with you:
- Neat – a clean and clear flavor recognition, though beginners will find it very harsh.
- On the Rocks – or with ice if you like – which brings a lot of flavors through and cools down the drink, works the same way as drinking whisky with ice.
- Cut with Water (mizuwari) – a great way to introduce shochu to beginners. Suggested ratio of water to shochu is in 1:2 or 1:1 parts.
- With Warm Water (oyuwari) – very common practice across asia. If you are trying it at home, heat the water to 70C and pour it first into a cup then pour the shochu. The density of shochu is heavier and thus it will sink to bottom and be mixed with the water. This method will create a nice aroma and brings out many other flavors, you want get in any other serves. Keep the ratio same as above.
- Warm – the most traditional way to enjoy shochu. Warm it up above a charcoal stove or in a hot water bath. When the vapor starts coming out, it is ready to be served.
Until next time … Kampai!
Bartenders note: “Look out for single distilled style Hankaku shochu, which keeps the characters of the base ingredient.”