I’m sure we’re all familiar with the traditional wine of Japan, sake. I’ve highlighted this
extraordinary beverage made simply with steamed rice, water, koji and yeast. Supposedly with
more aromatics than that revered French distillation, Cognac. All from a simple, humble grain.
However did you know that the same simple grain can also produce a slightly stronger, clear
beverage that while having characteristics of simple rice fermentation, also has unique qualities
on its own? The beverage in question is Shochu and in the past several years, its popularity in
Japan has surpassed that of sake.
What is Shochu?
For the most part, Shochu is a distillate of fermented rice, barley, sweet potatoes or buckwheat
or a combination of each. In simple chemical and biological terms, when a solution (more like a
slurry) of yeast is exposed to a sugar source under anaerobic conditions (conditions devoid of
oxygen), the yeast consume the sugar and produce ethyl alcohol (the same ethyl alcohol that
certain automobiles can use as fuel) to produce a rudimentary wine. If the food source is sugar,
the yeast can get busy right away to ferment the sugar to alcohol. In the case of sake, the starch
in rice must first be converted to sugar via koji mold. Enzymes in our own saliva can also
convert starch to sugar (performing the same task as koji mold) and this is still done in parts of
the old world as documented in Tony Bourdain’s No Reservations episode in South America with
yucca “beer”. Before the thought of salivary amylase induced starch fermentation totally grosses
you out, be aware that sake fermentation probably originated with the same method though
thankfully, koji mold has replaced saliva.
When the yeast have martyred themselves in the name of sake, they produce a final product
with anywhere from 17 to 20% alcohol. However throw in human ingenuity (and a distilling vat
and condensation tube) and you now have rudimentary liquor. Actually hard liquor with an
alcohol content of 60% to 95.6%. Because a water-ethyl alcohol mixture is an azeotrope with a
boiling point less than pure alcohol, you can never distill pure ethyl alcohol.
So basically, shochu is a yeast fermentation product of rice, barley, sweet potato and/or
buckwheat which is then distilled and diluted with water to produce a clear beverage with about
25% alcohol (50 proof). The 25% alcohol content places it closer to wine than whiskey.
A sampling of two different styles of shochu gave me totally different results, both in the aroma
and taste of the shochu.
Yokaichi Mugi Shochu distilled and bottled by Takara Shuzo, Co
Produced purely from barley (mugi), this version was the most floral of the
four versions tasted. A slightly floral nose with a hint of fresh strawberries
almost like a light ginjo sake. Medium body on the palate with a definite bite
of the alcohol with a medium finish.
Shiranami Kurokoji Shochu distilled and bottled by Satsuma Shuzo, Co
Produced from 83.3% sweet potatoes and 16.7% rice, this was the boldest of the
four. As the name implies, it is made with the black koji mold which tends to
extract more flavor components than the common white koji mold. With a
nose of fermented sugar cane and mezcal, the aromas carried over to the palate
with robust flavors and a medium finish. Definitely not for the faint of heart.
As is the custom in Asian culture, seniority is respected even at the local watering hole. When
pouring for a senpai, hold the bottle with two hands while pouring, when receiving from a
senpai, hold your glass with two hands. A ritual usually not practiced anymore has the junior
person turning away their senpai while sipping, it was previously considered bad manners to face
your senpai while downing your drink. And it is still considered rude to leave a comrade’s glass
empty – whether you’re a junior or senior. However, glasses are not refilled until they go empty
and if your glass is refilled by anyone, it’s rude not to take a sip from it – even if you’re simply
pretending to sip – before placing the glass back on the table.
The Okinawan Version
Produced simply from rice, the Okinawan version of shochu is called awamori. However the
traditional short grain rice served at meals (and used in sake production) is not employed.
Awamori is produced from Thai-style long grain crushed ride and primarily uses
black koji mold. Other than extracting more flavor compounds in the fermenting
culture, black koji mold also produces more acid, citric acid to be exact. This
extra acid production prevents other microorganisms from infesting the
fermenting moromi or rice-water-mold-yeast mixture. While contamination of
the moromi may not be a problem in the colder climates of Japan, the tropical
climate in Okinawa encourages microbial growth – both desired and undesired.
Awamori consumed in the motherland also is produced a wee bit stronger –
anywhere from 30% to 60% alcohol (another reason to stop smoking especially
if you consume 60% awamori). However most awamori exported to the states are diluted to 25%
Kumejima Kumesen Awamori brewed and bottled by Kumejima’s Kumesen, Co
With a slight fermented nose almost like a hearty junmai sake. Light on the palate with a light
finish unlike the initial aroma.
The Korean Version
Made from rice, potato, wheat, barley, sweet potato or even tapioca, Soju is the Korean version
of Shochu. As Korea is connected to the Asian plains, soju production started well before the
Japanese were distilling shochu. It normally is bottled between 20% and 45% alcohol but soju
exported to the states usually is 24% alcohol. That’s probably because two of its larger markets,
New York and California tax soju the same as wine or beer as long as the alcohol remains below
A very light, slight alcoholic nose, Slightly sweet and viscous on the palate with
a medium finish. The “tamest” of the four distilled beverages and the most food
How I Drink Shochu
I feel that because of the higher alcohol content, shochu is best either on the rocks or mixed
with a touch of ice water. Of course many mixologists (high tech bartenders) substitute shochu
for vodka in Asian inspired flavored martini-type libations. Since I’m not big into whiskey
anymore, I still prefer wine with my meals. Of course that doesn’t mean I can’t cook with
shochu. Can you say new age Drunken Chicken or Pork Braised in shoyu, sugar, miso and
shochu? But of course, that’s another column.
Not Exactly Sake