If you haven’t heard of sake’s aromatic cousin, you aren’t alone. Shochu is Japan’s most popular spirit yet less than 1% of production is exported internationally. It’s a sipping spirit with a fiery bite, but to label it local firewater would be selling it short. It’s also often compared with vodka, but vodka has all the qualities of an uncouth brute in the company of shochu.
Indigenous to Japan, shochu has been helping to foster community spirit since the samurais’ heyday. Today it’s made in every prefecture, with about 300 shochu distilleries across the archipelago. As appreciation for artisanal and heritage spirits has soared in the past couple of years – a trend accelerated by the pandemic, with people investing more in drinking at home – international interest in shochu has started to grow and the industry is braced for an export boom.
Shochu Before Whisky
Japan’s production of shochu predates whisky by about 300 years. Distillation technology was introduced to the Japanese archipelago around 600 years ago. One theory is that the technology was bartered between Korean and Japanese fishermen on an island close to the Korean Strait called Tsushima, an illicit trading post during this period. What is clear is it entered from Okinawa at the southern tip, where locals produced – and still do produce – awamori, a sibling of shochu.
Shochu-making began around the 16th century and flowed up the archipelago along the same furrows as agricultural patterns in Japan. Traditionally it was produced by farming communities, who grew the crops that form the basis of this indigenous spirit.
What is Shochu?
As spirits go, shochu is unique. Single distilled in a clay pot, double-fermented and tightly defined by the terroir in which it is produced, shochu is appreciated for its diversity and complex character. The Japanese government strictly regulates how shochu is made and what goes into it, but the list of approved ingredients is broad, ranging from sweet potato, buckwheat and chestnuts, to cane juice, rice and even aloe.
Because of the single-pot distillation technique, the base ingredient leaves a strong imprint on the taste and aroma of the final product. Shochu’s main ingredient is often dictated by what’s grown locally, but cultures, fermentation temperatures, distillation styles, filtration options and ageing techniques all give the master distiller huge amounts of flexibility and help define the end product.
There are four Geographical Indications (GIs) for shochu in Japan, protected by the World Trade Organization, and one designated by the Japanese federal government. In each case, the designation is linked to a local crop: barley on Iki Island, and rice in Kyushu, for example.
Sweet potato shochu from Kagoshima is the largest GI, and currently the most popular type of shochu in Japan. Shochu from this GI only uses potatoes from local farms. Local distillers believe volcanic ash in Kagoshima affects the soil, enriching the crops and filtering the water used in shochu production to enhance the flavours.
The Importance of Koji
The other key component of shochu is koji, the fermenting culture. “Koji is part and parcel with Japanese cuisine. Without koji we don’t have miso, we don’t have soy sauce, we don’t have mirin, we don’t have sake, and we certainly don’t have shochu and awamori,” says Christopher Pellegrini, the Tokyo-based author of The Shochu Handbook – the first guide to shochu written in a language other than Japanese.
99% of sake is made using yellow koji, awamori is made with black koji, and shochu is most commonly made with white koji.
The combination of koji and the natural ingredients used in shochu is what defines the spirit’s individual character, and it’s a skilled balancing act that requires precision and creativity. The more precise the distillation process, the more expensive the shochu will typically be.
“You can't just throw any format into the still and then distil it a bunch of times and smooth out the rough edges,” says Pellegrini. “You get one run in the potstill and what you have is what you get.” For this reason, the shochu distillation process is almost more akin to brewing craft beer than it is to the majority of spirit production.
The Flavour Profile of Shochu
Generally, the flavours of shochu are earthy, with aromas dictated by the crop used in the distillation. The white koji typically used gives a sharp, clear and crisp drink. Most shochu is intended to be drunk within six months to a year of distillation, but it can also be lightly aged in oak barrels to engineer a more mellow, luscious flavour and imbue a straw colour.
Influenced by increasing creativity in the international spirits trade, some master distillers have also recently started experimenting with yeasts and cultures to add another dimension to the flavour profile. Using delicate yellow koji instead of white ramps up the spirit’s floral notes, while black koji produces a richer, sweeter and more full-bodied spirit. Wine yeast is also trending. The Komasa distillery in Kagoshima has started pairing it with sweet potato to create a shochu redolent with the fragrant aromas of bananas and melons.
How to Drink Shochu and What to Eat With It
Pellegrini describes shochu as one of Japan’s best-kept culinary secrets. In February 2021, he helped lead a series of live-streamed sake and shochu classes in association with Japan House London and the Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association, to help raise awareness of the spirit internationally.
“It’s not for shooting. It’s the type of spirit that you enjoy with food,” he says. The Japanese drink it cut 50/50 with sparkling, cold or hot water, or commonly on the rocks. “I like on the rocks with a little bit of water on top, which just opens it up a little bit further.”
Barley and rice shochu typically display floral and fruity notes that pair well with vegetables, chicken and fish, but would be overwhelmed by heavy meat dishes, according to Pellegrini. Sweet potato shochu, on the other hand, usually has a lot more punch and personality. With this type of shochu you could try braised pork or beef, fried foods such as gyoza and skewers, or even sashimi.
And with a standardised ABV of 25% (a legacy tax consideration), Pellegrini is convinced it’s the perfect liquor, begging for a wider audience outside Japan. “25 is a good sweet spot – for food pairing, for just general revelry, and for not overdoing it. You know, unless you really try.”