All You Need To Know About Shochu
Among the main islands of Japan, the Southern Kyushu region was the first area to produce shochu. It is now produced in places such as Iki Island and the Izu Islands in Nagasaki Prefecture. It can be fermented using barley, sweet potatoes, buckwheat or rice. But it can also be made using brown sugar, chestnuts, sesame seeds and even carrots. The alcohol concentration of Japanese shochu is usually 25%, which is higher than sake or red wine but lower than standard whiskey or vodka. There are also some shochu with an alcohol concentration of 35%. This kind of shochu is mostly used for cooking or mixed with other drinks to make cocktails.
History of Shochu
Sorghum-based liquor, which originated from ancient Chinese, refers to a strong liquor produced through a distillation process of two or more times. During the Yuan Dynasty in China, the term "shaojiu" emerged, with "shao" describing its intense taste. It is equivalent to the modern Chinese term for distilled liquor and is still used in Japan and Korea to refer to their traditional distilled spirits.
The manufacturing technique of Japanese shochu originally came from Thailand and was introduced to Japan through the Ryukyu Islands. Its history can be traced back to Central Asian rice wine. In "Records of the Ryukyu Islands" published in 1534, Chinese envoy Chen Kan recorded that the Ryukyu Islands had a distilled liquor called "nanfan wine", similar to Chinese rice wine.
Another theory about the origin of Japanese shochu is that during the late Edo period, the 28th lord of the Satsuma domain (modern-day Kagoshima), Shimazu Nariakira, sought to strengthen the military and boost the nation's economy. In addition to manufacturing cannons and warships, the domain used its local specialty, Satsuma sweet potatoes, to distill alcohol for military and industrial use. Although this alcohol became unnecessary after Shimazu's defeat in the Satsuma Rebellion, it was found to have a palatable taste. At that time, even slightly affluent Japanese could afford to drink sake so the shochu produced from inexpensive sweet potatoes naturally became a drink for the poor.
At the beginning of the 21st century, the consumption of shochu within Japan grew vigorously. In 2003, shochu first surpassed sake in domestic shipments in Japan. Bars dedicated to serving shochu emerged and high-quality brands focusing on specific ingredients, production methods and techniques to age the shochu well entered the market. Once considered an old-fashioned drink, it has now become a fashionable beverage among young drinkers, especially women.
In Japan, shochu is broadly categorized into two types based on its production method.
- The first type refers to the finished product after multiple distillations, with an alcohol content of below 36%. It is of lower quality and is generally used in making fruit juice-based alcoholic drinks.
- The other one refers to the finished product after a single distillation, mostly made from rice or wheat, with an alcohol content of below 45%. It is also commonly known as "Honkaku shochu" and mainly produced in Kyushu/
Well-Known Brands Of Shochu
Shochu is a highly versatile drink that can be enjoyed on its own or used in cocktails. Different brands of shochu also have their own distinct characteristics. Here are some well-known brands of shochu.
- Iichiko Saiten: Iichiko saiten is made from 100% two-row barley, fermented with koji. Koji is the traditional secret behind Japanese foods famous for umami, like miso and soy sauce. It has a strong start and a long finish and exudes rich umami notes of jasmine tea, white peach, minerals and earth with some citrus and a salty finish that beckons another sip. Its complex flavors offer exciting options for mixing in cocktails.
- Mizu Shochu: Mizu shochu is a single distilled, root-based spirit made from barley and rice. It has a high alcohol content of up to 35% and a taste similar to unaged whiskey. The recipe for mizu shochu can be traced back 400 years, combining 67 grains of two-row barley, 33 grains of black koji rice, and water from mountains. Mizu shochu can be delightful to enjoy, simply served with a slice of cucumber and ice.
- Jinkoo: Jinkoo requires the use of Satsuma sweet potatoes grown in Kagoshima, cooked in clay pots and fermented with black koji. For shochu novices, Jinkoo offers an accessible flavor and is a very versatile choice that can be paired with other types of alcohol. The name Jinkoo means perfect sky, and indeed it is as expansive as the sky. Unlike some bolder sweet potato shochu, this one is sweet, herbal, rich and buttery. As you savor the minty and slightly herbal aftertaste, the sweetness gradually dissipates. Like most shochu, it is only distilled once to preserve the sweet potato's aroma and characteristics.