When talking about Japanese alcoholic beverages, most of us immediately think of sake. But it’s time to change that thought process, because the distilled spirit of Japanese shochu is worth your time. Though it lacks sake’s name recognition, shochu is becoming more widely available in some U.S. cities and is popping up at more bars and restaurants. It’s great news for anyone looking to expand their drinking horizons.
What Is Shochu?
Shochu is a distilled spirit that is mainly produced in Japan’s southern regions Kyushu and Okinawa. It has over 500 years of history and is considered Japan’s native spirit. Its common base ingredients include rice, barley, sweet potato, buckwheat or chestnuts. “Depending on which [base] ingredient is used, a shochu can be called barley shochu, rice shochu or potato shochu,” says Tetsuro Miyazaki, general manager of U.S. operations of Iichiko Shochu.
It’s also often thought of as “Japanese vodka” for its higher alcohol by volume (ABV). Although shochu can range in ABV from 20% to 40%, most average around 25% ABV. This makes the spirit a lower-alcohol alternative to liquors like gin or vodka, but a higher-alcohol alternative to beer, sake or wine.
What Does Shochu Taste Like?
The flavor is sometimes described as a cross between vodka and whiskey. The specific flavor notes and aromas are determined by various factors: the base ingredient used, the type of koji mold, the koji base, the duration of aging and the vessel used. These factors help determine the flavors of the final product.
Another influential factor is the method of distillation used. According to the Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association (JSS), atmospheric distillation tends to bring out a fuller flavor of the raw material, while vacuum distillation results in a lighter, slightly more floral profile.
Barley shochu, in particular, is often soft and inviting on the nose and has aromatic fruity flavors. A leading brand of barley shochu in Japan is Iichiko. It offers two expressions: Silhouette and Saiten. Silhouette has notes of warm rice, white peach, sea breeze and golden plum, while Saiten, Iichiko’s higher-ABV expression, has aromas of honeydew melon, white grapes and kabosu citrus, with a hint of soy, white pepper and barley notes.
Where Can You Buy Shochu?
Several online liquor shops in the U.S. carry prestigious bottles like Kuro Kirishima, Iichiko, and Takara. Before buying, make sure to check online reviews of shops and know their offerings. You can also find shochu at your favorite Asian restaurant or Japanese bar. Here are a few of our go-to bottles for shochu beginners.
Shochu Bottles to Try
94 Points Wine Enthusiast
Think spa water with a kick: bright, lively aromas suggest lychee and rosewater, plus a faint raspberry note. The palate opens dry and finishes long with a delicate cantaloupe hint accented by grains of paradise. Distilled from barley (67%) and black koji rice (33%). –Kara Newman$36.49 Total Wine & More
94 Points Wine Enthusiast
Toasty, warm cocoa and roasted almond on nose and palate lead into a bracing finish. Lemon peel astringency is framed by white pepper and ginger heat. 100% barley, including the koji. –KM$32.99 Caskers
95 Points Wine Enthusiast
Savory, lush and food-friendly, this shochu offers a bold cocoa powder scent. The palate is similarly bold: mushroom, roasted chestnut, carrot peelings and walnut are enlivened by ginger and white pepper sparks on the long exhale. Distilled from sweet potatoes and rice. –KM$55.99 Total Wine & More
97 Points Wine Enthusiast
Complex and multi-layered, this shochu has a faint pale straw tinge and mild, mellow almond aromas. Toasted coconut and butterscotch richness leads into a lively, tingly finish with lemon pepper, tarragon and pine. Sip or mix. Distilled from kokuto (black sugar) and rice, and aged in oak casks at least one year. –KM$69.99 Total Wine & More
How Do You Drink Shochu?
In Japan, shochu is consumed more than sake or whiskey. “Japanese people consume it on a daily basis [thinking] they are less likely to have a hangover after drinking shochu, so the beverage overtook sake consumption in 2003,” claims Miyazaki.
Another upside? It can be served at a range of temperatures. You can drink it on the rocks or mix it with either hot or cold water.
Hitoshi Utsnomiya, director of the JSS, says the traditional way to drink the spirit is oyuwari, or shochu with hot water. When you add water, the alcohol content goes down to about 12 to 15%, similar to a glass of wine.
Shochu also makes a great cocktail base. A popular drink is chu-hi, a shochu highball that mixes the spirit with soda.
Shochu is traditionally enjoyed with a meal but it can also be consumed before or after eating, making it a great aperitif or digestif. If you happen to keep a bottle at home, be sure to put it in the fridge so you can enjoy it cold without the need to dilute it with ice.
What Is the Difference Between Shochu and Soju?
Though the names may sound similar, shochu and soju are two different spirits. Soju, often called the “Korean vodka,” is a rice-based undistilled spirit popularly consumed in Korea. Its appearance is clear and colorless, and its taste is slightly sweet and smooth. Made from grains and starches like barley, sweet potatoes and tapioca, soju has a mostly neutral flavor.
How Is Shochu Made?
Koji—a substance made of soybeans, rice or other foodstuffs inoculated with a mold culture—is another key ingredient to shochu. The mold, a critical component of the saccharification process, breaks down starch into glucose. The resulting mash then ferments to produce alcohol, which is then distilled.
When it comes to distillation, shochu is divided into two categories: honkaku (single distillation) and ko-rui (multiple distillations). Honkaku shochu, made from various base ingredients, is distilled in a pot still like whiskey and rum. “This [type of] shochu doesn’t contain any additives or sugar, making it super-premium and clean,” says Utsnomiya. Meanwhile, ko-rui shochu is made from various cereals and molasses and goes through distillation in a column still like vodka.
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Last Updated: June 15, 2023