All it takes is a whiff and a sip of shōchū to realize it is markedly different from the more common nihonshu (which Westerners call “sake,” although in Japanese, sake is a catchall word for all alcoholic drinks).
It is, too, a much more recent arrival. Way back in 689, the Imperial Court in Nara had already established a sake-brewing department, which suggests its origins predate even then.
On the other hand, the first evidence of shōchū in Japan — after it probably came with traders from China or Korea — is graffiti dated 1559 that was written by a carpenter in a shrine in the city of Okuchi, present-day Kagoshima Prefecture.
But apart from the length of time they have been drunk here, what, specifically, are the main differences between the two drinks?
In short, nihonshu is brewed, whereas shōchū is distilled.
From a very general point of view, shōchū is to nihonshu what whiskey (or whisky) is to beer — and the shōchū world itself has even more similarities to the world of single malt scotch. But more on that later.
Yet another huge difference is in the raw materials. Nihonshu is made from rice and rice alone. shōchū can be made from rice, but also from barley, soba (buckwheat) — and the illustrious Satsuma imo, the sweet potato of Kagoshima Prefecture in Kyushu. There are even a few shōchū made from miscellaneous grains and brown sugar.
Nihonshu, like beer, starts with starches in grains — rice in nihonshu, barley in beer — that must be converted to sugar before fermentation can begin. In nihonshu brewing, this conversion is accomplished by the action of enzymes that are created when spores of a mold called Aspergillus oryzae — koji in Japanese — are applied to 20 to 30 percent of the rice. Once this moldy rice (called koji, too) is ready, it is mixed with normal steamed rice and water, and the whole mash is left to ferment for 20 to 30 days.
shōchū starts with a bit of rice koji too, as this works best to create the necessary enzymes. After that, the main raw material (be it barley, soba or potato) is steamed and added to the fermenting tank. The fermentation is a bit more haphazard and less tightly controlled than that of nihonshu, cruising along at a higher temperature for a shorter period of time. However, after this, the liquid is filtered off from the dregs, and then distilled, or essentially boiled.
Since alcohol and water evaporate at different temperatures, the alcohol can be easily removed and put back into the mixture — which of course raises the alcohol content significantly, and drastically changes the overall flavor profile.
There are basically two methods of distillation. The older one, dating back to around the 14th century, involves a single round of distillation only, using only one raw material (not including the rice for the koji), be that barley, potato or one of the others. Known as otsu-rui (“Type B,” in an admittedly loose translation), or more commonly honkaku shōchū (“the real thing” shōchū), this type will more often reflect the idiosyncrasies of the original raw material. In this sense, it can be likened to single-malt scotches.
In the second method of distillation, the shōchū goes through several distillations, one right after another. It is often made with several of the commonly used raw materials. Known as ko-rui shōchū (“Type A” shōchū in the same admittedly loose translation), this method was only developed in 1911, and it was 1949 before it became a legal classification.
At a bit of a stretch, this kind of shōchū could be said to be similar to much blended scotch. In other words, it is much smoother, but with much less character.
Either way, though, in the end shōchū will have an alcohol content of anything from 25 to 42 percent, depending on the style, method and — of course — the target market.
Beyond these variables, the type of koji mold can be one of three — yellow koji, as is used with sake, white koji and black koji — and the distillation itself can take place at either atmospheric pressure or at a forced lower pressure.
These parameters, too, naturally affect the style of the final product.
Ko-rui shōchū, of which far more is produced, is quite versatile. As it is lighter and cleaner, it lends itself well to use in mixed drinks. Perhaps its most ubiquitous manifestation is the popular chu-hi, a shōchū hi-ball made using various fruit and other flavors and sold in single-serving cans or mixed fresh at bars and pubs. As it is supposedly cleaner by virtue of having been repeatedly distilled, it is said by some to deliver less of a hangover — though there is no evidence to truly support this claim.
Otsu-rui shōchū, on the other hand, has a more artisan, hand-crafted appeal associated with it. In this drink, the nature of the raw material can really come through. Be it soba, rice, barley or chestnuts, each has its fans and detractors. This is especially true when it has been distilled at atmospheric pressure, not forced lower pressure.
Perhaps the most interesting — and famed — of all shōchū are those made from the sweet potatoes of Kagoshima Prefecture: imo-jochu. While the flavors can be heavier and more earthy than shōchū made from other starches, Kagoshima imo-jochu offers a complexity and fullness of flavor that appeals to many a connoisseur.
Imo-jochu is easily the most sought-after of all in this current shōchū boom, a fact that has driven the price of potatoes in Kagoshima to ridiculously high levels. (Kagoshima is, by the way, the only prefecture in Japan in which no nihonshu at all is made.)
Barley shōchū, or mugi-jochu, is softer and with fewer idiosyncrasies. Most commonly from Oita and Nagasaki prefectures, a noticeable barley touch to mugi-jochu anoints both the aroma and the flavor.
Meanwhile, shōchū made from soba, most famously in Miyazaki and Nagano prefectures, is very distinctive. If you have ever had a cup of soba tea, you can imagine the nuances soba-jochu presents.
Then there is rice shōchū, or kome-jochu. Almost creamy compared to shōchū made with any of the the other main starches, this might be the easiest to enjoy for those not into more assertive flavors.
Finally, 18 companies are currently making shōchū from kokuto (brown sugar) — all of them on Amami Oshima Island in Okinawa Prefecture, the only place where kokuto-shōchū can be legally produced. There is a very faint sweetness to these shōchū, suggestive of rum or brandy, that adds an interesting diversity to the world of shōchū.
Oh, by the way, while as mentioned, sake can refer to all alcoholic beverages, it is most often used in reference to nihonshu. Not so, however, in most of Kyushu, and decidedly not so in southerly Kagoshima, where sake assuredly means shōchū — and only shōchū.
However, if the current boom continues, shōchū may soon be on everyone’s lips — in more ways than one.