Introduction to Shochu: The Japanese Liqueur And Its Varieties

Shochu Food & Drinks

An essential beverage is alcohol while having a delicious feast. Beers and wines are of course a popular go-to drink in Japan, as well as highballs and Japanese sake. Technically, sake refers to all alcoholic beverages in Japan, but foreigners often mean Nihonshu when talking about sake. From its sharp and delicious taste to its mellow flavor, it has delighted many alcohol lovers. But, while sake is getting a lot of attention from all over the world, have you ever heard of Shochu (焼酎), the other traditional Japanese alcoholic beverage? In this article, we will explain to you all you need to know about this Japanese liquor Shochu.

1. What is Shochu?

Shochu is a distilled liquor born in Japan and its’ main ingredients are grains such as rice and barley, and potatoes. Shochu typically has an alcohol content of 25% – 37% on average. There are three types of Shochu: Otsurui Shochu (乙類焼酎), Korui Shochu (甲類焼酎), and Konwa Shochu (blended Shochu).

Otsurui Shochu is a liquor with an alcohol content of 45% or less that is distilled only once. This is regarded as the traditional Japanese way of making Shochu, a method used since the 14th century. Because it is distilled only once it has richer taste; you can taste the original flavor of the ingredients.

Korui Shochu, on the other hand, was introduced later than Otsu-rui Shochu only introduced after the World War II, and is made through continuous distillation. The Korui Shochu has a lower alcohol content (35% or less) and is characterized by a more crisp, easier to drink taste. If you are a beginner about Shochu or like mild flavor, you may be fascinated with kou-rui Shochu, while Otsu-rui Shochu is recommended for dry taste lovers

Can’t decide between the two types of Shochu? There is also a so-called blended Shochu; Konwa Shochu. It is basically a mix of the two and depending on the which of the two has the largest share, it is either called Korui-Otosurui Konwa Shochu or Otosurui-Korui Konwa Shochu.

Shochu

2. History of Shochu

Shochu has been loved in Japan since ancient times, but its origins are not unveiled. There are several main theories as to how it made its way to Japan: one is that it came to Japan from China via the East China Sea, another story is it came to Ryukyu (present-day Okinawa) from China via Fujian. The most popular theory is that it came from Thailand on the Indochina Peninsula to Ryukyu.

According to existing documents from Joseon (present-day, Korea), a distilled liquor called Awamori was already being produced in Ryukyu in 1477, and this is said to be the first distilled liquor produced in Japan. In 1546, a Portuguese man who was visiting Japan at the time wrote a letter to the Spanish missionary, Francisco Xavier, describing “distilled liquor made from rice”. Later, besides rice, distilled liquors made from different ingredients such as potatoes and barley appeared. But one thing is clear; Shochu has been enjoyed by many Japanese people for a long time.

3. Variety of Shochu

While sake is mainly made from rice, Shochu is made from a variety of ingredients. Here we’ll introduce the four main types of Shochu. 

  1.  Imo-Shochu (Potato Shochu)
    Among their abundant types, the basic Shochu is imo-shochu (芋焼酎). This Shochu is made from Japanese Sweet Potato (Satsuma Imo). Imo-shochu is mainly produced in Kagoshima and Miyazaki in the Kyushu region. Kagoshima is in fact famous as “one of the best producers of sweet potatoes in Japan”. Just one glass of Imo-Shochu will entertain you with the sweetness and profound aroma of sweet potatoes.
  2. Mugi-shochu (Barley Shochu)
    Another typical Shochu is made from grains and is known as mugi-shochu (麦焼酎. Compared to other Shochu, it is fruity, and has a very pleasant and gentle taste. Since there are many brands with low prices, this is a recommended Shochu for beginners who want to try Shochu for the first time. Barley Shochu is often produced in Kyushu.
  1. Kome-shochu (Rice Shochu)
    Kome-shochu (米焼酎) is made from rice (like Japanese sake / Nihonshu), has few unique flavors and is the easy-to-drink Shochu even for beginners. The prefecture known for its rice Shochu is Kumamoto. It also has zero added sugar, so it is recommended for people who are on a diet.
  1. Awamori 
    Lastly, Awamori is here. Awamori (泡盛) is a distilled rice liquor that has been produced in Okinawa, as already mentioned in the section on the origin of Shochu. The difference between Awamori and rice Shochu is the type of rice used. While rice Shochu is made from Japanese rice, Awamori is made from Thai rice as known as indica rice. The average alcohol content is 25~30%, which is relatively high compared to other types. It has a thick, sour taste and is recommended for those who like dry alcohol.

4. How to enjoy drinking Shochu

The best way to enjoy the direct taste of shochu is to drink it straight or in a glass with ice, however, there are many other recommended ways to drink it.

Shochu

Mixing it with water is a very typical way to drink and you can change the strength to your liking. Some Shochu have a strong flavor, so try this way if your Shochu is too strong for you. In winter, it is recommended to drink it with hot water and will warm up your cold body at once.

If you want to enjoy a refreshing taste, you should drink it with soda. The harmony of the bubbles from the carbonation and the richness of the Shochu is exquisite and very easy to drink. If you drink it on a hot summer night, all the snacks you have prepared will disappear in an instant. Recently, there are also low-calorie “ocha-wari (tea-mix)” and “juice-wari (juice-mix)” is perfect for those who like to drink Shochu sweeter. When you are mixing Shochu to make cocktails, it is recommended to use Korui Shochu, because this type of Shochu is close to being both tasteless and odorless.

5. Shochu Bars in Japan 

If you want to taste Shochu when you come to Japan, you should go to a shochu bar. Shochu bar is a bar with a large selection of Shochu. If you have trouble deciding which shochu to drink, ask the master. A master who knows Shochu well will listen to your favorite flavor and offer you the best one.

While Shochu is served in all of Japan, Kyushu is nicknamed the ‘Land of Shochu’. Most of the Shochu is produced in this region, with over 300 distilleries dotted all across the island and with, with three out of four types having a protected geographical indication originating here. When you order a sake in an izakaya in Kyushu, especially the southern part, chances are that you will be getting a Shochu instead! Because Shochu and Kyushu are so closely connected, it’s no surprise that the Japanese traditional drink goes well with local Kyushu cuisine like Kurobuta pork from Kagoshima or grilled chicken over charcoal from Miyazaki.

Japan Wonder Travel Bar Hopping Tours

If you want to try Shochu and the other popular drinks and foods in Japan, how about taking a bar hopping tour with us? Sometimes it is difficult to order and even to enter the local bar if you have no idea about Japanese language and culture. These tours are 100% recommended so you wouldn’t miss the fun time and delicious food and drink in Japan!

Asakusa Local Food Bar Hopping Tour
Have an evening stroll in the traditional town, Asakusa with a knowledgeable guide and have fun drinking at local bars! Let’s have kamapi (cheers) together at Izakaya and try out Monjayaki (Tokyo style savory okonomiyaki).

Shinjuku Biggest Drinking Town Izakaya Hopping Tour
Shinjuku is the city that never sleeps, it’s fun to get lost at vibrant streets with full of bright neon signs. But it’s more fun to tag along with a local English speaking guide and discover some Izakaya and bars loved by locals!

Omoide Yokocho Izakaya Alley Tokyo

With the growing popularity of Japanese sake abroad, it often attracts lots of attention. However, Shochu is another traditional Japanese distilled liquor, with a rich flavor unlike sake and the perfect accompaniment to any traditional Japanese food such as sashimi, sushi, soba and etc. If you come to Japan, why not try to decide on your favorite Shochu? Kanpai!

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Mao Goto is a Japanese freelancer who was born in Hayama, Kanagawa prefecture, and raised in Tokyo. Since 2016 she lives in the Taito Ward, home to a lot of Japanese culture hotspots such as Asakusa, Akihabara, and Ueno. She has been interested in the field of English education of Japan and got her Master’s degree in March, 2020. A lover of photography, travel, sweets, and cross-stitch. Contact her via Facebook.

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