Chapter 1. What is shochu?
Chapter 2. How is honkaku shochu unique?
Chapter 3. How is shochu made?
Chapter 4. Types of shochu
Chapter 5. Reading the label
Chapter 6. How to serve shochu
Chapter 7. Shochu pairing and sharing
Chapter 8. Recommended shochu
Chapter 9. Shochu recipes
Chapter 10. Basic Japanese for shochu drinkers
Not long after arriving in Japan in 2002, I noticed the beautiful 1.8 liter bottles on display in izakaya and restaurants around Tokyo. The calligraphy on the labels entranced me, and the size of the bottles signaled that some serious fun was within reach. Having started my career in the drinks industry as an apprentice at a small brewery in Vermont, I am burdened with an intense appreciation of both the art and science of making fine tipples, and my affinity for alcohol tasty enough to warrant packaging in a receptacle larger than a magnum basically guaranteed that I would attempt to sample and understand them all.
Some of the bars that I visited early on had lengthy nihonshu (saké) menus, and I greatly enjoyed the tutorials I was treated to by the bar staff and nearby customers about the different grades and how it’s made. I purchased some English-language books about nihonshu and was able to verify much of what I had heard. My fondness of nihonshu continues to grow to this day.
Other establishments had a stronger focus on a lesser known drink that is also made in Japan, shochu. As the labels shared the artistry of their nihonshu counterparts, I required assistance with telling them apart at first. And I soon discovered that I wasn’t able to get my head around this shape-shifting drink. I was introduced to myriad types, and shochu evaded simple description. Even more confounding was the lack of information that was available about it. There were only a few books written about shochu in Japanese, and none in English. Wikipedia was still in its infancy and hadn’t expanded enough to have anything to say on the subject.
But the so-called “Third Shochu Boom” (daisanji shochu būmu) was just getting underway, and I was far from immune from the furor. Starting around 2003, shochu bars popped up all over Tokyo, some with menus boasting hundreds of labels, and one by one I found myself drinking my way through the multitude of ingredients used to make this mysterious drink. One night I’d focus on barley, and the next time out I’d find a place where I could query three or four potato shochu. Soon friends were texting me details about local watering holes with good selections of brown sugar shochu or awamori. My interest was piqued by the nuanced aromas in these different drinks, and the staggering variety of flavors left me spellbound. Shochu had me hooked.
I must add that I began my journey into the world of shochu with next to no Japanese reading or writing ability. I was making steady progress in my ability to communicate thanks to the friendly folks enjoying shochu alongside me, but it took me several years before I could discontinue my dependence on just a mental facsimile of the label’s color and all those contiguous brush strokes. The bar visits were eventually supplemented by distillery tours and sit-downs with the very people who have made shochu their lives and livelihoods. They reminded me of the passionate people that I worked with at the brewery several years prior, and their love of their vocation inspired me to dig deeper.
Seeking more expert insight, I began studying for the shochu sommelier certification exam that is offered by the Sake Service Institute here in Japan, a process that brought me face to face with my old nemesis, kanji. It was a slow, and at times frustrating, education because it was nearly impossible for me to corroborate the things that I was learning with anything in my native tongue. Early on, the only mention that I could find of the drink was a brief and outdated summary in Richard Hosking’s irreplaceable “A Dictionary of Japanese Food.” A decade later, Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page’s amazing “What to Drink with What You Eat” joined my home library, and despite featuring a photo of a famous rice shochu alongside an elegant flight of sushi, the word ‘shochu’ fails to make an appearance. The linguistic challenges and outright lack of information that slowed me down at every turn are the reason that I decided to write this book.
I eventually prevailed on the certification exam, and I’m excited to be a member of a tiny group of licensed, non-Japanese sommeliers living in shochu’s homeland. I now spend a fair amount of my time trying to spread the word about this delicious libation, its versatility, and that dizzying spectrum of flavors.
Before I go any further, though, there are a few folks that deserve some love. My family and friends have been integral in bringing this book to fruition. My wife, Yong-nam, put up with my obsessing over the minutiae of this project for the better part of three years and helped me train my palate for the tasting exam somewhere in between. My family in Vermont, Lucy Pellegrini, Scott Pellegrini, and Kate and Aaron Welch, were my backbone from afar.
To Thatcher and Junko Spero, David Groff, Garrett DeOrio, Kozo Ota, David Watkins, and Mac Salman—the jovial encouragement was greatly appreciated. And to Marcus Lovitt and Mieko Higano, the heart and soul of the Japan Eats team, thank you for helping me reach the finish line. You know as well as anyone how crazy this trip has been. The talented folks at Telemachus Press, who have been doggedly diligent and patient throughout this process, also receive perpetual hat-tips for pretending like I was always on schedule. Stephen Lyman, my shochu doppelganger from afar, helped tidy up the manuscript with his detailed notes—your insight was much appreciated. I’d also like to thank the regular members of my CAST Meetup group in Tokyo for their continued support of the drive to bring shochu to a wider audience.
As far as corporate friends in Japan go, I would like to extend hugs to the Yasuda Photo Studio team (http://yasudaphotostudio.com/) who graciously provided studio space and equipment to help make the bottle photos pop. I owe you some kilned shochu cups. And if they didn’t already own tons of them, I’d offer the same to the staff at Kuroki Honten, Satsuma Shuzō, and Satsuma Musō. Your passion and attention to detail have inspired me immeasurably. I will visit again soon, I promise.
And to you, dear reader! Thank you for reading this far. Over the next several chapters I hope to demystify shochu for you and answer most of the questions I can imagine are now on the tip of your tongue. I’d be willing to bet that they were exactly the same things running through my mind when I was first drawn in by this unique drink.
Welcome to the World of Shochu and Awamori!
This book was written with many people in mind. While its utility will be more readily apparent to readers living or traveling in Japan, far-flung Japan enthusiasts and shochu drinkers alike will find plenty here to make them want to book a table at the nearest Japanese restaurant or even a flight to shochu’s homeland.
This is certainly a book that can be read out of order—although I must warn you that I have taken significant strides to eliminate redundancy in the number of times that key vocabulary and production concepts are explained. At some point most readers will find it necessary to go back and read chapters that they skipped. However, dog-earing the Glossary at the back of the book should help bridge some of the gaps.
For people living/traveling in Japan, the following chapters may be of particular interest:
Chapter 5: Reading the label is for when you find yourself in front of a wall of shochu at your local market.
Chapter 6: How to serve shochu is for when you get your purchases back to your abode.
Chapter 8: Recommended shochu is for when you decide that you don’t yet have enough shochu and need to go back.
Chapter 9: Shochu recipes is for times when you feel like being more creative.
Chapter 10: Basic Japanese for shochu drinkers is absolutely essential for speaking the language of shochu.
For anyone in the world who wants to understand the subtleties of the different varieties of the drink:
Chapter 4: Types of shochu will explain the different distillation types and most popular ingredients.
Chapter 7: Shochu pairing and sharing will supply the reader with shochu tasting vocabulary and meal tips.
The beginning of chapter 10 is probably worth a quick look for anyone who is unsure of how to read transliterated Japanese words. The primer on Japanese vowel sounds and pronunciation should boost your confidence when facing the essential vocabulary of the shochu world.
There’s also a lot in store here for anyone working in the restaurant and bar industry. If you’ve ever felt like you need help talking about the Japanese drinks that you’re serving, then this book should definitely help. You’ll find assistance with explaining: the differences between shochu and other drinks in the first two chapters; the basics of the production process in chapter three; and pairing and describing flavors in chapter seven.
Chapter 1: What is shochu? Included are a history of shochu’s evolution and a rundown of how it differs from nihonshu (saké).
Chapter 2: How is honkaku shochu unique? This chapter will help you explain how shochu is unlike the other clear spirits of the world.
Chapter 3: How is shochu made? This will help you get your head around how those complex aromas and flavors are created.
Chapter 7: Shochu pairing and sharing is a good starting point for those who need help with describing flavors.
A couple of linguistic disclaimers:
There are no English-style plurals in the Japanese language, so I have consciously avoided using words like ‘shochus’ in this book. In other words, “We had shochu with dinner” and “The shop now boasts more than 30 shochu” are both correct.
Those readers with some knowledge of the Japanese language will quickly notice that I have carefully included macrons over elongated vowels in all situations except for two sets of Japanese vocabulary. One is proper nouns. Even though it would be more consistent to include them over words like Tokyo, I have elided them because macrons are exceedingly rare over such words in the real world. The second group is comprised of words that I believe will be adopted into other languages and eventually leave their macrons behind anyway. The shining star of this group is undoubtedly shochu which, for posterity’s sake, makes an appearance in the glossary at the end of this book with its macrons intact.
Maybe you’re here because of an interest in drinks in general and Japanese culture in particular. Alternatively, maybe you already know a thing or two about how alcohol is made, or you are lucky enough to work in an establishment that is now selling shochu. Perhaps you’re even one of those readers who has tried shochu a couple of times but has been unsatisfied with the vague and conflicting drink descriptions offered by the menu and wait staff that you dealt with the night prior. Read on, for I’m pretty sure that most of your questions will be answered in the next few chapters of this book. Thanks for joining me, and welcome to the world of Japan’s ubiquitous libation, shochu!
What is shochu?
Shochu is good. Often referred to by its statelier moniker, “honkaku shochu,” it’s Japan’s oldest distilled alcoholic beverage. It’s made from a variety of ingredients, everything from sweet potatoes to brown sugar to chestnuts (and their kōji), and it’s a mainstay in most bars, restaurants, and bottle shops around the country. An alleged relative of the continental distilling traditions commonly referred to as arak, shochu’s most direct ancestor is the awamori that is produced and adored in the Ryūkyū Islands, a part of Japan that is now known as Okinawa. It is a beverage that is intimately connected to the subtleties of Japanese cuisine and the vegetation that calls this country home.
Aside from being delicious, what else is shochu? Well, it’s easy to pronounce correctly. Say it with me, show-chew (or try /shōh chū/ if you have already perused the first part of chapter 10). The Chinese characters (kanji) used to write the word on bottles and menus here in Japan, 焼酎, literally mean ‘burned alcohol’ which alludes to the fact that it’s distilled. This may come as a surprise for some readers, but despite the strong sales and recognition afforded to Japanese whiskey around the world these days, shochu is currently the best-selling spirit here in Japan. After decades of playing second fiddle to nihonshu (saké), this versatile beverage seems to finally be enjoying the respect that it deserves.
Indeed, versatility is a major reason why shochu is climbing the ranks. It’s an excellent aperitif but is also commonly enjoyed alongside a meal. It goes without saying that shochu is great when drinking socially, and it can be served in myriad ways. People drink it straight up, as the base alcohol in a cocktail, with a couple splashes of cool water, and even with hot water to help enhance the drink’s bouquet. The ability to suit any occasion or craving is what causes it to show up in nearly every convenience store, supermarket, restaurant, bar and bottle shop across Japan, and it’s also why it will soon be seen on the menu of a drinking establishment near you.
And what is shochu not? Well, at 50-60 proof, it certainly doesn’t qualify for membership in the world’s “firewater” club, that legion of spirits whose credentials include blinding alcohol percentages and searing aftertaste—and membership dues involve multi-day hangovers. On the contrary, shochu is a respected tipple that has been granted geographical protection by the World Trade Organization (WTO) to help prevent others from passing their beverages off as the real thing. Just as wine can only be labeled Bordeaux if it was brewed in that particular region of France, and Scotch whiskey must be distilled in Scotland, there are four types of shochu and awamori that enjoy the same international protection under Article 23 of the TRIPS agreement.
Historians have found evidence of distillation technology being used in Mesopotamia, which is now modern-day Iraq, between four and five thousand years ago. However, it took quite a while for that technology to spread around the world. Distillation was taking place in Cordoba, Spain by 732 BC, and eastern trade routes helped give rise to distillation in India roughly 400 years later. Japan was first introduced to the wonderful world of distilled spirits in the early 15th century, and official records kept by Korea’s Joseon Dynasty show that by 1477 Okinawans were making their own distilled drinks to compete with the variety of alcoholic beverages being imported through decades of trade with Siam (modern-day Thailand).
No one is entirely sure how distillation technology finally made its way to Japan, but there are at least four major theories that are still being debated. The most popular theory is the overseas route between Thailand and Okinawa, Japan. This route seems the most probable because of Okinawa’s trade history, as well as the initial and continued use of long-grain Thai rice in the production of shochu’s sibling spirit to the south, awamori.
The rest of the possible routes find their way to Japan via China. The first hypothesizes an arcing journey that passes through northern China before traveling down through the Korean Peninsula and eventually taking a short trip across the water to Kyushu Island, an area that would eventually become the heart and soul of shochu production in Japan. It is highly likely that this route had a direct hand in the birth of Japan’s barley shochu tradition. A more southerly route swings past modern-day Shanghai, skips the peninsula, and sails straight to Kyushu. The final theory posits that distillation techniques journeyed across southern China before eventually landing at the ports of Okinawa’s main island. Even though historians may never settle on a definitive connection to the distilling bloodline of the Asian continent, it’s probably fair to assume that all four of these routes, with all of the goods and ideas that changed hands along them, had at least a small influence on the birth of distilled drinks in Japan at one point or another.
Following the official Korean accounts of trade and life in Okinawa during the fifteenth century, Jorge Álvarez, a Portuguese explorer who spent time in Yamagawa Port near the mouth of Kagoshima Bay, wrote in 1546 that the Japanese drank an arak-like spirit made from rice. This is likely the first reference to rice shochu, and Álvarez further commented that he never witnessed a single display of public drunkenness. The reason for this, he wrote, was that when the local residents became inebriated, they simply made themselves comfy and conked out.
In 1954, the earliest known direct reference to shochu was discovered at a shrine in northern Kagoshima Prefecture. The carpenters of the Koriyama Hachiman Shrine vented their frustrations with the head priest by inscribing some graffiti on one of the structure’s internal boards. The graffiti, dating from 1559, is written in an old style of Japanese that is no longer used, but my translation of the modern Japanese equivalent would be, “The chief shintō priest of the shrine was so stingy that he never once gave us shochu to drink.”
By 1696 some brewers were already adding shochu to their nihonshu, a practice that continues in some grades to this day. However, it wasn’t until 1705 that the sweet potato, which was called kansho (甘藷) back then, finally reached its enduring home in Japan, southern Kyushu Island, on Riemon Maeda’s return trip from the islands of Okinawa. The spud spread quickly. In 1723 it had made its way all the way out to Hachijojima near the end of the Izu Islands south of Tokyo. In 1734, sweet potatoes were brought to Tokyo itself (back then call Edo), and the Tosa region (modern-day Kochi Prefecture on Shikoku Island) was the recipient of both sweet potatoes and shochu distillation know-how in 1735. Hachijojima, on the other hand, had to wait until 1853 for still technology to reach its volcanic shores.
A serving carafe called a gara from Kumamoto Prefecture.
In 1895 the patent still (continuous distillation) arrived in Japan, and in 1910 multiple-distilled shochu (kōrui) hit the market, setting the groundwork for countless innovations and improvements in the traditional single-distilled (otsurui) shochu industry. Some of the more momentous occasions were the discovery of white kōji kin by Gen’ichiro Kawachi in 1923, and the official recognition of brown sugar shochu in 1953. However, it took until the 1970s for single-distilled shochu to start commanding the respect it deserved. Shochu makers started using the current designation honkaku in 1971, and they also began experimenting with different ingredients and low pressure (gen’atsu) distillation. Best-selling shochu labels such as Unkai (soba shochu) and Iichiko (barley shochu) were born in 1973 and 1979, respectively, and popular sesame and gen’atsu shochu reached the market in the interim.
Many scholars point to 1976 as the beginning of the first shochu boom in Japan. This was roughly the same time that the now standard hot water (oyuwari) mixing ratio of 6:4 (roku yon) was popularized, and later a pair of legendary aged barley shochu from Kuroki Honten and Satsuma Shuzō helped reinvigorate the shochu boom in the 1980s. November 1st, 1987, was the first year that Honkaku Shochu and Awamori Day was celebrated. That inaugural celebration was held right about when the GATT and TRIPS negotiations began their ongoing search for international common ground on recognizing and protecting intellectual property rights. This had significant ramifications for the shochu and awamori industries because rules for using regional names to add value to products were codified in the final agreement, and as mentioned earlier Japan now boasts four appellations of origin ascribed to shochu and awamori products.
Cask-aged shochu stacked to the ceiling.
The third and most recent so-called ‘Shochu Boom’ swept the major metropolitan regions of Japan starting in 2003. Honkaku shochu bars and izakaya blossomed around Tokyo, some of which offered customers shochu lists of literally hundreds of bottles. The selection at most supermarkets, and even at many convenience stores, has followed suit with label inventories reaching up into the dozens in some establishments.
Shochu is now produced in all 47 of Japan’s prefectures, but the primary centers of production are still the prefectures of Kyushu Island (honkaku shochu) and Okinawa Prefecture (awamori). Kyushu is made up of seven prefectures, each with its own forte in terms of the ingredients locally available to the distiller. Oita, Fukuoka, and Saga Prefectures in the north are known for their kasutori shochu which is distilled from nihonshu lees. Kumamoto Prefecture is also acclaimed for its rice shochu products although lees are not used. Oita Prefecture again, and Nagasaki and Miyazaki Prefectures as well, make very tasty barley shochu. Miyazaki also gets credit for introducing the world to buckwheat shochu while concurrently producing a fair amount of sweet potato shochu. However, the latter type of shochu is completely dominated by neighboring Kagoshima Prefecture, Kyushu’s most southern member. The Amami Islands that extend toward Okinawa Prefecture are technically part of Kagoshima, so the prefecture can claim brown sugar shochu as well. Okinawa Prefecture used to make potato shochu hundreds of years ago, but these days it focuses almost exclusively on distilling and aging awamori.
All of these references to shochu and awamori, when added together, show that the history of these drinks exceeds five hundred years. Many are surprised when they hear that shochu has been around for so long and played such an important role in society given that the drink has only recently begun to find its way outside of Japan. Over the past several decades, shochu consumption in Japan has surged to the extent that supply is just barely keeping up with demand. This is not particularly good news for shochu fans outside of Japan. It is likely that they will never be able to get their hands on some of the finer specimens cooked up by tiny family-run distilleries in the southwestern prefectures of the archipelago. However, if history is any indication, and it often is with aspects of Japanese culinary and entertainment culture, shochu is gearing up for a steady expansion to all corners of the globe, including a bottle shop or restaurant near you.
How is shochu different from saké?
But before we go any further, let’s get one thing straight—shochu should never be confused with nihonshu. This is something that countless people from the shochu and nihonshu industries in Japan have asked me to stress when they learned that I was writing this book. Nihonshu, which is known as saké outside of Japan and sometimes called seishu domestically, is a drink brewed from polished rice. Quite simply, shochu is distilled, but nihonshu is not. Puzzlingly, nihonshu is often referred to as a rice wine due to the lack of carbonation in most varieties, but it is not technically a wine in any way, shape, or form. Actually, if you’re in the food and drinks industry and your business serves nihonshu, then you should definitely stop calling it rice wine. Let consumers make that mistake so that you can politely correct them and explain that the nihonshu brewing process is far more complicated than what is required for wine production. And please learn to pronounce saké correctly (sah-keh).
In fact, since we’re splitting hairs here, nihonshu is probably more similar to beer than wine at least as far as the brewing process itself is concerned. But don’t go calling it a rice beer either. That would effectively equate nihonshu with the rice lagers of the world, and that’s just not a polite thing to do. To avoid getting bogged down in the minute differences between beer, nihonshu, and wine production, and to avoid self-righteous, alcohol-fueled warfare, let us simply cut this short by accepting nihonshu expert and author John Gauntner’s assertion that his beverage of choice is neither a beer nor a wine—it deserves a classification all its own.
Honkaku shochu, on the other hand, is far easier to classify. It’s a spirit, and most types of shochu neither smell nor taste anything like nihonshu. To be fair, shochu has a few modest ties to its more well-known cousin. For instance, rice is one of the four most common base ingredients used to make shochu, and nihonshu lees are used to make one particular variety of shochu called kasutori. Awamori, the shochu made in Okinawa, is also made with rice. Additionally, the same variety of kōji kin that is used to break rice starch down into fermentable sugars is currently used in several popular shochu. Now that may sound like a lot of similarities, but the truth of the matter is that the nose and taste buds will find very little in common between most shochu and nihonshu.
Look at it this way: rice shochu is to nihonshu what whiskey is to beer and brandy is to wine. But that obscenely simplified comparison falls apart when you look at all of the different ingredients used to make honkaku shochu. I defy thee to sip a potato shochu, or a kelp shochu, or a shiitake mushroom shochu and remark with a straight face that they remind you either of nihonshu or each other. There is simply no intellectually or alcoholically honest way to think of shochu and nihonshu as being the same thing, or in the vast majority of cases, even remotely similar. So don’t.
Accordingly, it is correct to group shochu with all of the other spirits of the world. That’s right, shochu will one day find its way into your local liquor shop on a shelf right beside the whiskey, rum, gin, vodka, and tequila. And by the way, saké is actually the Japanese word for ‘alcohol,’ so shochu, wine, whiskey, and beer are saké, too. To wit, if you walk into an izakaya in Kagoshima Prefecture and ask for saké, they’ll serve you shochu.
What is shochu made from?
This is the mind-blowing part, and it simultaneously serves as a window to how deep the shochu rabbit hole goes. Along with its versatility, shochu lovers are infatuated with its variety. Because honkaku shochu is made from such a dizzying range of base ingredients, the resulting beverages can vary enormously. Indeed, this nearly endless variety of aroma and flavor is what makes the world of shochu so exciting and enjoyable for the enthusiast. Shochu is very much like beer in that respect.
Base ingredients used in honkaku shochu production:
That short list was about one-fifth of the legally recognized raw ingredients used to make honkaku shochu here in Japan. Obviously, some types are more popular and common than others. Sweet potato, barley, rice (including awamori and kasutori shochu), buckwheat, and brown sugar are by far the biggest sellers. Other types of shochu are regional phenomena that are often marketed as souvenirs to tourists looking for local goodies. Interestingly, dates are the only fruit legally allowed in the production of honkaku shochu. My advice is to try whatever you can get your hands on. A tomato or green pepper shochu might not be your cup of tea, so to speak, but I bet you could have some fun making a signature Bloody Mary with them. Naturally, since we’re dealing with such a wide swath of aroma and flavor, the food pairing possibilities are literally endless.
Sweet potatoes getting a greenhouse-assisted head start.
Japan’s next cultural export
And this book? Well, the most exciting part of it for me is helping to get people outside of Japan in on the ground floor of shochu’s imminent spread across the globe. Now granted, getting your hands on good shochu is still a difficult thing to do in many places, but Japanese restaurants and izakaya are springing up in major cities everywhere, and curious imbibers are asking their local distributors to start sourcing it. You should, too.
Shochu is still relatively new to the world of international export, and that is part of the reason why it has not yet gotten the press that it deserves. To be fair, even in Japan shochu is largely denied the media attention afforded to happenings in the beer and nihonshu industries. Interestingly, over the past decade, shochu has quietly overtaken nihonshu in terms of domestic consumption. According to the Japanese Tax Office, sales of shochu eclipsed those of nihonshu in 2003, and the gap has increased ever since. In 2009, distilleries shipped more than one million kiloliters of shochu while nihonshu brewers sold 634,000. However, despite strong evidence of shochu’s position in the drinks industry, many still see it as the final stop on the long train line of old man drinks (the penultimate is single malt whiskey in case you were wondering). Things are certainly changing, albeit slowly.
One could argue that there are similarities between shochu’s role in Japan’s culinary culture and the position of beer in the world’s collective conscious. My experience working in the beer industry taught me that no matter how refined the product we were brewing, and no matter how well it complemented the items on the restaurant menu where it was being served, people would automatically turn their attention to the wine list. There is an ingrained notion that wine is simply more sophisticated, or as beer expert, author, and educator Randy Mosher surmised, “the automatic sense of class and status accorded to wine relative to beer.” To my mind, shochu is basically in the same boat as beer but looking up at nihonshu.
Allow me to leave you with some of shochu’s sales points:
Compared with the spirits of the world
1. Larger variety of base ingredients used in production
2. Wider variety of flavors and aromas
3. Greater flexibility of serving styles: straight, on the rocks, mixed with cold/hot water, cocktail, etc.
4. Lower calorie content/ABV
5. Less likely to cause hangover (moderate consumption!)
6. Pairs well with all types of cuisine
7. Appropriate before, during, and after meals
Compared with other drinks produced in Japan
1. Better cost performance
2. Longer shelf life than brewed drinks
3. More flexibility in serving style to suit individual taste
4. Comparable levels of historical significance and character
5. Far greater variety of flavors and aromas
6. More flexibility when pairing with food
How is honkaku shochu unique?
Due to the immense variety of ingredients and resulting aroma, flavor profile, mouth feel and finish, the casual drinker will often find it difficult to pin shochu down or categorize it. This drink is not easily pigeon-holed, that’s for sure. One can sample a different bottle each day for months on end and still have only a fleeting sense of what shochu is all about. Many times the confusion can be attributed to a lack of appreciation of the varied base ingredients, production techniques, and storage methods that cause the bottled result to dance all over the palate’s map.
It is a drink that, just like wine, beer and whiskey, is difficult to quantify in a summary of 140 Twitter bytes or less. Seated at your local bar, the shochu on the left might seem enormously similar to rye but the one perched right next to it is reminiscent of that milky makgeolli you tried at a Korean barbeque restaurant. Shochu is at once mind-boggling and joyous like that. During a recent stay in Avignon, France, I had the good fortune to dine at a small restaurant with a modest but excellent list of Côtes du Rhône wines. Imagine my delight when I found that the bouquet of my glass of “Bressy-Masson Mode Vergaderen Get Together Rencontres” was a dead ringer for a potato shochu! Wine enthusiasts, of course, will argue that it is the shochu that smells like the wine, but my point about the various liquids carrying the shochu banner stands undented. Sometimes shochu presents you with the sensory experience that you expect. Other times, a potato shochu can smell exactly like a fine wine. And that’s one of its’ indelible beauties—it’s fully capable of blanketing the far reaches of the flavor map. Another admirable trait is its tendency not to cause severe hangovers.
The shochu industry’s ability to give consumers so many different looks is precisely why it’s necessary to explain how honkaku shochu is unique within the vast and well-documented world of spirits, or what is colloquially known as ‘hard alcohol’ or liquor in other parts of the world. Shochu is distilled and sold almost everywhere in Japan, but somehow it largely stays out of the way. That is part of the reason why only about a dozen books have been written on the subject in Japanese, of which about five of them are readily available at decent bookstores, and until this book’s publication, zero had been penned in English.
What follows is a brief and necessarily simple rundown of how shochu differs from some of the other colorless spirits from across the globe.
Honkaku Shochu vs Vodka
Honkaku shochu is often erroneously referred to as ‘Japanese vodka’ due to the fact that it is a distilled clear beverage. One key difference is that honkaku shochu uses kōji to help with saccharification while mass market vodka does not. Also, and this is incredibly important, honkaku shochu is distilled just once in a pot still, but as you’ve probably noticed from the label vodka is generally distilled at least a few times. As we will see, distilling repeatedly will strip out most hints of whatever plant was fermented to make alcohol. Indeed, vodka is valued in cocktail mixing due to its lack of strong flavors and aromas, and that all comes down to the fact that it is distilled repeatedly.
More obvious than differences in production processes, to the casual observer at least, is the fact that honkaku shochu is commonly bottled for the Japanese market at 25% alcohol by volume (ABV) while most vodka is at least 80 proof (40% ABV). Despite its elevated ethanol content, vodka is frequently consumed straight—in wee glasses that are designed to hasten the end of the evening. To be sure, shochu is also enjoyed neat, but often in larger glasses and at a slower pace. There’s simply much more to savor with each sip.
It is also worth noting that while good vodka and shochu are smooth, there is generally no comparison in terms of bouquet and flavor. You will find honkaku shochu that is incredibly smooth going down, especially low pressure distilled rice (kome) and some types of barley (mugi) shochu, but on the whole the flavors and aromas from the ingredients used to make the mash will be readily apparent. Cheaper varieties of shochu known as kōrui (multiple-distilled) are nondescript in their bouquet, attack, and mouthfeel and can thus be equated more closely with vodka even though they’re not filtered with white birch charcoal. However, kōrui shochu is almost never consumed straight up or on the rocks—it’s commonly used as cocktail fuel—so some might opine that it is unfair to equate it with upper tier vodka.
Honkaku Shochu vs Soju (Korea)
Traditionally made soju (soh ju) is more similar to honkaku shochu than vodka. As in shochu production, old-school soju distillers leverage kōji kin (mold spores) to provide the enzymes necessary for converting starches into sugar and the fermented mash is run through a pot still. However, the overwhelming majority of soju made today is not made in the traditional style, thus it bears little resemblance to honkaku shochu. That last claim may sound strange to some folks reading this outside of Japan. Allow me to explain.
Due to a state-specific American liquor control tax loophole, many eating and drinking establishments in the US that carry shochu, particularly in the states of California and New York, serve it under the name soju, its Korean multiple-distilled cousin. In many cases it actually says ‘soju’ right on the bottle. Obviously, this has had the effect of confusing and misinforming consumers. The reason for this is soju, due to its mid-level ABV and some heavy lobbying at the California state capitol, now skirts the parameters of a full-blown liquor license which can be prohibitively expensive for new business owners. Many establishments opt for the less restrictive beer and wine license which currently accommodates some medium ABV drinks like soju (24% ABV and lower).
Hence, shochu has benefitted from hiding under the soju umbrella in a handful of key markets. Reaching a wider audience by comfortably flying beneath the radar, and falsely printing ‘soju’ on the label, is apparently still preferable to locking horns with the rigmarole of American tax law at this juncture in shochu’s nascent foray outside of Japan. However, despite being different pronunciations of the same Chinese characters, there are enormous differences between honkaku shochu and soju.
Soju, the national drink of both North and South Korea, is a multiple-distilled spirit made by massive corporations. And it is generally not distilled purely from rice, much to the surprise of some who count it as a regular part of their diet. Rice is expensive, and for a long time was restricted due to shortages, so to keep costs down macro-distillers such as Jinro (pronounced ‘jilloh’ in Korean, believe it or not) often blend in or substitute cheaper starch substitutes such as yams and tapioca. This means that a typical 350 ml bottle of soju costs only a little over US$1.00 at most South Korean convenience and grocery stores. For those that have never tried it straight up, as people in Korea do in shot glasses (when in Korea, don’t ever put ice in it!), two or three standard-size bottles are enough for most folks to forget what happened during the preceding 18 hours. According to standard Korean drinking protocol, if you can drink this much on your own plus make it home without losing any valuables, then you are deemed to have a respectable alcohol tolerance.
The small green bottles of soju that accompany many meals in Korea are chilled before serving. The reduced temperature is important—you wouldn’t want to drink it warm any more than you’d welcome a pint of room-temperature Heineken. Shot glasses are employed in a very communal atmosphere to deftly move on to the next bottle at an alarming pace. Outside of Korea, on the other hand, soju, like its kōrui shochu counterpart, is often used as a cheap vodka substitute because it plays well with a variety of mixers.
But the color of the bottle and the size of the glass aren’t really what make soju so different from honkaku shochu. At the risk of insulting soju adorers around the world, soju is totally different from honkaku shochu because the vast majority of it is designed to be cheap for both the producer and consumer. To wit, macro distillers have been dropping soju’s ABV for years, one percentage point at a time, to maintain profit margins. Additionally, they often eschew the time-consuming kōji preparation process while blending a number of sweet and sour additives into the product to help regulate the taste and make it easier to drink.
In contrast, the traditional soju market, known in Korea as Andong Soju, is still heart-breakingly small. This is the exact opposite of the situation in Japan where honkaku shochu’s robust flavors are gaining popularity and outsell the cheap stuff, additives are not used, and distillers attempt to differentiate themselves by using the best available ingredients.
As mentioned in our vodka comparison, kōrui shochu is distilled to the point that it loses almost all of the flavors that are preserved in its single-distilled and more expensive sibling, honkaku shochu. Consequently, kōrui shochu, like soju, is neutral enough to be a logical choice for cocktails both in Japan and abroad. Because they are both designed to be cheap and lacking in overall character, it is not unfair to surmise that there are serious similarities between the two.
Honkaku shochu, on the other hand, provides excellent cost-performance, and can generally compete with whiskey prices in its home market. It is not made from tapioca or molasses and never is it multiple-distilled. In other words, the drink that this book is primarily concerned with is as different from standard soju as single malt scotch is from bathtub corn moonshine. At the risk of relegating soju to a well-level spirit, honkaku shochu would more likely be found a shelf or two above the bartender’s navel.
Honkaku Shochu vs Awamori
These two drinks are far more similar than any of the clear spirits mentioned earlier, and generally speaking awamori is one type of shochu. The biggest differences between them, and part of the reason why they have different names, are the specifics of the pre-distillation production process and the type of rice involved in kōji preparation and fermentation.
One of the rules of awamori production is that all of the ingredients are mixed into the mash at the same time. In other words, there’s only one stage of fermentation (zenkōji shikomi). At the risk of getting ahead of ourselves here, the kōji kin and yeast immediately begin to tag team the starch and produce alcohol and carbon dioxide, a ridiculously complex process called multiple parallel fermentation (heikō fukuhakkō). However, there is no single-stage fermentation rule when it comes to the production of honkaku shochu, and these days a two-step mash process is routine. Simplifying things greatly, the first stage is smaller in volume and gives the kōji kin and yeast a chance to get revved up. The second stage introduces a large amount of extra fuel (starch!) to the bubbling feast, and the starch chains are immediately disassembled into fermentable sugars by the kōji kin and converted into alcohol by the yeast that multiplied exponentially during the first stage of fermentation. In case you were wondering, heikō fukuhakkō does not occur when making wine, beer, or whiskey.
As for starch supply, rice shochu uses short grained japonica rice while awamori is made with long grained indica, a clear legacy, many claim, of the drink’s ancestral link to Thailand. As posited in the previous chapter, awamori was first distilled in the islands of Okinawa around Columbus’s time and then spread north to Kyushu within the next century. For those not up on their elementary school history, awamori developed in Okinawa during the 1400s and reached mainland Japan sometime in the 1500s. That would mean that shochu is a direct descendent of awamori.
Also of significance is the fact that awamori tends to pack a more robust alcoholic punch than shochu. It is standard for awamori to hit store shelves at a bottled ABV of 30-40% which elevates it to the mind eraser level of spirits indigenous to the west. This is nearly always an adult-sized helping of ethanol more than what is normal for honkaku shochu. As such, awamori is generally served on the rocks and with a couples splashes of water. Drinking it neat is advised only for those who have recently lost a significant court case.
One other peculiarity of shochu’s brethren to the south is that of aging. Aged awamori, as encoded in the prefecture’s tax scriptures, is allowed to use the designation kūsu (古酒: pronounced koshu in most northern parts of the archipelago) which means that at least 50% of the bottle’s contents were aged for three years or longer. This also indicates that the bottle will be priced several echelons above the run-of-the-mill stuff which is aged six months or less, so shop accordingly. Jump forward to chapter five if you’d like more detail about kūsu awamori.
Another important difference between awamori and shochu involves the type of kōji kin that is used. The mold in question here is from the Aspergillus family, and it’s the same kōji kin that is used in the production of nihonshu and a large number of dishes produced not only in Japan but in South Korea and China as well. Awamori, as a rule, uses only so-called black mold (Aspergillus awamori, or recently Aspergillus luchuensis) while nihonshu is made with a different color, yellow (Aspergillus oryzae). White mold (Aspergillus kawachii) is the third and most common variant used in shochu production.
A quick clarification, shochu was originally made with yellow kōji kin, but it’s actually produced with all three types of mold these days because the ability to control the climate and conditions of the distillery has improved greatly. And yes, you did just read the word mold several times in the context of alcohol production. Aspergillus molds are just another way of breaking starches down into fermentable sugars for yeast to eat, a process commonly called saccharification. For those who are not familiar with the chemistry involved in alcohol production, let’s just say that yeast can’t handle the complex starch chains in many of the plants used to produce shochu. A couple of extra steps are required in order to turn starch to sugar so that the yeast can start the fermentation process.
Just as with beer and whiskey production, the yeast needs a little extra help. It’s not as straightforward as in the production of wine where the sugars are already there for yeast to do their thing (brewer’s yeast clings naturally to the outside of the grape, by the way). In the case of beer and whiskey, the grains are malted, milled, and then mixed with hot water to convert the starches into glucose, a simple sugar that yeast can turn into alcohol and carbon dioxide. With shochu, awamori, and nihonshu, on the other hand, Aspergillus mold strains take the place of malting, and this makes it possible for the yeast to do their very important job before distillation. This is, yet again, a gross over-simplification of the mind-bogglingly complicated process of multiple parallel fermentation.
Honkaku Shochu vs Rum
Brown sugar (kokutō) shochu, a variety that is produced in the Amami Islands off the southern coast of Kagoshima Prefecture, is very likely to remind people of rum. This makes perfect sense because sugar cane is used in the production of both spirits. The one big difference, however, is the fact that brown sugar shochu is made with a rice kōji starter mash, and rum is not. Actually, most kokutō shochu is not as sweet as one might expect due to the influence of the kōji. Furthermore, the most ubiquitous rum labels on the international market, such as Bacardi, Captain Morgan, or Havana Club, are bottled at a higher alcohol content, anywhere from 70 to 100 proof. Brown sugar shochu, on the other hand, generally finds its way into your liquor cabinet at 50-60 proof (25-30% ABV).
Shochu, more than its distilled relatives from around the world, is a dizzyingly diverse tipple. If you read the back label and figure out what the base ingredient and kōji variety are, then you might be able to concoct an educated guess about what you are about to enjoy. But just like a craft beer or fine wine, you will not truly know what you’re in for until that second or third sip. As will be revealed in the following chapters, shochu has a far wider range of aromas and flavors than any of the clear spirits mentioned thus far. If you’re the type of person who enjoys complexity, variety, and layers in their drinks, then shochu is right up your alley.
How is honkaku shochu made?
Distilled beverages aren’t nearly as old as beer or wine, but their development is no less integral to the history of humankind. Originally used as medicinal remedies in the middle ages, and also for making perfumes and balms, it was not long before their full value became known to not only the scientists of Central Asia, but also the citizens. Many cultures worked with and developed the still technology that helped usher the advancement of both early pharmacology and general conduct disorderly.
The distillation techniques brought to southern Kyushu in the 16th century were adapted to fit the climate and natural resources of the region. At first, the most common starches used in shochu production were actually rice (kome) and barley (mugi). Barley has enjoyed enduring popularity over the centuries with its most recent boom taking place in the 1970s. More recently, however, a family of spuds has thrown its collective hat into the ring to vie for the shochu-loving public’s attention. This starch-packed vegetable from South America, the sweet potato (satsuma imo), arrived and was found to be perfectly suited to the Kyushu climate and terrain. The rest, as they say, is history, and Satsuma Shochu has since received appellation of origin protection from the WTO. Many other base ingredients are used, but these days distilleries sell four times as much sweet potato and barley shochu as rice shochu.
Shochu production techniques vary widely based both on the ingredients involved and the prerogatives of the head brewer (tōji), so let’s start with an in-depth but easy to understand exploration of how sweet potato shochu is typically produced. The production of honkaku shochu, no matter what the principal ingredient may be, generally follows this pattern:
1. Kōji preparation
2. First moromi fermentation
3. Second moromi fermentation
6. Before bottling
1. Kōji preparation (seigiku)
As mentioned in chapter two, Aspergillus mold, referred to here as kōji kin, is an essential part of the magic that allows fermentation to take place. In the creation of alcohol, whether it’s wine, beer or shochu, sugar reacts with yeast to create alcohol. For wine, grapes provide the sugar, and as mentioned in the last chapter the yeast is able to get started right away turning it into alcohol. However, beer requires an extra step before fermentation can take place. This is simplifying things immeasurably, but basically the grains are soaked and allowed to germinate, and then the sprouting process is quickly halted through the use of high temperatures so that the starches inside the grains can be easily modified into sugars with the help of some hot water (sorry, that’s liquor to you old-school brewer types). Grains that have undergone this process are known as ‘malt.’
There are, of course, other ways of converting starches into fermentable sugars. You may have heard of Peruvian corn beer, chicha. The starch-chopping enzymes in this case are found in human saliva, so the corn is chewed into small mushy cakes that are then left in the sun so the enzymes can do their work. Gross? Maybe at first, but it’s still sterile because the corn is boiled for at least an hour after that. In fact, nihonshu used to be made this way (kuchikami saké or “mouth-chewed alcohol”) as were many varieties of alcohol around the globe. Shochu is similar in that it needs a little help in converting starch into sugar. However, malted grains aren’t allowed in the production of shochu, and neither is spitting—figurative blood, sweat, and tears maybe, but definitely no saliva.
Malting and chewing are replaced by a starch and mold mixture called kōji. We’re discussing the production of potato shochu here, but more often than not potato shochu actually uses an entirely different base material to begin with: rice. The most common way to prepare ‘rice kōji’ is similar to the way they do it in the nihonshu world—kōji kin spores are sprinkled onto rice that has been washed, steamed, and then allowed to cool to about 35-40 degrees Celsius on a large table that has low, lined walls like a shallow pool. During the first dozen hours or so the rice is stirred regularly to make sure that the kōji kin has a chance to spread throughout the entire white, fluffy bed. A little more than half of a day later, this mixture is separated into rectangular wooden boxes (kōji buta), and these containers are carefully stacked in a checkerboard fashion so that the temperature of each small box of developing rice kōji can be closely monitored. The kōji is usually ready roughly 40-42 hours after the kōji kin spores first come in contact with the rice, and due to evaporation the grains of rice are quite hard at this point. While rice kōji is by far the most common type used to make shochu and awamori, barley kōji and sweet potato kōji are also popular with shochu consumers.
Covering a bed of handmade kōji.
Just to be clear, kōji kin are the mold spores, and kōji is rice (or another starch) that has kōji kin living on and inside of it. Please bear in mind that even though we’re focusing on kome (rice) kōji in this chapter, mugi (barley), imo (potato), and soba (buckwheat) kōji are routine as well. Regardless of the base starch involved, it is crucial that the kōji kin is provided an advantageous environment to spread throughout the starch source. To that end, distilleries build insulated kōji rooms that carefully regulate temperature and humidity so that the kōji kin can run rampant. At this early stage, the kōji kin provide enzymes as they work their way into the grains of rice. The enzymes, specifically Alpha-amylase and amyloglucosidase, work together to chop the long starch chains into shorter chunks and convert them into glucose. Glucose is basically just fuel when it comes to making shochu and awamori, so when the yeast is added during the next step of this process, it’s going to go bonkers at the biggest buffet of its life.
There are currently three main types of kōji kin used in kōji preparation. Listed from most to least commonly used in the shochu industry, the three types are white, black, and yellow kōji kin. Both white and black kōji kin are valued for the citric acid that they create in the mash (moromi), an essential defense against airborne bacteria and other nasties that can seriously foul up the delicate fermentation process, especially during the first couple of days. This is an even more pressing concern considering the hot and humid climate of the main production centers for shochu and awamori, so the citric acid is key. In most instances, white kōji kin can be counted on to soften and round the ingredients it touches. Black kōji kin, on the other hand, is loved for how it separates and highlights the flavors in the mash and adds impact to the final product. Many times you’ll notice a light sweetness and more memorable finish in shochu made with black kōji kin.
Yellow kōji kin, the type used to make most nihonshu, has found its way into some shochu distilleries even though it’s not a big fan of the hot and humid climate of southern Kyushu. Fortunately, advanced technology has made it much easier to control the temperatures within brewing and distilling facilities, so shochu consumers are able to enjoy an increasing number of labels that employ yellow kōji kin for help with fermentation. This type of mold affords a lighter and fruitier treatment of the mash constituents. However, as yellow kōji kin doesn’t produce citric acid like its white and black counterparts, distilleries must be exceedingly careful with their temperature management to prevent mash infection by wild yeast. When everything goes to plan, the result is fruit and flowers on the nose, and a prettier treatment of the other mash constituents.
This kōji is ready for the first fermentation.
Whatever the color, distilleries typically purchase kōji kin from specialty suppliers. The traditional method of kōji preparation described here used to be done completely by hand, but many distilleries have automated parts of the process. For example, it is incredibly common for bigger distilleries to use large metal drums or conveyor belts to expedite rice steaming. Others have made kōji preparation less time-consuming by opting for far larger boxes than the small and labor-intensive trays that were once the only way to go in the shochu world. Also, please keep in mind that the specifics of everything in this chapter can vary wildly according to the instincts and methods of the tōji and the ambitions of the distillery.
2. First moromi fermentation (ichiji shikomi)
Once the kōji kin has completely spread throughout the rice, the kōji is ready. Water and yeast are mixed with it to create the mash. The kōji is flush with glucose, so the yeast can quickly get to work creating alcohol. Depending on the size of the distillery, this starter fermentation will take place either in earthenware pots, often buried up to their necks in the distillery floor to help stabilize the temperature, or large metal vats. Most large-scale operations have opted for stainless steel because it’s more economical in terms of maintenance and manpower. For every 100 kg of kōji loaded into the preferred fermentation vessel, generally about 120 liters of water and between 100-300 ml of yeast are added. This limited stage of fermentation helps the yeast get warmed up before the main ingredient is added in the next fermentation phase. The fermented mash (moromi) is stirred frequently and typically bubbles away for five to eight days.
The bubbling moromi.
As the first fermentation is winding down, workers elsewhere in the distillery are busy preparing the truckloads of freshly-harvested sweet potatoes (imo) that have just arrived. They are washed and then have any blemishes or bruises carved out of them. This is one part of the production process that can’t be easily automated, and a large number of workers are generally required to lop the ends off of the spuds, clean them up, and remove damaged specimens from the conveyor belt. After the potatoes are relieved of their imperfections, they head to the steam drum for a nice, hot bath. The steamed potatoes are then transported to the shredder which chops the soggy spuds into small pieces that will be easier for the kōji kin and yeast to deal with in the second stage of fermentation.
Final spud inspection before steaming.
3. Second moromi fermentation (niji shikomi)
Now that the mold spores and yeast have been given a head start and multiplied enormously, they can easily handle the massive payload of crushed sweet potato that is added along with considerably more water. This is the second stage of fermentation, and most imo shochu distillers use roughly five times as much chopped potato as the amount of rice that was used to create the starter mash in the previous step. The formula can vary, of course, but this is generally how distilleries go about phasing in larger quantities of starch for the mold and yeast to mingle with. In large-scale distilleries the second stage of fermentation is then allowed to bubble away in large tanks for anywhere from eight to 10 days. In smaller outfits, the starter mash is divided amongst several pots before the extra water and potatoes are added.
It should be pointed out here that not all types of shochu follow this procedure in lock-step. Awamori, for example, uses only one stage of fermentation. Known as zenkōji shikomi, all of the kōji, water, and yeast are added to the fermentation vessel at the same time. In other words, awamori combines the two fermentation stages into one. Shochu used to be made this way as well, but these days two fermentation stages are used because of their ability to produce a healthy and vigorous ferment. However, this doesn’t hold for all types of shochu. Brown sugar shochu often includes a third stage. The first two moromi fermentations are technically the same as other types of shochu with brown sugar being added during the niji shikomi stage. However, the second stage is essentially split in two. Brown sugar is added to the bubbling moromi on separate occasions resulting in a third stage.
4. Distillation (jōryū)
Distillers don’t make shochu, they make kōji. Stills make shochu. Once fermentation has ceased, the distiller has a couple of choices for how to proceed. As you may have already guessed, this is yet another stage during which everything that is done to the shochu can have a drastic influence on the character of the final product. The now quiet mash is pumped into a still and this is where shochu is finally produced. Stills, of course, are amazingly complex instruments that enable the separation of components in a liquid. If ‘honkaku’ is what the distiller is planning to print on the label, then a pot still (often called an alembic in Europe) will be used to boil the finished moromi in batches. There are various types of pot still in use, but the basic principles remain the same. At sea level pure alcohol (ethanol) boils at just under 78.4 degrees Celsius (172° F), so the resulting vapor will contain a stronger concentration of alcohol than the moromi that is being heated at the bottom of the pot. The alcohol vapors rise and are collected in the cone at the top before being fed into a cooling column where they recondense before dripping into a collection container. And voila! We have shochu.
A pot still at Satsuma Musou Distillery in Kagoshima Prefecture.
If the distiller is aiming to make kōrui shochu, then a patent still will be used to create a distillate with as high a concentration of alcohol as possible. The first patent still was used in commercial alcohol production in Scotland in the early 1800’s where Irishman Aeneas Coffey is credited with bringing this form of continuous distillation to the masses, and it found widespread adoption around the world over the next century. The patent still arrived in Japan in 1895, and kōrui shochu was born in 1910.
Unlike continuous distillation, where the alcohol undergoes several distillation cycles in order to maximize its purity, batch distillation results in many of the esters from the flora used in the mash (sweet potato in this case) escaping from the still along with the alcohol. Just as in the distillation of some kinds of whiskey and other spirits such as Calvados Pays D’Auge AOC (which must be run through a pot still twice by law), this is a highly desirable outcome as it lends the final product more character and complexity. If the distillate is sent back into the pot a second or third time, then the product gradually becomes separated from the ingredients that were used to create it. A neutral alcohol is certainly the goal of kōrui shochu, vodka, and soju production, but this is decidedly not the case where honkaku shochu is concerned.
A pot still will begin by producing an ester-rich distillate called hanatare that is generally around 70% ABV, but this number tapers off as the run continues. The last part of the run is called suedare. At this point the ABV has fallen all the way to about 10% and exudes an organic acid-based aroma that adds depth and complexity to the distillate. The resulting unprocessed alcohol, or genshu, generally has an ABV in the mid to upper thirties although higher is certainly not uncommon. Insert your nostrils in the vicinity of the distillate and you’ll be treated to a bracing blend of oils, gases, and alcohol from the starches involved in the ferment. This raw bouquet is entirely due to the scientific and gut-level decisions made by the head distiller and the back-breaking work of everyone in the fields and distillery.
Obviously, the quality of the ingredients used during the kōji and moromi production stages have a profound effect on the taste of the final product because some of those flavors escape into the top of the still along with the vaporized alcohol. The rice kōji, sweet potato, yeast, and water all spent a considerable amount of time together before distillation, so it’s only natural that you will notice the complex interplay between them when taking a sip. Honkaku shochu prizes these aromas and flavors, and distilleries across Japan have labored for generations to perfect the conditions and techniques necessary to create the ideal moromi for distillation.
Most imo shochu are distilled at atmospheric pressure (jōatsu), but another way that a distiller can shape the flavors of the final product is to use a more modern still, one that can reduce the pressure inside (gen’atsu). Essentially, this is distillation in a vacuum, and alcohol will therefore boil at a far lower temperature. While alcohol vapors will start to waft to the top of a regular pot still at just over 78 degrees Celsius, reducing the pressure will cause evaporation at anywhere from 40 to 60 degrees. This is obviously a much softer boil, and less of the moromi will escape with the vaporized alcohol. The result is a milder distillate where the influence of the other ingredients in the mash is softer. The relatively recent introduction of low pressure distilling has allowed the shochu industry to experiment with more refined flavors and reach a whole new segment of the market. Awamori distilleries in Okinawa have also begun experimenting with low pressure distillation—while once unheard of, it’s becoming increasingly common to find awamori that blends distillate from the two types of pot still.
5. Aging (jukusei)
Another major decision that distillers must negotiate is choosing the best conditions for aging the genshu. One could go the way of wine or whiskey and age shochu in a carefully crafted wooden barrel (taru). Larger distilleries will often opt for large stainless steel containers (tanku) for this purpose, while family-owned establishments may go with old-school earthenware pots (kame). The choice here will bend the taste of the final product in a unique direction. I’ve seen long buildings lined up side by side at some distilleries with endless stacks of 450 liter casks. The most cavernous and mind-boggling that I’ve seen was at Kedogawa Shuzō in Kagoshima Prefecture, the makers of the internationally available and tasty Satsuma Shiranami line. The specifics are trade secrets, but they barrel-age their mugi shochu for a few years before bottling. Their Kannoko mugi develops a pseudo-whiskey coloration because of the barrel-aging, and the flavor is divine.