Let’s Party! 10 Tips to Enjoy Shochu (Japanese Spirits)

Let's Party! 10 Tips to Enjoy Shochu (Japanese Spirits)

For many people, Sake is perhaps the best known of the alcoholic beverages unique in Japan (Nihonshu), yet there is another, even more popular tipple called Shochu (pronounced something like: shore.chew). Unlike sake, Shochu is a distilled spirit liquor. Originating on the southern island of Kyushu, it is now distilled at various places throughout Japan and is typically made from sweet potato, barley, buckwheat, rice or other ingredients. This results in a generally clear liquor, rather like vodka in appearance, though the comparison never ends.

For visitors to Japan, Shochu perhaps represents a far more interesting and versatile souvenir gift because, whereas sake is always at its best served with Japanese cuisine, Shochu is much more a ‘stand alone’ drink which goes well with a wide variety of mixers. Add to this an alcohol content by volume of around 25%, and Shochu makes for a less quickly intoxicating ‘session’ tipple than sprits like whiskey, vodka or gin.

The history, distillation techniques and varieties of Shochu would be too much to consider in the context of this article, but there are a few things to consider when buying or drinking Shochu.



 

Let’s Party! 10 Tips to Enjoy Shochu (Japanese Spirits)

 

1. How It Is Drunk

As with the better varieties of Polish vodka, purists would argue that good Shochu is best drunk neat, at room temperature or slightly chilled. Many drinkers prefer Shochu on the rocks, whilst others might dilute it with with water (mizuwari) or hot water (oyuwari). Then again, Shochu mixes well with oolong tea or various fruit juices.

 

2. Chuhai

Perhaps the most popular way of enjoying Shochu is in chuhai, a mixed drink of Shochu, iced soda and a flavoring of sour ume plum, although pineapple, citrus fruits and apple are also common. Any bartender in Japan will be able to fix you an Ume Chuhai (plum sour), but chuhai is also widely available in cans from convenience stores and supermarkets, using inexpensive, mass produced Shochu.

 

3. The Shochu Taste

Nihonshu generally has a somewhat dry and fruity flavor, but this is less pronounced with Shochu. Depending on the particular starches used in distillation, the Shochu flavor can be more woody, nutty, earthy or smoky than that of sake. It is this subtly distinctive flavor that gives Shochu its versatility.

 

4. Dig That Pretty Bottle!

What impresses many foreign visitors when buying Shochu are the often beautifully presented bottles, so souvenir gift choices are often made on these aesthetic merits alone. With bottles in various shapes and colours, or frosted glass, brightly decorative or delicately understated labels, and sometimes a gift box, even the most inexpensive Shochu can make a memorable gift for loved ones and colleagues back home.

 

5. What’s In The Bottle is Most Important

When buying Shochu, always ask for honkaku Shochu. This is good quality Shochu, single distilled to retain the character of its base ingredients. Most other spirits, and mass produced Shochu are multiply distilled and so lose the aroma and flavor of their base ingredients. A sweet potato Shochu has a very different flavor to a rice Shochu or a wheat Shochu, so to lose that flavor would be a great shame!

 

6. Choosing Which Shochu to Buy

Aim to try a few different kinds when at restaurants or bars and remember the one you particularly liked. The most common are imo-jochu (sweet potato), kome-jochu (rice) and mugi-jochu (barley/wheat), then, when you visit a liquor store, supermarket or airport duty free shop, buy the brand that suits your pocket and/or has the coolest label.

 

7. What to Pay for Shochu

Prices for a decent 720ml bottle of honkaku Shochu start at around ¥1000, and ¥3-4000 will get you a very good bottle indeed, but the price will rise with quality. Beyond that, premium and limited edition Shochu can go for insane prices at auction.

 

8. The Best Place to Enjoy or Buy Shochu

Kyushu is generally considered the best place for Shochu, particularly the imo-jochu of Kagoshima, or the kome-jochu of Kumamoto. Kyushu also has some stunning scenery, including the active volcano of Mt. Aso, as well as some of the most interesting historical sites in all of Japan, and is well worth a visit.

 

9. Buying Shochu in Tokyo

Oboro Saketen is a shop close to Shinbashi station that specializes in Nihonshu. Owner and operator, Jun Okuma speaks very good English and can offer advice on the wide variety of sake and Shochu he stocks. Your visit might even coincide with one of his monthly tastings.

 

10. Recommended Top Grade Shochu

Imo-Shochu Isami, from Kumamoto, with its strong, lively flavor, is the characteristic brand of Shochu in Japan.

Imo-Shochu Murao, from Kagoshima, is one of the highest grade Shochu. Its soft taste and sweetness is prized by Shochu drinkers.

Imo-Shochu Maou, also from Kagoshima, is popular for its fruity citrus flavor, and subtle aroma of sweet potato.

Mori-Izou, the most coveted and expensive Shochu of Kagoshima, with its subtle aroma and mild flavor, is so unique, that you can only buy it through a phone in lottery. The good news is, you can possibly drink it in some hotel restaurants/bars.

Kome-Shochu Juuyondai , from the Takagi brewery in Yamagata, is a popular kome-jochu known for its fruity flavor.

Yamaneko, from Miyazaki, is a smooth and aromatic Shochu made from locally grown ‘Joy White’ sweet potatoes.

 

Conclusion

I hope the above few pointers will encourage visitors to Japan to try some of our remarkable variety of Shochu, but increasingly Shochu is becoming more popular in the West too, certainly in major urban centres and can be found in many bars and liquor stores. Even so, there is still a tendency for Shochu to be described as Japanese vodka, which it most definitely is not. So please, try this very unique taste of Japan for yourself; I am sure you will not be disappointed.

 

Let’s Party! 10 Tips to Enjoy Shochu (Japanese Spirits)

1. How It Is Drunk
2. Chuhai
3. The Shochu Taste
4. Dig That Pretty Bottle!
5. What’s In The Bottle is Most Important
6. Choosing Which Shochu to Buy
7. What to Pay for Shochu
8. The Best Place to Enjoy or Buy Shochu
9. Buying Shochu in Tokyo
10. Recommended Top Grade Shochu