Looking back in a few years you will say ‘I wish I knew Shochu before!’. With production history predating the 16th century Shochu is Japan’s most popular spirit. It’s health benefits are plenty with plenty of research to back it up.
In essence Shochu is produced in the Southern Islands of Kyushu, Iki-no-Shima and Okinawa with a couple exceptions.
Shochu can be enjoyed in a variety of ways, neat, on the rocks, with hot water, green tea and even in cocktails to name a few. The average alcohol percentage of Shochu is about half of Vodka making it easy to enjoy regularly and more often. By law Shochu has no additives like flavors or color which only makes it more attractive and honest choice.
While widely consumed and preferred throughout Japan, Shochu is slowly gaining popularity in the outside world including the United States.
There’s a few things to know regarding styles available as they can be quite distinct. One of the most popular styles is Imo (Sweet Potato) traditionally produced in Kagoshima Prefecture in the Southern tip of Kyushu Island. This style evoques notes of black pepper with an earthy and complex delivery. Kome (Rice) Shochu is lighter and fruitier, ideal for beginners championed in the Kuma Region, central Kyushu.
Mugi(Barley) Shochu is mostly produced in the northern parts of Kyushu, this style is bold and round with cocoa tones and a broad texture. Soba(Buckwheat) provides a nutty quality and cereal box aromas.
In the Amami Islands, west of Kyushu Kokuto(Brown Sugar) Shochu is king, an Island dominated by sugar cane delivers a Rum like style great for Mojitos with tones of vanilla and caramel.
Coming from the Island of Okinawa a unique style called Awamori, quite different than the other production this distillate is made using Thai strains of rice. Furthermore this style is aged in clay pots giving it powerful aromatics and richer body. Generally Awamori is found with higher percentage of alcohol than regular Shochu ranging from 60-90 proof giving it its strong fame.
Honkaku Shochu or Premium Shochu has several regulations and restrictions including the use of Koji, a fungi used for soy sauce, miso and sake production. No sugar added, only forgo a single distillation and the exclusion of enhancers or flavors.
It is important to know the difference between Shochu and Soju. Soju, we can say is Shochu’s Korean cousin with different regulations and styles that allow it to have flavors and other additives that divert from Shochu’s purist nature.
Shochu production almost always starts with rice in a process similar to sake production then the starch(sweet potato, barley…)is added and then distilled, aged and bottled.
Shochu’s profile allows it to pair seamlessly with a variety of cuisines. Dishes like braised pork belly, roasted chicken and grilled vegetables are ideal with Imo, Mugi and Awamori styles that provide a richer structure. Sashimi, salads and even spicy food like Chinese or Mexican tend to go great with softer Shochu styles like Kome and Kokuto matching a fruitier profile without disrupting the balance.
As far as mixology goes the applications are endless, try a Mugi Negroni, substituting Mugi Shochu for Gin or an Awamori Manhattan replacing the whiskey to deliver a compelling version.
Eduardo Dingler [sakedrinker.com]