Sunday, August 24, 2008

What is Shochu?

Sometimes when you are checking out the Saké selections at a local wine store, you might see a bottle labeled "Shochu" or “Soju.” Is it an exotic version of Saké or something completely different?

Well, Shochu is relatively new to me though I knew what it was. It is not Saké at all though it is sometimes made from rice. It is actually a distilled liquor with about a 25% alcohol content, though it sometimes can be as high as 42% or more. Shochu is often clear in color, like vodka, which it resembles in a few other ways as well. The word shochu is written with the Chinese characters for “fiery liquor.” In Korea, they also make shochu but they call it soju. Some Japanese shochu will be labeled as soju. For most purposes, they are the same thing. The main difference is that nearly all Korean soju is of the koshu type, meaning it has undergone multple distillations.

Shochu probably originated in China or Korea. The first known usage of the term in Japan was around 1559 in Kagoshima, on the island of Kyushu. Shochu is currently very popular in Japan though it is only starting to make some headway in the U.S.

Saké brewing requires relatively lower temperatures but shochu can be distilled in warmer regions. Plus, the higher alcohol content and drier feel of shochu is more appealing to many in milder climates. Health conscious consumers prefer shochu than other types of alcohol because of its low calories, only about 15-20 calories per ounce.

Shochu can be made from any number of ingredients including barley, rice, sweet potatoes, brown sugar, chestnuts, buckwheat, shiso leaf, sesame, and even milk. The most common ingredient is barley, which makes up about 53% of all shochu. About 21% is made from sweet potato though it is considered more for connoisseurs. Dependent on the ingredients and how it is made, shochu can have a wide range of flavors. It can be smooth and light to peaty, earthy and strong.

Here are a few descriptions of different shochu styles.

  • Rice Shochu: This has a fairly thick taste and may have developed in regions that were too warm for Saké production.
  • Barley Shochu: This is generally less distinctive than rice shochu and more easy to drink. But, if it is cask-aged, then the taste can be sharper and stronger.
  • Sweet Potato Shochu: Also called imo-jochu, this is most commonly made in the southern Kyushu region, especially in the Kagoshima Prefecture. Kagoshima is the only prefecture in Japan that does not make Saké. Imo-jochu tends to have a strong taste and a very distinctive smell. The smell can be offputting to some so it was mainly a local product for a long time. Recently though, producers have suppressed some of the aroma and it has become more popular. It does offers complexity and fullness of flavor that appeals to many.
  • Brown Sugar Shochu: This has a mild taste and really does not have much of a sweet taste.
  • Soba or Buckwheat Shochu: This has an even milder taste than barley.

Shochu is generally separated into two categories, dependent on whether it undergoes a single distillation or multiple ones. Otsurui, or otsushu, is distilled once and korui, or koshu, is distilled several times. Otsurui has a more distinctive aroma and flavor. It is more often enjoyed on the rocks. This type may also be referred to as honkaku, or authentic, shochu, because it’s the original style, dating back at least to the 13th or 14th Century. Koshu, as it is lighter and cleaner, is more often mixed in cocktails. Perhaps its most popular form is the "chu-hi," a shochu high ball made using numerous fruit flavors. It can be found in single-serving cans or mixed fresh at bars and pubs. Another way to enjoy either type is known as "oyu-wari," which is simply mixing it with a bit of hot water. This reduces the alcohol flavor, strengthens others flavors and warms the body.

In the distillation process, koji mold is used (which is also used in making Saké). There are three main types of koji mold used: yellow koji, white koji and black koji. The type of koji used will affect the taste of the shochu.

Have you tried shochu before? If so, please share your thoughts about it.

1 comment:

Shochu Distilled said...

Great introduction to shochu. When you get a chance, try sudachi shochu as well. It's a unique and refreshing experience.