Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Historical Tidbits About Shochu In The U.S.

In April 2012, Sake and Shochu were declared by the Japanese government to be "national alcoholic beverages." The idea behind this decision was to help local economies, increase the demand for rice, and boost export sales. Motohisa Furukawa, the state minister for national policy, stated. "Sake and shochu are part of the Japanese culture of taking pride in high-quality rice and water. I'm confident [they] could develop into an export industry capable of penetrating the global market."

Though Sake is relatively well known in the U.S., and consumption continues to increase each year, familiarity with Shochu is much less common. There are Shochu advocates trying to promote this intriguing spirit, and I strongly recommend that you try to experience Shochu, expanding your palate and being adventurous.

In short, Shochu is a distilled alcohol, which can be produced from a variety of ingredients, including rice, chestnuts, sweet potato, milk, brown sugar, sesame, and more. The term "shochu" is written with the Chinese characters for “fiery liquor.” Like Sake, Koji is used during the fermentation process of Shochu. Its alcohol content commonly ranges from 50 to 90 proof (the legal maximum, dependent on the type of Shochu), and though it is commonly clear on color, there are varieties which possess some color too. It's important to know that Shochu is a diverse beverage, with many different flavor profiles, and it's fun to explore all of its varieties.

Shochu is generally separated into two categories, dependent on whether it undergoes a single distillation or multiple ones. Otsurui is distilled once and korui 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. 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.

It is thought that the origins of Shochu extend back in Japan to around the 16th century. During the 18th century, with the introduction of the sweet potato to Japan, shochu made from sweet potato started to be made. This is important as many consider sweet potato Shochu to be the best type. Today, Shochu is produced in all 47 of Japan’s prefectures, but the primary centers of production are Kyushu Island and Okinawa Prefecture.

What is the history of Shochu in the U.S.? Let's examine some of that history, to see how Americans perceived Shochu. 

The first reference I found was in A Treatise on Chemistry, vol. 3 (1881), by Henry Enfield Roscoe. The author stated, "The preparation of rice-spirit, or shochu, is conducted in Japan according to the following primitive plan. Rice is allowed to undergo a peculiar kind of fermentation: this yields the beverage called sake (from ki, spirit), containing from 11 to 15 per cent alcohol. The residue, after pressing out the sake moistened with some poor qualities of sake, is then submitted to distillation,.." He then continued, "The spirit thus obtained contains from 36 to 40 per cent of alcohol."

As we know, in 1854, Commodore Matthew Perry forced Japan to sign a treaty opening trade between the two countries. At that time, many Americans were curious about Japan, desirous of learning more about that country and its ways. Initially, Sake took center stage as it was the primary alcoholic drink of Japan, served to Americans visiting Japan and attending formal functions. It took longer for Americans to learn about Shochu, especially as it was considered more of a drink for peasants. As presented in the Treatise, Shochu was made from the dregs of Sake production, a distilled spirit which was about 72-80 proof.

The first newspaper reference I located was in the St. Johnsbury Caledonian (VT), October 1, 1885, which published an article on Japanese beverages. The article noted, "In our country there is another liquor, called shochu. This is a clear tasteless distilled liquor; its toxology is tremendous. Hundreds of the people were are ruined by the dreadful drink. It is said that after taking shochu, to drink water or to wade a stream is dangerous." This is a rather unflattering depiction of Shochu, by a Japanese native, and certainly wouldn't entice any American to try it.

The San Francisco Chronicle (CA), October 3, 1893, related the tale of the island of Okushiri, located in the Sea of Japan. In 1885, the island had a tiny population of only 260, but they annually consumed $3000 of Sake, Shochu and other alcohol. It was stated that 9 out of 10 men were addicted to alcohol, and the people finally got together to change matters, making a contract, pledging to never drink again. The contract was for a term of five years, and it was renewed for another five. After making this contract, and abiding by its provisions, the island proposed, doing far better economically than when they were spending so much money on alcohol. This article was reprinted in other newspapers, in New York, South Carolina, Indiana, Maryland and Illinois.

This incident, without some of the identifying details, was discussed in the San Antonio Daily Light (TX), November 27, 1894. The article stated, "An island in the Japan sea...exists where the fishermen population who were formerly addicted to the inordinate consumption of alcoholic beverages have reformed and converted the place into an earthly paradise. The islanders were enamored of sake and shochu, those being the names of their local poison,.."

As an aside, we'll note that in the Laws and Regulations Relating to Taxation of Japan (1905), in Article I-6, it stated, "The word 'Shochu' in this law is held to mean liquor or spirits obtained by distilling the lees of Seishu." Seishu is the legal term for Sake, so we see that Shochu was made from Sake lees. However, the Article continues, noting that "Those obtained by distilling the following liquors are considered to be 'Shochu.': 1) Seishu; 2) Dakushu; 3) Lees of Mirin; 4) Those obtained after fermentation by using rice, mugi (wheat, barley, or rye), kibi (millet), hiye or sweet potato and koji and water as material or by adding shukobo." This seemed to extend the basic definition of Shochu beyond just using Sake lees, and included items such as the use of sweet potato. Such other items though were probably much rarer than the use of Sake lees.

During the first decade of the 20th century, mentions of Shochu were rare and brief. The Hartford Courant (CT), June 26, 1905, stated, "The only distilled liquor produced in that country (Japan) is shochu, distilled from rice." The Chicago Daily News (NE), February 10, 1906, noted "...there is a stronger kind called shochu, which contains as much as 50 per cent of alcohol." 

The Democrat & Chronicle (NY), May 21, 1910, mentioned that in Japan there was "A stronger variety, shochu, contains from 20 to 50 per cent of alcohol." This last article, about alcoholic beverages in the "Far East," was reprinted in many other newspapers during this time.

Sweet potato Shochu. The Evening Sun (MD), September 22, 1921, discussed the island of Hachijojima, located in the Pacific Ocean between Japan and the Bonin Islands. On the island, they  grew only sweet potatoes and rice. For many years, there wasn't a tax on liquor and one of the inhabitants, A. S. Yamada, created a monopoly on alcohol production. However, soon after that, Tokyo banned the manufacture and sale of alcohol. After the ban, many islanders wasted their money on alcohol, facing economic ruin, including Sake and "moonshine shochu, which is a strong spirit brewed of sweet potatoes."

This is the first reference to sweet potato Shochu outside of the mention in the Japanese law. The previous references had been to Sake made from rice, Sake lees. And the connection of Shochu and sweet potato would be mentioned numerous times in future articles, while mentions of rice Shochu would decrease dramatically.

The Detroit Times (MI), January 13, 1935, published an article on life in Japanese, including family life. The article briefly noted, "The head of the family alone enjoys his glass of 'shochu,' an alcoholic brew stronger and saki, which is rice wine." 

For example, the St. Louis Globe-Democrat (MO), June 10, 1945 presented an article on Okinawa, mentioning that the men ".. take their relaxation almost entirely in drinking shochu, a liquor distilled from sweet potatoes which is cheaper, more potent and more plentiful than the Japanese sake. In dry seasons a bottle of good water can be traded even for a bottle of shochu." The Springfield Republican, June 10, 1945 also had an article on Okinawans, mentioning, "It is considered normal and manly for men to get beastly drunk on shochu, the strong drink of the islanders made from sweet potatoes, but women must not drink."

The Lockwood Luminary (MO), September 13, 1945 published an article on the Ryuku Islands, which includes Okinawa. It stated, "Drunkenness and imorality are the besetting vices of the men of the Archipelago. Ryukyu awamori, distilled from rice, has a higher alcoholic content than sake. Shochu 'burning liquor' distilled from sweet potatoes, is plentiful and cheaper." In short, Shochu was cheap and potent, made from sweet potatoes, and its consumption was limited to men.

The St. Louis Globe-Democrat (MO), November 20, 1948, noted that "All potatoes, white or sweet, can be made into a crude form of liquor that will stun like a blackjack." The article continued, "On Okinawa, natives use sweet potatoes to make their 'burning liquor' called Shochu."

Shochu as a Sake substitute. The Arkansas Democrat (AR), January 10, 1952, stated, "Shochu, made from sweet potatoes, is being widely used in Japan as a substitute for saki, the favorite wine, because of the rice shortage." This is another brief article that was reprinted in numerous other American newspapers across the country.

The San Angelo Standard-Times (TX), September 29, 1953, printed an article on Japanese culture, from motorists to Buddhists, and included information on their alcoholic beverages. There was a discussion of Saki, and then a brief reference to Shochu. "There is a distilled spirit, a saki brandy called shochu which is used by the poor who want a quick cheap buzz and as a libation for the departed spirits in the Shinto shrines."

A fascinating historical fact was mentioned in the Honolulu Advertiser (HI), October 10, 1954. It noted that, "An interesting fact in Japanese medical history is that sword wounds were treated with a 100-proof spirit distilled from sake called shochu preceding today's use of alcohol for cleansing purposes by several hundred years."

A terrifying Shochu incident. The Omaha World-Herald (NE), March 26, 1955, discussing a Tokyo AP article, noted that, "Shochu, a low grade sake made from sweet potatoes, killed five persons and blinded two others this week." No details were provided on this incident but it certainly wouldn't encourage any American to try Shochu.

Shochu moonshine. The Tampa Bay Times (FL), June 30, 1956, discussed a reporter in Japan who accompanied the police on a raid seeking illegal alcohol. The raid was successful and recovered a bunch of moonshine. "Moonshine is common in Japan and widely practiced by Koreans--" It was then mentioned, "Many liquor lovers got blind or killed when they drank methyl alcohol in moonshine when liquor was scarce right after the war." It was also noted that "..the moonshiners make cheap and strong (sometimes over 100 per cent proof) stuff called Shochu."

The Charleston News & Courier (SC), May 11, 1958 published that, "Shochu, the poor man's sake, originally was made from sake mash, but the modern version is a product of potato and other grains. Its alcoholic content is about 35 per cent or 70 proof." Again, we see that Shochu is cheap, something for the lower classes who couldn't afford Sake. It was interesting to see that Shochu wasn't commonly made any longer from Sake lees and other ingredients were now far more common.

Massaging cattle with Shochu? The Illinois State Journal (IL), December 1, 1962, mentioned that Japanese cattlemen fed their cattle beer and massaged them with "... shochu (Japanese gin)..." They claimed that the massages "... make the steers' blood more active."

The Las Vegas Review-Journal (NV), September 5, 1966, discussed the area of Sanya, Tokyo's "skid row." About 13,000 people, many who are Koreans, lived in flophouses in this area. It was noted, "Their diet consists of rice and noodle dishes, on which a filling meal can be made for as little as 30 yen (about 10 cents). They customarily drink Shochu, a raw liquor distilled from potatoes." The San Francisco Chronicle (CA), May 23, 1968, also discussed the Eta, the social outcasts of Japan, mentioning that they drink shochu, "... a kind of white lightning sake which sells for 40 yen (11 cents) a shot..."

The Atlanta Journal (GA), November 26, 1972, ran an article about Kagoshima, Japan. It was mentioned that, "They even have a sort of 'white lightning' in Kagoshima. It's a potent version of sake, Japan's most popular alcoholic beverage. This old Satsuma supersake is called shochu, and most Japanese abhor it. Kagoshimans down it with gusto."

Shochu statistics. The Greensboro Record (NC), March 16, 1973, detailed statistics on Japan's alcoholic consumption in 1972. Beer, the most popular drink, constituted 61.4% while Sake was in second place at 29.8%. Shochu, "a cheap distillate," constituted only 3.6%, with whisky at 2.7%;, and other alcoholic beverages at 2.5%. So, it's clear now that Shochu consumption was quite low in Japan, especially compared to beer and Sake.

Shochu consumption decreases. A year later, the San Francisco Chronicle (CA), March 31, 1974, noted that in Japan, whisky and brandy consumption now constituted 11% of the market, while "shochu, an inexpensive vodka-like spirit distilled from sweet potatoes" had seen its market share decrease by half. Already at a low amount, decreasing even further certainly wasn't good for Shochu, and it almost seemed it could end up as more of a footnote in the Japanese history of alcohol.

The Seattle Daily Times (WA), March 13, 1977, discussed the island of Kyushu, mentioning the popularity of Shochu. "Shochu is distilled from rice or sweet potatoes, unlike sake, which is brewed from rice in a process more like the manufacture of beer.." The article continued, "Shochu resembles the alcoholic drinks of China more than anything else. This may be due to the trading links which Kyushu developed with China some 1,500 years ago." The article also mentioned the potency of Shochu, that it can be 90 proof plus.

Shochu and snakes? The Abilene Reporter-News (TX), October 22, 1977, reported on Masuzo Nezu, aged 72, who created a drink with 70 proof Shochu and a batch of poisonous snakes, known as habu. This drink is supposed to contribute to longevity and sexual potency. However, about an hour after Masuzo placed 12 snakes into the shochu, one of the allegedly dead snakes came to life and bit him on a finger. He went to the hospital and was in fair condition. "The habu is common to the Okinawa islands of southern Japan, and sells for about $15 for use in the shochu drink. Shochu is made from potatoes and grain."


Shochu and longevity. The Honolulu Advertiser (HI), September 13, 1978, discussed a possible connection between Shochu and long life. It stated, "Japan's oldest citizen, Shigechiyo Izumi, 113, says the secret to good health is moderate exercise, a lack of worries and a daily glass of shochu, a strong distilled spirit made from rice or potatoes, which 'helps me feel relaxed.' A year later, the Sacramento Bee (CA), September 16, 1979, mentioned that Izumi drinks a half-pint of warm Shochu daily, and at his 114th birthday, there was much Shochu at his party.

Interestingly, a Shochu distillery tried to capitalize on Izumi, using his likeness on the label of their "Long Life" Shochu. However, the Sydney Morning Herald (Australia), November 14, 1979, noted that Izumi contested the unauthorized use of his likeness, and he received an out of court settlement, which included a cash award of 200,000 yen, and he also would receive 1500 bottles of Shochu on an annual basis. The distillery probably thought that Izumi couldn't live much longer so they wouldn't have to give him too many bottles. They probably never suspected they might have to eventually give him about 10,000 bottles.

The Spokane Chronicle (WA), June 29, 1983, detailed that Izumi had celebrated his 118th birthday, mentioning that he had been born June 29, 1865, the same year that the Civil War ended in the U.S. Izumi was documented in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world's oldest man. And he was still receiving 1,500 bottles of Shochu each year. The Tyler Courier-Times (TX), February 1, 1985, noted that Izumi prefers a kind of Shochu made from black sugar. Unfortunately, the Alabama Journal, February 21, 1986, mentioned that Izumi had passed, though the cause of death was not yet known. He was 120 years old, and he had always claimed that Shochu was one of the reasons for his long, long life.


Shochu and Horse Sushi? The State-Journal Register (IL), July 20, 1979, in an article on the consumption of horse in Japan, noted, "Connoisseurs claim that top-grade raw horse has excellent body and a light taste. They say it goes well with 'shochu,' powerful distilled spirits also popular among the young." Quite an interesting pairing, and probably one you'll never find in the U.S.

In the Charleston News & Courier (SC), September 5, 1980, there was an advertisement for Pier 1, the home decor store, noting the sale of "Showy Shochu and Sake bottles." The ad said shochu was a "sweet potato brew" and that the ceramic bottles sold for $7.99 each.

Shochu consumption rising. The Pacific Daily News (Guam), April 23, 1984, discussed some statistics on Japanese alcohol consumption, noting that beer was still #1, at 66.4%, and Sake was still #2, at 19.8%. However, Shochu had seen a 30.2% rise, and it now constituted 5.2% of the total, whole whisky & wine were at 5.1%. Even with Shochu's large surge, it still was only a small percentage of the total.

The Indianapolis News (IN), August 18, 1984, noted that Shochu had gained popularity in recent years, causing some concern to beer producers. The article also mentioned how John Travolta had recently done a commercial for Shochu.

More statistics. The Los Angeles Times, August 21, 1984, stated that back in 1947, beer had replaced Sake as the most popular alcoholic drink in Japan. Since that time, Sake had only regained first place twice, and the last time that occurred was in 1955. Last year, beer constituted about 67% of the total and Sake was only at 20%.

Maybe the most lengthy and detailed, as well as very positive, Shochu article to first appear in U.S. newspapers was in the Tyler Courier-Times (TX), February 1, 1985, which discussed the new popularity of Shochu. This article would also be published in numerous other newspapers round the country. The article stated, "A colorless concoction once derided as lower class swill is toppling traditional tipples as Japanese drinkers join the worldwide trend to light alcoholic beverages." Shochu sales were increasing by about 15% each year, while Sake sales were declining by about 2% each year. Whiskey sales, which had peaked in 1980, had recently been flat. It also noted that Shochu sales by volume had overtaken domestic whiskey in 1983.

The article mentioned that there were two types of Shochu, Type A and Type B. Type A, "about 50 proof, is a colorless, tasteless, odorless distilled grain alcohol diluted with water and very similar to vodka." It is popular with young people, who commonly use it in cocktails. Type A was marketed as far back as 1910, to utilize excess alcohol. Type B "is more traditional and distilled from rice, barley or sweet potatoes, or even sesame, black sugar, or chestnuts, and ranges from 40 to 72 proof." It is more popular with middle-aged and older people. The most popular way to consume it in the winter is in a glass with hot water.

The article also stated, "true shochu connoisseurs can spend whole evenings comparing the merits of spirits from different areas." It continued, "Shochu is not only trendy, it's a lot cheaper because it is lightly taxed." For example, top grade whiskey is taxed at 50.3%, top shelf Sake at 40.1%, and beer at 48.8%. Type A Shochu though is taxed at 14.4% and Type B at only 8.7%. A huge difference which is reflected in Shochu's much lower price.

The National Post (Ontario, Canada), May 18, 1985, detailed some of Japan's latest alcohol consumption statistics for 1984. Beer was still the most popular beverage, at 65%, while Sake was still in second place, though at only 19%, down 9% from 1983. Shochu now constituted 8%, a 40% increase from 1983. Whiskey was only 4%, losing some of its market share to Shochu.

For some current statistics, we note that in 2008, 970 million liters of Shochu were produced, but that has been decreasing since then, as in 2017, total production was down to 820 million liters. In 2017, Sake consumption in Japan had dropped down to about 5.6%, a big fall since 1985, while Shochu consumption was now 8.16%, meaning Shochu was more popular than Sake, though Shochu consumption still was relatively low.

In 2018, the Nikkei Asian Review noted statistics on Shochu exports to the U.S. in 2017. First, it was mentioned that Sake exports to the U.S. came to 6 billion yen ($53.4 million) and whisky exports were worth 3.7 billion yen. Shochu exports though were only 390 million yen (about $3.5 million). So, Shochu is only a tiny niche beverage in the U.S., with lots of room for growth.

For more detailed information on Shochu, there are two excellent books on the subject:
There is two Shochu distilleries in North America, including:
  •  Hawaiian Shochu Company, which was established in 2013, and is located on the island of Oahu. They produce the Nami Hana brand, made primarily with locally grown sweet potatoes.
  • American Shochu Company, which is located in Frederick, Maryland. They produce Umai! Shochu ("umai" means "delicious"), an organic barley shochu. 
In addition, a couple other companies in the U.S. have made Shochu. Last year, the Colorado Sake Company collaborated with the Ironton Distillery to make Sai Shochu. St. George's Spirits, in Alameda, California, have created the St. George California Shochu, distilled from sake lees. I haven't tasted Shochu from any of these companies yet but I'm intrigued.

My top Shochu recommendation is the Tenshi no Yuwaku, 8 Year (pictured at the top of this post), which is made from 83% Sweet Potato and 17% Rice. It was aged in Sherry casks for about 8 years, which is rare as few Shochu are ever aged this long. It's name translates as "Angel's Temptation," a reference to the Angel's Share, the amount of spirit that evaporates over time while it ages in a barrel. It is rich, creamy and smooth, with intense Sherry notes, hints of sweetness, and plenty of complexity. Simply sublime.

(Revised/Expanded as of June 22, 2023)

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