Five things you should know about shochu

A quick lowdown on Japan's other national drink

By Kirsty Bouwers |
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Five things to know about shochu | Time Out Tokyo

Let's assume for a moment that you're not very well-informed about shochu. Shochu? Is that Japanese vodka? Nope. Oh, soju! Wrong again.

Considered Japan's national drink – alongside sake, of course – shochu is growing in popularity at home and abroad. Before you decide to get sloshed on the stuff, here's a quick rundown on things you need to know about shochu. Mere drunk talk this ain't.

1. Shochu ain't soju

This should be a given, but considering the similarities in name – and to a certain degree, taste – many people mistake shochu for soju and vice versa. So what's the difference? First of all, soju is Korean, shochu is Japanese.

Shochu comes in both single-distilled (乙類, otsu-rui) and multiple-distilled (甲類, kou-rui) versions, while soju is primarily heated up and passed down the drip multiple times, and may be watered down after that.

Kou-rui shochu is used as a mixer, while otsu-rui shochu is often drank neat – especially when it comes to product marked honkaku shochu (本格焼酎), the premium category. When making honkaku shochu, nothing can be added besides water and the preferred grain – sugar is off the table – as a result, the taste tends to reflect the base ingredient.

Shochu also usually has a higher alcohol content than soju, but those that are on par are often purposely mislabelled abroad: a 24 percent bottle of shochu may be labelled as soju in California and New York to get around hard liquor licensing issues, which exempt soju that is below 25 percent. Sigh. We're pretty sure that some of those bottles have ended up elsewhere in the world too, leading to even more confusion.

2. Shochu isn't just made from barley or sweet potato

The best-known varieties of shochu are made from barley or sweet potato, but brown sugar-, buckwheat- and rice-based versions are available too. Different regions are known for different ingredients and, hence, different shochu: think rice in Niigata and barley in Oita.

Some distillers go all-out and craft shochu from even more unusual components, including shiso and sesame; one distillery even created a milk-based one the other year. The options truly are endless.

3. There are four protected types of shochu

Remember that we mentioned premium shochu? Well, there are some extra-special ones within that category. In 2015, four regional types of shochu received the World Trade Organisation's protected geographical indication (PGI).

These are barley-based Iki shochu, rice-based Kuma shochu, sweet potato-based Satsuma shochu, and Okinawa's awamori. Said spirits can therefore only be branded as such if they were actually made in their respective areas, akin to cognac and champagne.

Unsurprisingly, three of these protected varieties are made in Kyushu, where shochu is said to originate. Iki shochu, arguably the original barley shochu, is from Iki island in Nagasaki prefecture. The island still has seven distilleries to this day, all of which have been churning out shochu for centuries.

Kuma shochu is from – you guessed it – Kumamoto prefecture, while Satsuma shochu hails from Kagoshima and arguably has the largest production volume.

Awamori is a beast in its own right, being made in Okinawa from Thai rice only (no, Japanese rice is not allowed). It can also be matured longer than the others, with some varieties being stuck in a barrel for up to ten years.

Somewhat bizarrely, the relatively recent classification system means many bottles that have a PGI are not actually labelled as such; you're just going to have to read the fine print to find out whether it's from one of the four special regions.

4. Shochu is consumed more than sake in Japan

Surprising? Not so much when you consider that shochu is used in everything from umeshu (plum wine) production to those ¥100 chu-hai cans you see lined up at the konbini.

In fact, so much is made with shochu that it's actually consumed more than nihonshu (sake), which is often heralded as Japan's national drink. Shochu's low-calorie reputation (see below) and mixer-friendly properties have certainly helped, and it has out-sold nihonshu for a few decades now.

5. It has the lowest calorie count of any alcoholic beverage in the world

Calorie-obsessives, take note: shochu should be your drink of choice. With no added sugars in the premium department, few carbs and zero residual sugars after proper distillation, shochu is a diet-friendly – and positively hangover-free on a mild intake – boozing option.

It can also make a nice substitute in vodka-based cocktails, generally giving it a significantly lower alcohol content too. Drink away – but responsibly, of course.

Where to drink it

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