Shochu Is The Real Sake Of Japan

Most non-Japanese know about Japan’s rice wine, but few know about the true ‘hard stuff’sake of Japan – shochu (焼酎).  This is the tough stuff and it’s drunk by Japanese people of all ages and walks of life.

What Is Shochu?

Shochu is a kind of distilled liquor that is indigenous to Japan.  It can be made from just about anything and it can be drunk in lots of different ways.  By the way, the character sho (焼) means ‘fire’ or ‘fried,’ so this is literally ‘fire water.’

It’s different from what we call sake (é…’), which is actually called nihonshu (日本酒) in Japan.  This is the smooth, sweet rice wine that usually comes in small bottles.  Shochu is much stronger, weighing in at usually 25-30% (although it can be as much as 42%!), and it scorches on the way down.

Shochu is often referred to as Japan’s vodka, but Japanese people like to point out that it’s much better for you than vodka.  Shochu is one of the planet’s lowest calorie alcoholic beverages which probably explains why so many daily shochu drinkers can manage to stay so thin.  Even Japan’s booze is healthy!

They also claim that it doesn’t produce hangovers.  However, this is complete nonsense and if you down a bottle of it, you’ll find that out quickly.

The Different Varieties Of Shochu

A whole new world of alcohol opened up to me one night when a woman working at my local liquor store explained shochu to me.  There are two types, otsu (乙) and kou (甲).  And among those, there are varieties made from different raw materials.

Otsu is considered ‘pure’ shochu (called honkaku, 本格).  This is the stuff that the ancient Japanese got sauced on.  An otsu shochu is distilled from one type of raw material.  Whichever raw material it’s made from gives it a distinct taste and everybody has their favorite.  Otsu usually comes in giant glass bottles.

Kou goes through multiple distillations and the raw materials are usually mixed.  This is a newer type of distillation that began around the beginning of the twentieth century.  Because it goes through all of these distillations, it has a smoother taste which makes it ideal for mixing cocktails.  It doesn’t have the distinct characteristics of the otsu types.

Different Types Of Otsu

Komejochu (米焼酎, rice shochu) – Like nihonshu, this type of made from rice.  But it has a serious kick to it.  Komejochu is known for its thick taste.  It’s made from the highest quality rice possible and there are different grades depending on the milling process.  The more milling, the higher the price and quality.

Imojochu (芋焼酎, sweet potato shochu) – This is my personal favorite.  It’s made from sweet potatoes and retains some of that sweetness.  It also has a pungent odor that lots of people aren’t terribly into.  Immojochu is made from recently harvested potatoes, so it can only be made during a specific time in the harvesting season.

Mugijochu (麦焼酎, barley shochu) – Mugijochu has a strong aroma and flavor.  It varies from very light and smooth to extremely strong-flavored.  It has some similarity to whiskey and vodka because of its source.  In fact, I’ve heard that there’s a dark-colored mugijochu that tastes more or less like whiskey.

Sobajochu (蕎麦焼酎, buckwheat shochu) – Made from the same buckwheat that the noodles come from, sobajochu is often thought of as the easiest to drink.  It has a light and almost sweet flavor.  Like sobacha (蕎麦茶, soba tea), it’s also supposed to have health benefits such as lowering your cholesterol level.

Awamori (泡盛, Okinawan shochu) – Finally, a type of shochu that will make you hurt if you’re not ready for it, awamori comes from Okinawan rice.  Awamori has a deep, rich flavor and an alcohol content that’s 30% to as much as 43%.  If you go to Okinawa there are shops full of local awamori varieties where they’ll happily let you sample as many kinds as you’d like.  Don’t stay there sampling too long.

Tonight, a friend told me that shochu is unique because it suits any kind of food.  I said, “What about pizza?”  He thought a minute and said, “Okay, every type of Japanese food.”


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