Shochu焼酎 is a distilled alcoholic beverage that originated in southern Japan. Although less well known overseas than its counterpart sake, shochu is popular and enjoyed by all kinds of people all over Japan. Unlike sake, shochu is made from many different ingredients, with some of the more common being sweet potatoes, barley, brown sugar, and rice. There are two general categories of otsurui乙類 shochu, which is meant to be drunk on its own, and korui甲類 shochu, which is best for mixed drinks and cocktails.
Shochu is made by using yeast to ferment a starchy ingredient. As yeast cannot break down the starch into the glucose it needs to survive on its own, koji麹, an edible mold that produces an enzyme called amylase that can break down starch, is used for this purpose. Koji also produces citric acid, which protects the moromi醪 mash that forms the base of shochu distillation, from bacteria that can cause off flavors to develop. After distillation, shochu can be stored for many years, often adding to its flavor complexity.
Shochu generally has an alcohol content of between twenty-five and forty-five percent. One delicious way to serve shochu is warm, in what is called oyuwariお湯割り. When serving shochu as oyuwari hot water is first poured into a glass and then the shochu is poured over it. When served in this manner, any astringent and bitter flavors are mellowed, allowing the inherent sweetness of the shochu to become more apparent. Shochu can also be served straight at room temperature, on the rocks, or mixed with water, which is called mizuwari水割り. While there are many drinking vessels designed specifically for drinking shochu, it can also be enjoyed in a wine glass. The empty space in a wine glass above the shochu allows for the drinker to better appreciate the natural fragrance of shochu, which retains the flavor profile of the ingredients it was made with.
It is often recommended that shochu should be drunk straight or on the rocks if you want to enjoy its characteristic flavor. It is also suggested that you should try to enjoy the aroma first before taking a small sip of your drink, and then allow the drink to swirl around in your mouth before swallowing. Not only will this allow you to appreciate the liquor’s flavor, but its alcohol content will naturally decrease, thereby reducing tingling in your mouth and helping protect your throat from burning sensations.
If you would like to learn more about this fascinating drink, there will be a talk at the Japan Society co-organized by Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association later this month on Tuesday, November 14 at 6:30 PM titled “Shochu: Japan’s Best Kept Secret,” which will be followed by a shochu tasting reception where guests can sample twenty different varieties of shochu. The talk will be by preeminent shochu sommelier Stephen Lyman and promises to introduce a new world of flavor possibilities to both shochu novices and seasoned aficionados alike.
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Japan Info is a publication of the Consulate General of Japan in New York; however, the opinions and materials contained herein do not necessarily represent the views or policies of the Government of Japan.