While I love nihonshu (Japanese sake), my preference is for the locally distilled spirit, shochu. While working at Takashimaya the company paid for those of us in the sake department to cross train in other areas of specialty. As a sommelier (wine specialist) I could choose from nihonshu or shochu and selected shochu, as there was no one that I knew of that time who was writing in English about shochu, and because I enjoyed it so much.
The coursework was very intense. First of all it was only in Japanese (no surprise here) and the text was filled with kanji (Chinese characters) that were new to me. While I feel comfortable reading Japanese cookbooks the shochu specific Japanese language was a big challenge. One benefit of working in the sake department at Takashimaya is that we talk about shochu, sake, wine, and spirits everyday at work. Also, we were privy to many tastings at the store, and any good salesperson tastes as much as they can to form their own opinions for different beverages. A good friend at the store also was studying for the shochu exam so we studied together. She taught me the kanji and I was able to teach her about the technical process (from my sommelier training).
The exam was intense, a blind tasting, a multiple choice test, and a written exam on service, sales, and promotion of shochu in both retail and restaurants. I passed and shochu is an integral part of my life now.
This article first appeared in Metropolis magazine and highlights the basics on shochu:
http://archive.metropolis.co.jp/tokyo/712/localflavors.asp (text follows)
As the weather cools down, I stay warm with a hot drink—and it’s not tea. What I do is fill up my teacup halfway with some hot water, then top it off with a nice imo jochu.
Shochu is a distilled spirit that can be made from over 60 different base ingredients, which is one of the great splendors of the drink. Among the many flavors are aromatic sweet potato, funky awamori, or ambrosial chestnut. Shochu has been outselling nihonshu since 2003, and while many people refer to shochu as “Japanese vodka,” they often forget to mention that shochu is lower in alcohol. While vodka is typically about 40-60 percent, shochu comes in at a nice 25-40. When cut in half by adding some hot (or cold) water, the shochu all of a sudden becomes 12-20 percent alcohol, or similar to wine.
Shochu is an easy drink to understand, and the tips below will make you an expert in no time.
• Some of the base ingredients used to make shochu include sweet potato, cane sugar, rice, chestnuts and barley. Other varieties are infused with flavorings such as sesame seeds or shiso.
• There are two types of shochu. One has otsurui or honkaku shochu on the label, and the other has korui. Otsurui and honkaku shochu are distilled only once, and retain the aromas and flavor of the base ingredient; they’re meant to be consumed straight or on the rocks. Korui is used for making mixed drinks.
• There are three types of koji mold that can be used to make shochu: white, yellow, or black. This information is not always stated on the label, but if it is, consider it an indicator of the kind of drink you’ll get. White koji (shiro koji) is the standard variety and creates a softer, lighter, easier-on-the-palate shochu. Yellow koji (ki koji) is the same mold that’s used for making nihonshu; shochu using the yellow variety are floral on the nose and also lighter on the palate. Black koji (kuro koji) makes a big, brash, bold shochu that lingers on your palate.
• Familiarize yourself with the names of the prefectures in Kyushu, which is the heartland of shochu (so much so, in fact, that when locals says “sake,” they are often referring to shochu, not nihonshu). Names to look for include Kagoshima, Miyazaki, Oita, Fukuoka, Saga, Nagasaki, Kumamoto, Amami Oshima and Okinawa.
• Some prefectures are associated with certain base ingredients. Okinawa is famous for awamori made from Thai rice and black koji. Amami Oshima is known for sugar cane or brown sugar. For sweet potato shochu, look for Kagoshima, and for mugi (barley) try Oita.
• How to drink shochu? There are no rules, and this is where you can have fun. Enjoy it on the rocks, or with some water, soda or fruit juice. If you are interested in shochu but aren’t quite ready to start drinking it straight, consider mixing a shochu cocktail. Try some tonyu (soy milk) with some goma shochu (sesame shochu) on the rocks.
• My appreciation for shochu has grown dramatically over the last 20 years. First of all, there is a much wider variety available at the shops around town these days. Shochu is also very food-friendly and often finds its way to my table. And, because it’s distilled, shochu will keep for several months after the bottle is opened. Invest in a bottle, try it several ways, and see if you, too, will become a fan of shochu.
If this whets your appetite, check-out the website www.theshochu.com, which offers the best information on the topic in English.
Shochu cheat sheet
白麹 shiro koji
黄麹 ki koji
黒麹 kuro koji
本格焼酎 honkaku shochu
米 kome (rice)
麦 mugi (barley)
黒糖 kokuto (black sugar)
芋 imo (potato)