Ask someone overseas what liquor they associate with Japan and odds are they’ll answer sake, or nihonshu in Japanese. One of the delightful discoveries awaiting people who come to Kyushu, however, is the locally produced shochu, which most natives would choose for a relaxing drink instead of a thimbleful of sake. Written with the Chinese characters for “fiery liquor”, shochu has a long history, can be made from several different ingredients, and is drunk throughout the year in many ways and in a variety of settings. In that spirit, Fukuoka Now focuses this month on that quintessentially Kyushu drink, shochu!
Shochu vs. Sake
So what’s the difference between the two? Sake is a brewed beverage made from rice that, like beer, has been fermented and aged. Shochu is a distilled beverage, making it a kin of whiskey or vodka. It is unique among distilled beverages, however, because the production process combines the two conversion stages–from starch to sugar and from sugar to alcohol–which are usually separate. It is then aged, sometimes for as long as 10 years. While sake is brewed only from rice, shochu can be made from a cornucopia of ingredients, including sweet potatoes and barley.
There are two shochu classifications. The first is koshu (Grade A), which has been distilled several times. Multiple distillation smoothes out the rough spots, resulting in a beverage that is generally flavorless and odorless. Especially popular in Tokyo and points north, koshu is often sipped with an umeboshi or slice of lemon, but its most common usage is as the key ingredient in chuhai, a refreshing mixed drink consumed in large quantities in drinking establishments during the summer. It combines shochu, a fruit flavored sour mix, carbonated water, and ice. Commercially mixed chuhai can be purchased straight out of the cooler at liquor stores or convenience stores. Koshu is generally 70 proof.
Down south, however, and especially in Kyushu, people prefer the otsushu (Grade B) variety. This is distilled only once, allowing the drink to maintain the flavor and aroma of the original ingredients. It is often called honkaku, or authentic, shochu, because this is the original form of the beverage with a history dating back to the 13th or 14th Century. Depending on the ingredient and the distiller, authentic shochu ranges from 50 to 80 proof.
There are three theories about shochu’s origin and the route by which it came to Japan. It is generally agreed to have arrived here some 500 years ago, and it also was used as a medicinal disinfectant until the end of the Edo era. The most common explanation for its presence in Japan is that a primitive form of the drink originated in Thailand and was later brewed in the Okinawan islands, where it was called awamori, or millet brandy. Indeed, shochu consumption in Okinawa and Kagoshima Prefecture far outstrips that of sake, and it is not uncommon to find shochu drinkers there who have never tasted nihonshu. Others think that shochu arrived from the mountainous regions of China by way of Shanghai. The third holds that it came from northern China through the Korean peninsula. Lending credence to this theory is the drink’s popularity in South Korea, where it is called soju and is the country’s most widely consumed alcoholic beverage. All Korean shochu is the koshu type and the leading brand, Jinro, can be purchased at liquor stores throughout Japan. But be warned–it’s meant to be drunk straight and is sold that way.
Whichever course the Shochu Road followed, authentic shochu in particular has been a favorite ever since it hit the shores of Kyushu. As with wine production, soil quality is an important factor in determining ingredient quality. Kyushu has long been noted for the exceptional quality of its shochu due to its superb environment with plenty of clean water and abundant agricultural products.
Not so long ago, however, many people looked down their nose at shochu, disdaining it as the drink of the working class–in short, your grandfather’s booze. The koshu variety ignited the first wave of shochu’s mass market popularity in Japan in the early to mid-80s, which coincided with a worldwide trend toward lighter liquors. During the period from 1980 to 1995, shochu consumption in Japan tripled.
The chaser came in 2000 with the renewed passion for authentic shochu. Those who once rolled their eyes at the mere mention of the drink finally discovered that the rich flavor of the ingredients in authentic shochu made for a tasty treat. Shochu consumption has spread rapidly throughout Kyushu and to the Tokyo area in the past few years, with Grade B shochu production in Japan climbing 7.5% in the year ending June 2003 and shipments of the sweet potato variety, favored in Kagoshima, soaring 17.2%. Imbibing shochu has now become respectable and it is no longer unusual to see fine brands of shochu listed on the menus at eating and drinking places.
The primary reason behind shochu’s surge in popularity is that people have cottoned on to its great taste. Several other factors have boosted the growing appeal of the drink, however.
- A drink for all seasons. Shochu tastes great either warmed or chilled, making it a fine drink throughout the year.
- Low calorie content. A two-ounce serving of shochu contains about 35 calories. Some people think it has no calories at all, but that’s not strictly correct. There are two types of calories in an alcoholic drink. One kind is the calories from the ingredients, and the other kind is the calories from the alcohol. The calories from the ingredients accumulate in the body–that’s the reason some dedicated beer drinkers carry a spare tire around their waist. But the calories from the alcohol are immediately converted to heat and emitted, warming the drinker’s body. All of shochu’s calories are from the alcohol, so drinking it won’t cause you to put on the pounds. Just be careful not to eat too many snacks while you’re at it.
- Healthy. A Kurashiki University professor published an article in a British medical journal claiming that authentic shochu was effective for preventing thrombosis (hardening of the blood in the blood vessels). Others believe it will be shown to be effective for preventing heart attacks and diabetes, so perhaps those extra hours in an izaka-ya will lengthen your life span.
- Goes well with any food. Authentic shochu is made from different ingredients, each with its own distinctive characteristics. So, as is the case with wine, drinkers can make a selection to complement the cuisine, such as Western, Japanese, or Chinese food, and the occasion – whether drunk before or after dinner. Considering authentic shochu’s remarkable versatility, shochu consumption just might spread internationally. This is one boom unlikely to fizzle out soon and the drink is likely to increase in popularity among many different age groups in many regions.
One reason for authentic shochu’s growing appeal is the quality of the carefully selected ingredients. Maintaining the inherent flavor and aroma of the ingredients is an important factor that sets shochu apart from other liquors.
- Sweet potatos: Shochu is the only commercial alcoholic beverage made from sweet potatoes. Production of sweet potato shochu climbed after the Second World War, when the shortages of rice and barley for food consumption led to their rationing, so distillers used satsumaimo to pick up the slack. To fully appreciate the distinctive aroma, flavor, and soft sweetness of sweet potato shochu, try it mixed with hot water, on the rocks, or straight. Tastes best in October and November. Primarily produced in Kagoshima and Miyazaki Prefectures
- Rice: Shochu made from rice, Japan’s staple food, is made throughout the country, but the best-known variety is Kuma shochu from the Hitoyoshi Basin in Kumamoto. If you want to enjoy its smooth fruity flavor, drink it on the rocks, straight, or mixed with warm water. Primarily produced in Kumamoto Prefecture, and throughout Japan
- Barley: Shochu’s flavor is determined by whether one uses rice or barley for the malt. The barley from Oita Prefecture is very popular for its distinctive aroma, mild taste with no rough edges, and consistency during the process of converting the ingredients to malt. It is eminently drinkable either on the rocks or mixed with water. Primarily produced in Oita Prefecture, Nagasaki Prefecture (Iki Island), and Miyazaki Prefecture
- Soba (Buckwheat): Soba shochu kicked off the trend for greater diversity in shochu ingredients. Younger drinkers prefer its simple taste, unique aroma, and hint of sweetness. It can be used for cocktails, mixed with hot water, or on the rocks. Primarily produced in Miyazaki Prefecture, Nagano Prefecture, and Hokkaido
- Others: Many other ingredients are used to make shochu, including sesame, potatoes, and carrots. One unique variety is kasutori shochu, which is made with the sake lees left over from sake brewing. That’s why Fukuoka, where sake brewing thrives, is also the leading area for kasutori shochu production. Don’t pass up a chance to try this distinctive drink, with its fruity taste and exceptional aroma. Other types attracting attention are a variety of awamori in Okinawa made from Thai rice and the mellow sweetness of the brown sugar shochu made in the islands off Kagoshima Prefecture.
Down the hatch
People enjoy shochu in one of four primary ways–mixed with warm water, mixed with water, on the rocks, or straight. Since there is no single standard way to drink shochu, discovering your favorite variety and way of drinking it can be an enjoyable adventure. Here are a few suggestions to get you started.
Savor the aroma by mixing it with warm water
Fill a glass with warm water–make sure that it is not boiling water–and then pour in the shochu. Mixing with warm water has a double benefit: it heats the container and allows the water and the shochu to blend well, releasing its aroma. Warming the shochu itself further draws out the natural fragrance of the drink.
Bring out the sweetness by drinking it over ice
First-time tipplers may want to try shochu straight, if only to discover the drink’s inherent flavors. Drinking it on the rocks has the surprising effect of bringing out its sweetness. Using mineral water instead of tap water for the ice further enhances the flavor. You’ll taste the difference when the ice melts and mixes with the shochu.
Shochu can be drunk in your container of choice, including an Arita ceramic cup, a baccarat glass, or an old jelly jar from the back of the cupboard. Folks down Kagoshima way use a special container called a kurojoka. This is designed to allow shochu to be poured in and heated. Drinking it warm brings out the drink’s finest qualities.
How Old Granddad Did It
Why not try the old-fashioned way of drinking shochu?
Step 1: Mix shochu and good water in a half-and-half mixture in a kurojoka if you have one. A ceramic container or PET bottle also can be used.
Step 2: Let it sit for a day or two.
Step 3: If it’s in a kurojoka, heat as it is. If not, put the mixture in a kobachi (a small bowl), and warm it by either heating the container in boiling water or heating it directly.
Step 4: Mix it well after it’s warmed.
This is sure to create a rich drink that goes down smoothly!
Rokuyon: Some believe the optimum mixing ratio is six parts shochu and four parts water or hot water. This term comes from the Japanese words for the numbers six and four. Seven and three (shichisan) and five to five (gogo) also are used. It is not unusual, however, for people to use more water than shochu, particularly when mixing it with hot water. Example sentence: Nomikata dou suru? Ja, rokuyon no o-yuwari de. (How will you drink it? I’ll have a six-to-four mixture using hot water.)
Gogobin Keep: Regular patrons at bars in Japan save money by buying a bottle for their exclusive use at that bar in the “keep” system, though not every drinking establishment does this. If you think you’re not up to downing a full issho bottle–1.8 liters, or almost half of a U.S. gallon–try a gogobin, which is just half that size. Not all shochu manufacturers use that bottle size, however. Example sentence: O-nomimono ha? Iichiko no gogobin keepu de. Mizuwari setto (water and ice) mo ne. (What’ll it be? I’ll have the gogo-sized bottle of Iichiko and use it as a keep. Don’t forget the set-ups.)
Ki: Refers to shochu downed straight. Example sentence: Hajimete nomuken, ki de nonde miyokaina (This is my first glass of shochu, so maybe I’ll try it straight.)
Tasting the Spirits…
We invited eight foreign residents of Fukuoka to our office to taste and compare four brands of shochu. Straight, on-the-rocks and mixed with hot water. So what did this international panel of judges say about authentic Kyushu spirits?
Kaido ／ Hamada Shuzo
Retains a deep, rich and slightly sweet taste from the locally grown steamed sweet potatoes. Winner of the 2001 Kagoshima Shochu Award.
Kuroisanishiki ／ Okuchi Shuzo Kyogou Kumiai
Black malt is the special ingredient used along with locally grown Kagoshima sweet potatoes and pure spring water to achieve a rich and smooth taste.
Hakata no hana Sannen Chozo／ Fukutokucho Shurui
A “Monde Selection” award winner for three consecutive years (1999, 2000, 2001), made with specially selected barley and aged delicately for three years for a light and smooth taste.
Sengetsu ／ Minenotsuyu Co.Ltd.
A perfectly balanced blend of two separately distilled spirits, each made with fresh spring water from the Kuma River and the area’s finest rice.
Noah, U.S.A. ”I could be happy with “C” anytime and any style, but the easiest one to drink was “D” oyuwari style.”
Dave, Canada “A” has an amazing and unique taste. I suspect potato? Can I have some more! “D” is even better, more smooth. Possibly potato again?”
Minami, Korea “I liked “C” best. Now in Korea young people enjoy drinking mizuwari and oyuwari style, so I think this could be popular there.”
Mauricio, Costa Rica ”C” tasted most familiar, like whisky, but I enjoyed the tastes of “A” best. Shochu has a very pleasant fragrance…”
Zilia, Hungary “I liked “C” the best. Probably the barley, right? I was surprised to learn that “B” and and “D” were different types because they tasted similar…”
Chokang, Thailand “I like the fragrance of “A” and “D” the best. Shochu is similar to some Thai alcoholic drinks, Like those, shochu is best straught up.”
Lenik, Russia “They all taste great! “C” tastes the most familiar, “B” is the closest to sake, and is especially good oyuwari style.”
Alessandro, Italy ”C” reminds me of whisky, and “B” will probably get you drunk fastest! Sake is now popular in Italy, so maybe in the future shochu, especially oyuwari-style.”
Bottoms Up – A Conclusion?
Predictably perhaps, our panelists from eight different nations each had their own favorite shochu and way to drink it. “C” or barley shochu was clearly the most familiar tasting and easiest drinking variety. Few of the panelists had ever drunk shochu oyuwari-style, but almost all enjoyed the vapors and fragrance that it offers. Surprisingly they even enjoyed rice shochu oyuwari-style, which is not very popular amongst Japanese. In all the team tasted 12 drinks (four brands served in three styles each) in one 90 minute session. Shochu, or Kyushu spirits, worked their magic and it turned into quite a lively party with smiles all around. Conclusion? Shochu is loved by people from all over the world; so don’t be surprised if you see it in a liquor store or bar back home in the coming years. Campai!
Special thanks to the good folks at Kyushu Shochu Tankentai for their support and advice in producing this article. If you interested in joining their friendly circle of shochu lovers, check out their home page (Japanese only) at: http://beefheart.power.ne.jp/tankentai/tankentai.html