Though sake often gets most of the attention, shochu is a versatile drink that is easily paired with dishes from around the world.
Find out what it is, why you should try it, and the best ways to enjoy it.
What is Shochu?
Shochu (焼酎, しょうちゅう, shōchū) is Japan’s indigenous distilled spirit and has been around for about 500 years. It is most predominately made in Japan’s southern regions of Okinawa and Kyushu, where it was first developed.
Shochu typically has about 20-25% ABV (alcohol by volume), though it can officially be anything up to 45% ABV. With over 50 possible base ingredients to choose from and dozens of ways to serve it, shochu is an all-rounder that can be served independently or with a variety of different foods.
Why Drink Shochu?
With so many amazing alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages in Japan, why should you choose shochu? Here’s a short list of reasons why you should give it a shot:
- It’s a healthier option: it uses only natural ingredients, has zero carbohydrates, no purines (a chemical compound that raises the body’s uric acid levels) and is very low in calories.
- Because there is no sugar and no impurities, shochu doesn’t raise your blood-glucose levels, making it less likely to give you a hangover the next day.
- Studies have shown shochu offers beneficial effects to the enzyme urokinaze, the same enzyme in red wine that is said to help prevent strokes and heart attacks.
- It has a lower alcohol percentage than many other spirits, making it easy to drink with meals.
- With its broad variety of ingredients and production methods, and over 5,000 brands to choose from, there is a shochu to suit every palate and dish.
- It tastes great!
While shochu does tout many health benefits, it is still an alcoholic drink. As with all things, moderation is key.
All Shochu Are Not Equal
When talking about shochu, it’s important to distinguish between the different types. For the rest of the article, we’ll focus on honkaku shochu, which is known as the “authentic” shochu and offers the most interesting flavor experiences.
Honkaku Shochu: This is the traditional type of shochu, which is a single distilled liquor. It retains the flavors of the ingredients used, creating a wealth of flavor profiles. The most typical base ingredients are rice, barley, sweet potato, buckwheat or kokuto sugar.
Awamori: This is a shochu made exclusively in Okinawa using an original method and only uses fragrant Thai rice and black koji mold.
Kourui Shochu: A continuous distilled shochu. It goes through the same process as honkaku shochu but multiple times. This process makes it clear and gives it a “clean” flavor. It’s often used for mixed drinks.
Konwa Shochu: A mixed shochu that blends honkaku shochu and kourui shochu. By mixing the two, you lose the distinctive taste of shochu but retain the aroma, making it an economically efficient and popular choice for bars and restaurants.
Chuhai: Chuhai is an abbreviation of shochu highball and consists of a readymade drink of shochu and flavored carbonated water. You can find it easily in supermarkets and convenience stores in canned format. Restaurants and bars will often mix their own chuhai, though these are often quite weak.
Honkaku Shochu Types and Shochu Regions
Within the honkaku shochu designation, several regions have been awarded geographical indications (GIs) by the WTO. This means they are recognized as unique based on the region they’re made in and the ingredients they use. This gives them a similar status to wines in Champagne and Bordeaux.
Iki Shochu: This is made on Iki Island in Nagasaki, and is a rich barley shochu, combined with the sweetness of koji mold.
Kuma Shochu: A smooth, rice-based shochu distilled using groundwater from Hitoyoshi Kuma, in the southernmost area of Kumamoto Prefecture.
Satsuma Shochu: Satsuma Shochu only uses sweet potatoes, water and rice or potato koji mold produced in Kagoshima Prefecture.
Ryukyu Awamori: Made in Okinawa, Ryukyu awamori uses a black koji mold derived from rice, and long-grained Thai rice.
There are also nationally recognized regional brands, such as kokuto shochu from the Amami Islands in Kagoshima Prefecture, which uses a locally-produced raw brown sugar derived from sugarcane and Oita Prefecture’s Oita mugi shochu, made with barley.
How To Drink and Serve Shochu
The beauty of shochu is its versatility, both in flavor and methods to enjoy it. Traditionally, it’s served in one of four ways:
Mizuwari: Shochu served with ice and water. The amount of water depends on preference, but is often a 6:4, 5:5 or 4:6 ratio of shochu to water, which reduces the alcohol percentage to about 15%, 12.5% and 10% respectively.
Oyuwari: Shochu mixed with hot water (ideally about 40-45C). The hot water accentuates the aroma and, depending on the shochu, may make the flavor more mellow.
On the Rocks: Just known as “rokku” in Japanese, shochu on ice is a great way to slowly savor the drink.
Straight: Adjust the temperature to suit your mood and the shochu you’re drinking. Room temperature, cooled in the refrigerator, cooled in the freezer — either option is fine. (For the latter, we recommend using a shochu with a higher alcohol content than the usual 20-25%.)
Shochu Trends: The Shochu-based Cocktail
Over the last few years more people have experimented mixing shochu — even honkaku shochu — into cocktails, especially simpler ones you can make at home using ingredients that you have in your pantry. While there would be too many to list them all, here are some of our favorites:
Ginger & Chili Oyuwari: Place some sliced ginger and a fresh chili pepper in a glass, then fill with hot water until the glass is about half full. Let it sit for about a minute, then add shochu — however much or little you want — and stir briefly before serving. It’s a spicy pick-me-up great for long winter nights.
Parsley Oyuwari: Similar to the ginger and chili recipe above, put a sprig of parsley in a glass and top with hot water. Add shochu after letting it sit for a minute. The fresh taste makes it surprisingly smooth.
Ochawari/Ryokuchahai: Prepare a cup of hot green tea and let it cool to room temperature. Fill a glass with ice, then pour in the shochu (we recommend a 4:6 ratio). Fill to the top of the glass with the brewed green tea, mix gently and serve.
Ringosuwari: Fill your glass with your favorite shochu mixed with either cold or hot water, then add apple cider vinegar and honey or flavored syrup to taste.
Hachimitsuwari: Add desired amount of shochu, then a spoonful or two of honey to a glass. Add hot water as needed. Try this one with imo shochu, which has a sweet potato base.
Pairing Shochu with Food
Shochu pairs easily with anything from Japanese to Italian, French, Mexican or even Chinese food. While pairings will depend on shochu type, brand and the way it’s served, here is a basic guide to matching the most common types of shochu with your meal:
Awamori: This Okinawan shochu made with Thai rice is rich and aromatic. It works well with spicy and heavy foods, like fried potato croquettes, lasagna, or almost any pork dish.
Imo shochu: Shochu made with sweet potato is rich, powerful and sweet. Pair it with fatty and rich-flavored foods such as cheese, Chinese food, pizza, Korean BBQ etc.
Mugi shochu: Barley shochu is clean and smooth, so it can technically go with anything. Try matching it with smoked salmon, caviar, any grilled white fish or fresh fruit.
Kokuto shochu: Made using raw brown sugar, it’s easy to guess that this shochu has some sweetness. It also has a hint of fruitiness, so it pairs well with salads, dishes with flavorful sauces like yakitori (grilled chicken) and pork belly.
Kome shochu: Rice shochu is light and smooth, yet has a surprisingly deep umami flavor. It goes well with lighter meals like sashimi and tofu-based dishes.
Soba shochu: Buckwheat shochu has a mild and almost bitter flavor, making it a good match for tempura, meatballs and spicy foods.
Which shochu would you like to try first? Do you already have a favorite?
Read about other Japanese drinks:
Hard Japanese Ciders
Awamori, Okinawa’s Ancient Alcohol
Amazake, Japan’s Non-Alcoholic Sweet Fermented Rice Drink
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Lisa has spent over a decade scouring Japan for the most interesting food, places and people. She works as a writer, travel consultant and translator, with the occasional stint as a reporter on the NHK World TV programs Tokyo Eye 2020 and J-Trip Plan.
She can’t get enough of good dogs, good coffee and good music, and is currently studying to become a sake sommelier.