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On the Rise: Shochu from Japan
By Jim Clarke
Aug 21, 2018
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The growth of sake in the U.S.  has, at least for wine drinkers, probably overshadowed the perhaps more surprising rise of another Japanese beverage, shochu.  It makes sense.  While “rice wine” is a misnomer, sake is diverse, relatively similar in strength and texture, and enjoyed without ice, added water, or mixers.  But while sake has grown dramatically here, shochu is actually more popular back in Japan, and is growing rapidly in the States as well.  A seminar this month given by educator Toshio Ueno at the Society of Wine Educators Conference showed why.

Stateside, shochu’s popularity is driven more by cocktail culture than by culinary trends, so it’s easy to see how it might the wine community might overlook it.  It is, after all, a spirit, though a relatively low alcohol one, often clocking on at 25% ABV or so.  It’s also often consumed like other spirits are, neat, on the rocks, or more and more as a cocktail ingredient.  While I normally wouldn’t consider writing about a spirit in this column, I think there are some good reasons to keep an eye on shochu.  One is that low alcohol, and with that an unusual degree of food friendliness for a spirit -- shochu is often drunk with a meal in Japan, just as sake is.

Sake, traditionally, is mostly brewed on the more northerly islands of Japan; the cold winters helped keep brews hygienic and controlled, and the snowmelt provided pure, clean water for brewing.  Shochu, on the other hand, is commonly found on Kyushu and further south.  What they share in common they also share with several other Japanese culinary mainstays, including soy sauce and miso:  They’re made with koji, a fermentation-enabling fungus.

This fungus comes in a few different forms, and for our purposes its main role is to convert starches into fermentable sugars.  Most shochus are made from starches -- rice, sweet potatoes, barley, buckwheat -- so this is an essential step.  Even sugar cane or brown sugar shochus are required to have a koji component, else they would be considered rums instead.  A starter of rice, ideal for cultivating koji, is typically used, then added to the other, primary ingredient.

Unlike many Western spirits, wherein multiple distillations aim to create a pure, relatively flavorless product, shochu passes through a pot still but once, emerging at 45% ABV, tops, with a high proportion of its flavors intact.  Some producers have adapted the vacuum stills used by perfumers to create a gentler product with heightened floral and fruity aromatics.  As a white spirit, it’s not barrel-aged, and it’s usually then diluted down to 25% or so before bottling. 

While shochu’s popularity can be attributed to its character and flavor, it has to be said that there are social and economic reasons as well.  In Japan, some reports have claimed that it contains enzymes that help break up blood clots and is good for blood pressure, instigating a popularity akin to the “French Paradox” that red wine enjoyed here.  Perhaps it’s worth noting that Okinawa, the prefecture with the second highest number of shochu distilleries, is noted for the longevity of its inhabitants and large number of centenarians.

Japan is also home to a great many small restaurants, where space is at a premium.  Shochu is preferable to sake for these restauranteurs, since it doesn’t call for the cost and space of refrigeration that sake requires.

In the U.S., California law has created opportunities for shochu; thanks to its low alcohol (in most cases), it is one of the only spirits that restaurants with a beer and wine license can carry.  Ueno says that 80% of California’s Japanese restaurants don’t carry liquor licenses, so this created an instant market for shochu importers, along with instant confusion.  To exploit this loophole shochus also need to labeled by the Korean name “soju.”  Korean soju, however, is similar, but the laws governing its production allow a variety of additives such as sugar and glutamates, and industrial techniques.

In other states, I’ve seen bartenders embrace shochu as a base for low-alcohol cocktails as well.  I personally find it enjoyable it as a post-prandial spirit when I want neither the strength of a whiskey or brandy nor the sweetness of a port…or the cost of either, as a bottle of good shochu could be as little as $20.  As a “wine-person” at heart, I lean toward sake much of the time, but I’m glad to have shochu on hand as an alternative.

A Sampling of Shochus:

Ginrei Shiro (Kumamoto Prefecture):  A great “first shochu,” as it’s made from rice, with vacuum distillation, creating a light, smooth, and floral character.  Shows notes of pear, apricot, and wildflowers, with a medium body and only a slight alcoholic heat.

Hana Shimauta (Okinawa Prefecture):  This is an Awamori, Okinawa’s native style, which is distinct in two regards.  First, it’s made with black koji, rather than the more common white; this lends it a deep umami, earthy funkiness.  While this was a young example, in Okinawa it’s also traditional to age awamori in a solera-like system for decades.  The Hana Shimada is rice-based, like the Kome, but couldn’t be more different with its power, weight, and depth of flavor.  The funky and earthy touches carry the alcohol very well.

Kuroban Iichiko (Ooitia Prefecture):  Made with barley and white rice, again using a vacuum still.  Little grain character; the vacuum extracts instead strong fruit notes of tangerine, apricot, peach, and plum, along with touches of violet.  Full, with well-integrated alcohol.

Jougo (Kagoshima Prefecture):  Made with brown sugar and rice koji.  Simple and fruity, with notes of peach and plum.  Has a ripe, sweet quality, without truly being sugary, and a long finish.

Kuradashi Genshu (Kagoshima Prefecture):  This sweet potato shochu isn’t diluted, so comes in at 37% ABV, the strength that it came out of the still at.  Funky, intense, and spicy.  Medium-bodied, with a bit of warmth, as you’d expect.

Towari (Miyazaki Prefecture):  100% buckwheat; in this case the koji is cultivated directly on the buckwheat rather than on a rice starter.  Definitely shows its buckwheat roots, with umami, toasty, burnt popcorn notes and a slightly grainy texture.  Medium-bodied, with little alcohol showing.