In Japan, shochu, the low-proof distilled spirit, outsells saké by far. While both derive their flavor from koji, a mold that converts starch into sugar, shochu can be made from a variety of base ingredients, which allows for a diverse range of flavors. Here’s a quick guide to pairing similar profiles.
Mugi, or barley shochu, can seem weightless, sometimes with a mineral quality akin to spring water. Its mild flavor makes for an excellent palate cleanser, and it can be served chilled, on the rocks or mizuwari, diluted with room-temperature water. It’s a good choice for vodka fans.
Pair with sushi and sashimi, smoked fish or caviar.
Sweet potato shochu is the most popular variety in Japan. The plant is often associated with Kagoshima Prefecture due to its prevalence since being introduced in 1705. The shochu’s aroma is rich and fruity, qualities that are enhanced when mixed with an equal amount of hot water, known as oyu-wari.
Served this way, it can stand up to foods like grilled beef and aged cheese that pack a lot of umami.
Kokuto is Okinawan brown sugar that gets its color from slow cooking. When used to make shochu, the resulting product is fresh and smooth; it takes on a profile of tropical fruit and herbs similar to a light rhum agricole.
Sip it on the rocks with a twist of lime, or turn it into a refreshing highball with mint and serve next to yakitori skewers.
Awamori is shochu from Okinawa made with Thai rice and black koji. The latter produces stronger flavors than the yellow koji preferred for saké, or the white koji used in most other shochu bottlings. Of all shochus, awamori has the most intense aroma, which ranges from savory to earthy.
Have it with braised pork belly or a numbing spicy dish like mapo tofu.
Some shochu is flavored with ingredients local to the region where it’s produced, like green tea or vegetables. Sesame-seed shochu is one of the most impressive, with a concentrated nutty taste, while roasted barley shochu has a pleasant burnt popcorn note.
The deep flavors of these drinks make them ideal with chocolate desserts like a torte or s’mores.