Japan's Best Kept Secret: Shochu
Shochu—not saké—is the most imbibed booze in Japan, outselling the sushi bar staple by nearly two to one. Here’s your cheat sheet to this must-try tipple that’s making its way onto American drink menus.
—Anna Lee C. Iijima
Know The Style
Shochu has two styles: There’s korui—which is fermented from sugars and neutral in flavor. Then there’s honkaku, the style you need to explore. Bordeaux-like in rusticity and complexity, its name means “authentic” or “genuine” in Japanese. Bold, earthy and full of umami, honkaku is pot distilled only once (Scotch, for example, is distilled twice), to better highlight the flavors of its main ingredient, which could be rice, barley, sweet potatoes, carrots, sesame or even brown sugar.
How To Drink It
Shochu can be enjoyed at almost any temperature, with or without added ice or water. Raising the temperature culls and releases the aromas, a process referred to as hanabiraki, meaning the “blossoming of the flower.”
Mind Your Manners
Save in the most intimate situations, only pour for your companions, not for yourself. Don’t let anyone’s glass sit empty. As a sign of respect, use both hands when pouring. And when someone is pouring, lift your glass off the table with both hands.
Pair It Well
Low in alcohol (usually around 50 proof) and packing vegetable or grain flavors that compliment a wide variety of dishes, shochu is perhaps the best food-pairing liquor in the world. Not surprisingly, it’s a spot-on match for Japanese fare—from delicate sushi and sashimi to greasy izakaya. Because it’s so robust, it can also go toe to toe with rich and heavily spiced foods like Indian curries, enchiladas and anything off a Chinese take-out menu.
Where to Order It
The fun of shochu is picking your poison based on the ingredients.
1. Hakutake Shiro: Rice shochu has a saké-like delicacy. On the nose, notes of melon and tropical fruit accent the aromas of freshly steamed rice. The mouthfeel is rich, round and silky.
2. Awamori: Awamori is about the funk. Made from aromatic long-grain rice, it has a fleeting, stinky nose and mushroom, roasted-chestnut and soil flavors.
3. Kappa no Sasoimizu: A modern-style shochu (which means it’s distilled in a low-pressure still), this is remarkably elegant and fresh, yet with a distinct sweet-potato note. The palate is fruity, with lychee and red berry notes.
4. Satsuma Shiranami: Distilled in a classic still, this traditional style has a pungent nose, with notes of roasted sweet-potato skins and chestnuts. Punchy and bold on the palate, this is rustic umami goodness at its best.
5. Kokuto shochu: Clear as water, dry and delicate on the palate, with caramel, burnt sugar and lingering hints of dried fruits and spice.
- 25 Shochus To Sip