What Is Shochu? A Guide to Japan's Signature Distilled Alcohol

Not to be confused with sake, shochu is a native Japanese drink that's making waves across the globe.

Ever since I was a kid, I've had a passion for experiencing food from other cultures. As an adult, this love expanded to learning about alcohol from around the globe to add to my bar cart. The latest find? Shochu (pronounced show-choo). The native Japanese spirit has a long history dating back to the 16th century and was even named the country's national alcoholic beverage (along with sake) by the government in 2012. So while shochu is far from new to Japan, you might start seeing it more on beverage menus here in the United States. And this goes beyond just sushi restaurants. "A lot of us love to experiment and try new things, especially bartenders," says Natasha Sofia, national director of education and advocacy for Davos Brands. "Having a new spirit with a different flavor profile is like having a new tool in the toolbox that isn't comparable to any other. I believe shochu offers a new layer of versatility when it comes to cocktail crafting that has been long yearned for by many, myself included."

green bottle of soju or shochu being poured into glass
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What Is Shochu?

Shochu is a clear white spirit that's distilled from (one or a combination of) grains and vegetables such as barley (mugi), rice (kome), or sweet potato (imo). It's often fermented with koji, a type of mold that grows on the grain which aids in breaking down the starches. (Fun fact: different strains of koji are essential to Asian food preparations and crafting ingredients such as soy sauce and miso.) Shochu is a lower-proof spirit, sticking to the 25% ABV range compared to other distilled alcohols such as vodka, rum, and whiskey (usually around 40%). As for the taste, expect a slightly nutty or earthy flavor. Depending on the type, you might also find some floral or fruity notes, but nothing compared to what you'd expect from sake (more on that next).

Shochu vs. Soju

Soju is a clear spirit originally from Korea that is traditionally made from rice but can also be made with other grains such as wheat or sweet potatoes. It's comparable to vodka and even shochu but usually tastes sweeter since sugars are added in the manufacturing process (vodka and shochu are never made with sugar). Like shochu, soju also stays around the 25% ABV mark.

What about Shochu vs. Sake?

Since shochu and sake (nihonshu) are both Japan's national alcoholic beverages, it's important to note these are also very different spirits. The main difference between shochu and sake? The production process. Simply put, sake is brewed and shochu is distilled. Sake's key ingredient is rice that's been naturally fermented. The ABV is usually in the 15% range, which is even lower than shochu.

iichiko Aperol Spritz in wine glass with orange
iichiko Aperol Spritz. Courtesy of iichiko

How to Drink Shochu

Like many spirits, there's not really a rule how to serve shochu. Here are the most common ways to enjoy shochu:

  1. Straight up: Simply pour shochu and enjoy cold or at room temperature. Since it's strong, you might want to follow it with a sip of water (aka chaser).
  2. On the rocks: This is a refreshing way to enjoy shochu and is most commonly preferred with the barley or sweet potato shochu varieties.
  3. With water: Not a fan of strong drinks? Try adding water. It can be served with hot (pour before shochu) or cold water. Mixing the shochu with water more than 24 hours before drinking is also a common practice, as it helps produce a milder taste.

Shochu Cocktails

Of course, you can always use this native Japanese spirit to find a new favorite cocktail. Here are a couple shochu cocktail recipes provided by the folks at iichiko shochu made on Kyushu, Japan's southernmost island.

Aperol Spritz

1 oz. shochu, such as iichiko Saiten ($38, ReserveBar)
1 oz. Aperol
Top with Prosecco
Top with Club Soda

Build in a wine glass, adding prosecco and club soda last. Give it a quick stir and garnish with a citrus wheel.

Saiten Mojito

2 oz. shochu, such as iichiko Saiten
1 oz Lime Juice
1 oz Simple Syrup
Topped with Club Soda
Mint Sprigs

Muddle mint sprigs in a cocktail shaker ($23, Target). Add shochu, lime juice, and simple syrup and shake. Strain into a collins glass with ice, top with club soda, and garnish with mint and lime wedges.

You can also try swapping shochu for the liquor in classic cocktails, such as the sidecar. Or maybe a shochu punch is in order for this summer's Olypic games in Tokyo. No matter how you decide to enjoy shochu, it's definitely a spirit worth taking residence on the bar cart.

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