Shochu: Japan’s firewater
Posted by ampontan on Friday, March 16, 2007
MOST PEOPLE think of sake as the country’s indigenous alcoholic beverage, but in today’s Japan, the drink called shochu now outsells sake. I discovered the reason one sweltering summer night years ago when I went on my first date in Japan.
We went to a yakitori restaurant and had a grand time eating, drinking, and yakking with the proprietor and other customers. I thought I might have a beer or two because of the heat, but the lady knew I was new to Japan and suggested I try a chuhai instead. I was game.
Chuhai resembles a gin and tonic, including the lemon slice, but instead of the gin the Japanese use shochu. It went down smoothly, and it wasn’t too long before I was in a fine frame of mind. I enjoyed it so much, shochu became my regular Friday night drink for a few years.
What is shochu?
Shochu is distilled, which sets it apart from sake, which is made from rice and, like beer, is a brewed beverage that has been fermented and aged. It’s the only distilled beverage in which the production process combines the two conversion stages that are usually separate (from starch to sugar and from sugar to alcohol). It’s then aged, which can take as long as 10 years.
Shochu can be made out of most anything, including sweet potatoes and barley in addition to rice. The brand made from carrots may still be on the market. In Fukuoka Prefecture, they make a variety from kasutori, the sake lees left over from sake brewing. That’s a good deal for the producers—they make money off their waste product, and get you coming and going. In some of the small islands off Kagoshima Prefecture, they also make a type from brown sugar.
The word shochu is written with the Chinese characters for “fiery liquor”. Until about 30 years ago, many people considered it rotgut that was the beverage of choice of old geezers from the country who sat on the floor in their sweat-stained undershirts and knocked it back straight. That changed when one distiller had the inspiration to put it through another distilling process to make it smoother and then combining it with mixer to create chuhai. The entry of the more refined version on the market coincided with the increasing popularity of lighter liquors, and as a result, shochu consumption in Japan tripled from 1980 to 1995.
By law, there are two primary shochu classifications. The first is koshu (Grade A), which has been distilled several times. This is the variety that used for chuhai. If you don’t want to take the trouble to mix it yourself, head for the cooler at a liquor store or convenience store to buy the ready-to-drink version. Koshu is generally 70 proof.
The second is the otsushu (Grade B) variety. This is distilled only once, which means that the drink has a more distinctive flavor and aroma. Or, to put it more bluntly, it’s for serious drinkers who don’t feel like screwing around with fruity stuff like lemon slices and carbonated water. This type is often called honkaku, or authentic, shochu, because it’s the original form of the beverage with a history dating back at least to the 13th or 14th Century. Depending on the ingredients and the distiller, authentic shochu ranges from 50 to 80 proof.
This variety is also associated with Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan’s four main islands, and particularly Kagoshima Prefecture, Kyushu’s southernmost prefecture. In fact, Kagoshima is the only prefecture in Japan without a sake brewery. Ask for sake in Kagoshima and you get shochu. More often than not, it will be the kind made from the local sweet potatoes (which are purple, by the way). You want bouquet from an alcoholic beverage? Drink Kagoshima shochu and you’ll get enough bouquet to choke a horse.
I always thought the most popular brand in Kagoshima was Shiranami (white wave, or the foam from a wave), but the last time I was there everyone was drinking a brand called Sakurajima, or Cherry Island. Sakurajima is an active volcano that sits on an island in Kagoshima Bay very close to Kagoshima City.
The popularity of shochu took off again in 2000 when people started drinking more of the authentic variety. It’s not unusual these days to see female clerical workers in their 20s (called OLs, for office ladies) downing the stuff made from sweet potatoes straight or on the rocks. (When most of their mothers were that age, they would have no sooner drunk sweet potato shochu on the rocks than cat urine.) Shochu consumption has grown so much since then that there is now a sweet potato shortage in Kyushu, and farmers are expanding their acreage.
Where did it come from?
There are three theories about shochu’s origin and the route by which it came to Japan. The most common explanation is that a primitive form of the drink originated in Thailand and was later brought to Okinawa, where it is called awamori. This is actually a different legal classification for the drink because it is made with a different kind of yeast (and some varieties still use rice from Thailand). Of the many shochu distillers in the Okinawan islands, only one produces what is legally called shochu. The rest make awamori. As in Kagoshima, is not unusual to find people in Okinawa who have never tasted sake–it’s awamori all the way. I used to drink one of the awamori brands with a lower alcohol content myself, and can testify that it is very drinkable.
Some people think shochu arrived from China through Shanghai. The third theory, and a very intriguing one, is that it came from northern China through the Korean peninsula. And wouldn’t you know, the most popular alcoholic beverage in South Korea is something called soju. All Korean soju is the koshu type, and the leading brand, Jinro, can be purchased at liquor stores throughout Japan (and any convenience store in South Korea.) Jinro says they have changed the taste for the Japanese market. The Korean variety is sweeter because they think it goes better with spicy Korean food. Be that as it may, this variety is meant to be drunk straight (and chilled, as far as I know).
I’m fascinated by the many cultural connections between Kyushu, Okinawa, and the Korean Peninsula, so the first time I went to South Korea I was interested in trying some. I’ll be diplomatic here—once was enough. In fact, I suspect in their heart of hearts, most Koreans would admit that the Japanese variety is much better, but national pride and the Japanese association with the drink would probably prevent many from saying so out loud. There is a more upscale version of soju in Korea that I’ve never had, but I suspect that soju is the closest counterpart to Japanese shochu.
To give you an idea just how funky the relationship between the Koreans and the Japanese can be, a Korean company actually obtained the rights to call their version of the drink shochu in California. The Japanese were forced to sell real shochu under the Korean name of soju for a while. (There’s never a dull moment with East Asians!) But that situation has now been rectified.
A professor at a Japanese university published an article in a British medical journal claiming that authentic shochu was effective for preventing thrombosis. Some theorize that it is effective for preventing heart attacks and diabetes. And really, anything made from sweet potatoes is probably good for you anyway.
How to drink it
There are several ways to drink shochu. We’ve already talked about chuhai, and if you can mix a gin and tonic, you can make that. Obviously, you also can drink it straight, particularly if you’re the kind of guy who likes sitting around in sweat-stained undershirts. Some people drink it on the rocks, but I can’t help you there–I was never one for that style of drinking. People say the melting ice brings out the sweetness of the drink.
Another way is to mix it with warm—not boiling—water. This drink, called oyuwari, is popular during the fall and winter, and that’s how I preferred it. Some people with cast iron stomachs use more shochu than water in the mix, but I downed it in about a 1-5 ratio, which is how they usually serve it in restaurants and bars. This method brings out the aroma of the beverage, if you’re interested in such things, and it also warms you up on a cold winter night.
Shochu has become more widely available outside of Japan recently, so depending on where you live, you can probably find some. Over the past few years, the Mitsui trading company has begun selling it in Great Britain and the United States, so it’s available in those countries in the bigger cities, at least. Penny pinchers will be glad to know that an additional advantage of the drink is that even the finer brands are inexpensive, at least in Japan.
If you’re interested in further research, you can try this article on John Gauntner’s fine website devoted to sake. You might find it rewarding to spend some time there with the sake articles, too—he knows what he’s talking about. Gaunter also wrote this article in the Japan Times. He gets a little carried away with his language—sake drinkers tend to come off like oenophiles—but it’s worth reading. (the incorrect comment “most of Kyushu” notwithstanding).
Otherwise, I know of no single English site that is the equivalent of Gauntner’s sake site. The sites I’ve seen tend to be contradictory, incomplete, sloppy, or a combination of all three, but you can head over to Google and see what you can find out on your own. Newspapers in cities such as New York and San Francisco have run articles on the drink.
Incidentally, the largest selling brand in Japan is now Iichiko, and here is their Japanese-language site.
If you think you might like to try some, I’m sure you’d enjoy it. I once sent a small bottle to a man in The Netherlands who did me a favor. He liked it so much he did me another favor!
The poster Klutz has sent in an extremely interesting link that provides more details about soju, including its composition and its role in Korean food culture. This is done in the context of a trade dispute with the United States. Japanese will remember there were similar disputes with the US in the mid-80s. Thanks Klutz!