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Shōchū is a distilled alcohol that appeared in Japan around the 16th century, on Kyushu Island. There are records that Shōchū was produced in Kagoshima in the 16th century, so it is likely that it gradually spread throughout Japan via Miyazaki and the Kuma area, finding its way into various regions as a local specialty. It is now produced all over Japan. It can be made with rice, barley, buckwheat, sweet potato, herbs, black sugar, sake cake...

Source : Japan Sake and Shōchū Maker Association

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Shōchū is a distilled alcohol that appeared in Japan around the 16th century, on Kyushu Island.

There are records that Shōchū was produced in Kagoshima in the 16th century, so it is likely that it gradually spread throughout Japan via Miyazaki and the Kuma area, finding its way into various regions as a local specialty.

It is now produced all over Japan. It can be made with rice, barley, buckwheat, sweet potato, herbs, black sugar, sake cake...

There are two main types of Shōchū:

  • Honkaku, known as authentic Shōchū, is distilled only once, offering very rich aromas and taste notes.

Honkaku Shōchū alcohol content is usually 30-45%, which is higher than sake, so these drinks are usually diluted with hot or cold water or even tea.

Only spirits made from grains or tubers, koji (saccharifying agent) made from the main ingredient, and water that has been fermented and distilled (Rice Shōchū, Barley Shōchū, Sweet Potato Shōchū) can be called Honkaku Shōchū.

Consumed hot, diluted by half, aromatic notes are powerful and the mouth is then softer and more seductive. It is recommended to pour the hot liquid first and then to complete with the Shōchū in order to preserve all the flavors.

Purists will recommend you to drink it pure or with ice cubes.

  • Korui, distilled several times, has a lighter aroma and taste, with an alcohol content lower than 36%.

Shōchū is sulfite and carbohydrate-free but remains a strong alcohol.

Characteristics of Honkaku Shōchū

It is very important to protect the moromi from bacteria in the process of alcohol production. That is why black and white koji mushrooms are used in the production of Honkaku Shōchū, which generates a good amount of citric acid, which makes moromi highly acidic. In this way, growth of bacteria is controlled and moromi is protected from its effects. The actual origins of the different types of spirits found around the world have never been fully elucidated, but it is said that a single distillation still called "alembic" was developed in the Arab world during the fifth century and spread to the east and west. Some spirits were produced in Asia in the 13th or 14th century. In Japan, it is generally believed that distillation technology was brought from Siam (now Thailand) to the Ryukyu Kingdom (now Okinawa), which was actively trading with Southeast Asian countries in the 15th century. However, there is no widely accepted theory on how the technology of Shōchū production arrived in Kyushu, although some have suggested Ryukyu, Korea, China, and Europe.

The main ingredients of Honkaku Shōchū are starchy foods such as rice, barley, and sweet potatoes. Koji is always used in the making of Honkaku Shōchū to break down starches in the main ingredients into sugar. While yeast can produce alcohol by digesting sugars through the fermentation process, the yeast itself does not have the ability to break down starches. If only starches were used, it would be impossible to grow the yeast or ferment the starches to produce alcohol. Therefore, in the production of Honkaku Shōchū, black or white koji mushroom is sprinkled on steamed rice or barley to allow the koji to grow for about two days. Koji contains enzymes that can break down starches into sugar, and the yeast with the koji goes through the fermentation process to produce alcohol.

In the first shikomi (tank mix), made mainly to grow yeast, about the same amount of koji and water is added to a fermentation tank to grow yeast for about a week, and then to form the first moromi (fermentation slurry). In the second shikomi, the main ingredient, such as rice, barley, or sweet potatoes, and water is added to the first moromi to break down starches with enzymes in the koji and ferment with yeast to produce alcohol. The variety of Honkaku Shōchū is determined by the main ingredient added in the second shikomi process (Rice Shōchū, Barley Shōchū, Sweet Potato Shōchū, etc.), which takes one to two weeks, depending on the main ingredient. The second moromi alcohol content, at this stage, is about 14-20%. Next, the second moromi mash is transferred to pot stills for the distillation process.

Moromi's alcohol content for Shōchū is higher than that of other spirits, so it is possible to make a product with a high alcohol content after a single distillation process. As a result, a number of volatile compounds, including alcohol, are retained to preserve ingredients rich in aroma and taste. The final product, Honkaku Shōchū, is stored and matured, with adjusted alcohol level by adding water before bottling and shipping.

Shōchū rarely conflicts with the flavors of food. On the contrary, some unpleasant tastes in food, such as oils and fats, are washed away by the refreshing flavor of Honkaku Shōchū, often making the dishes more flavorful.

Types of distillation

Honkaku Shōchū manufacturers use two different methods of unique distillation: atmospheric distillation and vacuum distillation. In the atmospheric distillation method, as the pressure inside the still is 1 atm, the same as the outside atmospheric pressure, the temperature of moromi mush rises to about 85-95°C. Moromi Shōchū is highly acidic, so when it is heated to a high temperature, substances in it undergo certain chemical reactions, resulting in the generation of new volatile compounds, creating a rich aroma. In contrast, in vacuum distillation method, the pressure inside the still is reduced to allow moromi temperature to rise to only 45-55°C. As a result, chemical reactions are not as present as in the other method, creating a light and subtle flavor in the final product. In many distilleries, a variety of flavors are created using these two types of stills.

Rice Shōchū - Kome Shōchū »

Kome Shōchū is produced all over Japan, with one of the oldest production areas being the Kuma region (Kumagun and Hitoyoshi cities, Kumamoto Prefecture). Geographical Indication "Kuma Shōchū" is protected by the World Trade Organization's TRIPS agreement on intellectual property.

In this region, the Kuma River flows through a plateau surrounded by mountains, and rice has been cultivated here since the Kamakura period in the 13th century. It is not known exactly when the production of Kome Shōchū actually began in this region, but there are still about 30 distilleries along the river. To produce kome Shōchū, rice koji is used in the first shikomi process, and steamed rice and water are added for fermentation in the second shikomi. Yellow koji mushroom, which is generally used for making sake, was mainly used in the development of koji for kome Shōchū until the beginning of the 20th century. However, white koji mushroom is widely used nowadays, and black and yellow koji mushrooms have also become popular among those seeking richer and more distinctive aromas and tastes. Usually, Kome Shōchū is stored and matured for about six months after distillation and before shipping. During this time, flavor loses some of its pungency and the aroma settles. Kome Shōchū, made from a Japanese staple, has an appealing aroma that enhances the taste of food. There are a number of varieties of kome Shōchū, including one with a richer flavor obtained by atmospheric distillation, one with a subtle aroma and light taste obtained by vacuum distillation, and one with a distinctive flavor obtained by maturation in earthen urns or barrels. The richer type is usually drunk with hot water and the lighter, more subtle types with ice. In general, Kome Shōchū contains about 25% alcohol. The stronger type is most commonly enjoyed in the Kuma region, where it is customary to heat pure kome Shōchū in a vessel called a "gara" and drink it in a small cup called a "choku".

Barley Shōchū - Mugi Shōchū

There are two large islands in Kyushu: Iki and Tsushima, which appear in the Gishiwajinden, a Chinese text written in the third century, as part of a primary transportation route between Japan and the Asian continent.

While Tsushima has steep mountains and deep forests, Iki is quite flat and has the second largest plain in Nagasaki Prefecture. Therefore, Iki is ideal for growing grains and fruits and is also known for its quality beef and fresh seafood from the Genkai-nada Sea. In addition, it is here on Iki that barley Shōchū was born. Iki's barley Shōchū is made with rice koji and steamed barley, which is different from barley Shōchū produced in other regions. In fact, the ratio of rice koji to steamed barley is 1:2, which has remained constant since Meiji era, more than a century ago.

In terms of production, the first process of shikomi is made with rice koji, grown from the white koji mushroom, with steamed barley added for fermentation in the second and third stages of shikomi.

Traditionally, it is produced by atmospheric distillation method, but some barley Shōchū is made by vacuum distillation method. Each distillery on the island has its own way of making Shōchū, such as using urns for shikomi, or oak casks for storage. Traditional Iki barley Shōchū has a roasted barley aroma, which is more like chocolate-covered barley, due to the atmospheric distillation method. In this method, starches in barley undergo hydrolysis to produce sugar, and sugar combined with amino acids is heated to generate the sweet, toasty aroma. It also has a rich flavor provided by rice koji, which comes out when combined and drunk with hot water.

"Iki Shōchū" name is protected by the World Trade Organization's TRIPS agreement on intellectual property. In contrast, barley Shōchū produced in other regions, such as Oita Prefecture, is usually made with barley koji and steamed barley. The first shikomi is made with water and barley koji, which is grown with steamed barley and white koji mushroom, followed by the second shikomi in which steamed barley and water are added for fermentation. Made by vacuum distillation method, most varieties have light fruity quality. Since they are generally light in color, they are best drunk with cold water or on the rocks. It is also excellent as a base for cocktails.

Sweet potato Shōchū – Imo Shōchū

Imo Shōchū (sweet potato Shōchū) is produced all over Kyushu, but especially in Kagoshima Prefecture and southern Miyazaki Prefecture, because its main ingredient, sweet potato, is a characteristic product of these regions. In general, koji, water, and yeast are used in the first stage of shikomi to grow yeast in sufficient quantity, and water and steamed sweet potato pieces are added in the second stage of shikomi for fermentation, followed by distillation. The reason why there are two stages of shikomi is that the fermentation goes smoothly even when the scale of shikomi is large.

Before the beginning of this method, around the beginning of the 20th century, koji, sweet potatoes, and water were combined at the same time. This method is called "Donburi (big bowl) Shikomi" and some distilleries have recently started to use it based on records from that time. Although sweet potatoes are usually steamed before shikomi, some distilleries bake them to achieve a distinctive sweet and salty flavor.

Recently, a wide variety of sweet potatoes and koji have been used for Imo Shōchū. Here are some examples: Kogane-Sengan: This is the most widely used variety as the main ingredient of Imo Shōchū with its whitish yellow flesh. Shōchū produced has a sweet and rich flavor, characteristic of steamed sweet potatoes.

Purple variety: Yamakawa Murasaki and Ayamurasaki are well known varieties. Their flesh is purple and contains pigments called anthocyanins. This Shōchū flavor is reminiscent of red wine and yogurt.

Orange colored variety: Shōchū made from this orange-fleshed variety has a flavor quite similar to that of boiled carrots and pumpkins, as well as tropical fruits such as papaya. Orange color comes from beta-carotene, which gives the product a certain unique aroma.

Black koji mushroom: This mushroom, which was previously used for Okinawan Awamori, began to be used in the production of Imo Shōchū in the early 20th century. It is thought to help bring out the rich, deep flavor of sweet potatoes.

White koji mushroom: This is actually a mutant strain of the black koji mushroom. Because of its black spores, the black koji mushroom tends to stain work areas, appliances, and clothes, so this white version became popular and spread to the Kyushu area after the war. Shōchū made from this mushroom has a slightly sweeter and lighter taste than that made from the black type. Although it is delicious with cold water or on the rocks, the soft and relaxing flavor of Imo Shōchū is often enjoyed with hot water, as the distinctive aroma and sweetness of the drink is enhanced by the heat.

When Shōchū with an alcohol content of 25% is diluted with water in a ratio of six parts Shōchū to four parts water, alcohol content drops almost to that of sake. The ratio is easily adjusted by changing the amount of hot water added according to your mood. It is best to pour hot water first and let it cool down a little before adding the Shōchū slowly so that they mix well and the subtle sweetness comes out perfectly.

In Kagoshima, however, there is another way to enjoy Imo Shōchū, which is to put the Shōchū and cold water in a black pot, called "Kuro Joka", and heat it over direct fire. This custom is called "Dareyame" or "Daiyame", which originally means "stop fatigue". Imo Shōchū produced in Kagoshima Prefecture is called "Satsuma Shōchū" and this Geographical Indication is protected by the TRIPS Agreement on Intellectual Property of the World Trade Organization.

Imo Shōchū is also produced on Tokyo Izu Islands, and the inhabitants of these islands call it "Shimazake", or island liquor. Although its production method is said to be from Kagoshima, Shimazake is made with barley koji, rather than Kagoshima rice koji, and has an excellent combination of sweet potatoes sweet flavor and barley light and savory flavor.

Black sugar Shōchū – Kokuto Shōchū

Kokuto Shōchū has the subtle and sweet aroma of black sugar, and is produced only on the Amami Islands of Kagoshima Prefecture. According to Liquor Tax Law, these islands (managed by the Oshima Tax Office) are the only place allowed to produce this Shōchū made from brown sugar and rice koji.

Currently, there are distilleries on Amami, Kikaijima, Tokunoshima, Okinoerabujima, and Yoronto islands. Although sugar is present, Kokuto Shōchū also uses rice koji, which provides amino acids, vitamins, and fatty acids that yeast needs to grow. Citric acids in koji also maintain moromi acidity. In addition, amino acids provide an aroma of high-quality alcohol and ester, and rice koji enhances the fermentation process, giving the product a richer flavor.

Generally, the first shikomi for Kokuto Shōchū uses rice koji grown with white koji mushroom to develop the first moromi mash, and brown sugar is added in the second shikomi. Brown sugar is not produced directly from sugarcane pressed white juice, but is obtained after the juice is simmered, concentrated, and solidified.

Solidified brown sugar is resolved with water and steam, and the liquid is cooled to be used in the second shikomi. Brown, sweet-smelling moromi porridge looks delicious but actually tastes rather sour and unsweet, as it is in its pre-distillation state.

The aroma of Black Sugar Shōchū has a distinctive sweetness, typical of brown sugar, and is slightly sour with a hint of coconut oil. It has a subtle taste and is probably more pleasant when diluted in cold water rather than hot water. Amami Oshima Branch of the Kagoshima Prefectural Sake and Shōchū Makers Association has designated May 9 and 10 as "Amami Kokuto Shōchū Day" because this Shōchū represents the rich natural environment and long tradition of Amami region.

Filtered sake lees Shōchū - Sakekasu Shōchū

Sakekasu Shōchū is made from sake cake or sake lees, which is what remains after sake is pressed out of the moromi mash. It has long been used for a variety of purposes, including as an ingredient for drinks and as an antiseptic. It has also been used as Hashira Shōchū, supporting alcohol for sake making, which is added to moromi before pressing to increase the alcohol level for better preservation.

In some regions, alcohol-free remains obtained after distillation are used as fertilizer for rice cultivation, and so Sakekasu Shōchū is often drunk on special occasions related to rice cultivation. This includes ritual events at shrines and Sanabori festivals that celebrate the end of the harvest ("Sanaburi Shōchū").

These are based on the philosophy that rice is used without waste (rice as a staple food, as an ingredient in sake, sake cake, and Shōchū, as well as recycling the residue after distillation to be used as fertilizer for the next year's rice crop).

Two methods are used in the production of Sakekasu Shōchū: Kasutori and Kasumoromitori.

Sake cakes contain leftover yeast and rice, as well as about 8% alcohol, which are refermented to increase alcohol content a little more before distillation.


In this traditional method, sake cake is added to a small amount of water, fermented for about a month with the help of yeast in the cake, and distilled in steam vessels. Fermented sake cakes are mixed with rice bran and distributed in the vessels to ensure good exposure to steam. This steam, which contains a good amount of alcohol, is then cooled to become Shōchū.

Because the rice bran is mixed before distillation, Kasutori Shōchū has a complex, sweet, and savory flavor derived from sake cakes, rice husks, and dry grass. Type distilled in a wooden vessel also has a subtle woody aroma. Since these distinctive aromas and tastes are very strong right after distillation, Shōchū is stored for some time to allow for decanting. The most popular way to enjoy Kasutori Shōchū is to drink it chilled or on the rocks, and it can also be used as a base for making plum liqueur.


In this method, sake cake and water are mixed to a slurry, fermented for two weeks, and then distilled using the atmospheric or vacuum distillation method. Sake cake is sometimes used as an ingredient for the second shikomi.

In general, Kasumoromi Shōchū is a little sweeter than Kasutori Shōchū in terms of aroma and taste. A new variety of Sakekasu Shōchū is made from finely ground cake from high quality sake, using the vacuum distillation method. It has a sophisticated flavor similar to that of high-quality sake. It is excellent both fresh and on ice.

The Appellation of Controlled Origin (ACO)

The WTO, based on the concept of "terroir" or unique traditional regional qualities, has granted AOC certification to three categories of Shōchū:

  • Iki Shōchū,
  • Kuma Shōchū
  • Satsuma Shōchū

Source: Japan Sake and Shōchū Maker Association

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