Shochu / Soju

Words by Simon Difford

Shochu / Soju image 1

Translating as 'fiery liquor', Shochu (spelt Soju in Korea) is the traditional spirit of Japan. It is distilled from a number of different materials and is thought to have originated in the 15th century on Okinawa in the Ryukyu Islands (at that time not part of Japan).

Shochu is distilled to similar strengths as whisk(e)y but is typically reduced to a low 24 - 30% alc./vol. bottling strength although in recent years some producers are bottling at 40%+ alc./vol. to compete with other spirits used as a base in cocktails such as vodka and gin. Licencing laws in parts of the USA which allow shochu at 24% alc./vol. be sold under a beer and wine license have helped establish shochu as a low alcohol spirits alternative in venues not licensed to sell spirits.

The main production area is in Kagoshima prefecture on Kyushu island, the southernmost island of the main Japanese archipelago. Shochu from this island is called awamori or 'millet brandy'. Kagoshima is the only prefecture in Japan that does not produce sake or any other type of alcohol other than Shochu.

The are two types of shochu, 'Otsurui' (or 'otsu') and 'Korui' (or 'Ko'):

Otsurui shochu is made in pot stills from barley, rye, buckwheat, sweet potatos, rice, corn and sugar. Otsu tends to be full-flavoured with the character of the raw ingredients from which it is made evident on the palate.

Korui shochu is made in continuous stills from molasses and is vodka-like with a neutral taste. Both types use malted rice for fermentation.

Imo-Jochu is distilled from sweet potatoes within days of being harvested. Unlike other types of shochu which can be produced all year round, imo-jochu can only be produced between August and November. After distillation, imo jochu is matured for a few months before being released.

Shinshu (new shochu) is traditionally sold in November to celebrate that shochu season.

Shochu is traditionally drunk on its own or with water, either served hot or cold. A fifty-fifty mix of shochu and water is known as 'Gogowari'. 'Chu-Hai' is an abbreviation of 'shocha highball' and is a mix of shochu, soda water and flavoured syrup served over ice with a slice of lime.

Canned Chu-Hai cocktails are widely available in Japan, from street vending machines to subway kiosks. Typical Chu-Hai drink flavours include: grapefruit, lemon, lime, peach, strawberry and plum.

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