Pop Culture and Japan

Delving Into The 5 Main Styles Of Shochu

In recent years, the spirits category has experienced great change, with vodka, whisky and gin having their time in the sun. In an age where consumers are becoming more open to trying new experiences, there’s an exciting opportunity for new spirits to move into the limelight and Japanese shochu is at the forefront of the conversation.

Japan’s national spirit is made from a wide range of starch-based starters that are combined with koji and water to produce distilled alcohol. Let’s take a look at the five most common styles of honkaku {single-distilled) shochu.

5 main styles of shochu.

1. Imo (Sweet Potato)

Sweet potato is generally considered to be the most common ingredient used for producing shochu. There are dozens of varietals dispersed across Japan, with Kagoshima being the most popular region for growing what is known as satsuma imo. (Up to 40% of domestic supply).

A few of the most common kinds of sweet potato used in shochu production include koganesengan, beni hayato and joy white. Joy white is a particularly interesting strain because it was bred specifically with shochu in mind by the Kyushu Okinawa Agriculture Research Centre in 1994.

2. Mugi (Barley)

Barley is another common ingredient used to make shochu and Japanese distillers tend to import their barley from places like Australia. 

But distillers like Kuroki Honten have focused on differentiating themselves by growing their own barley on-site and using it to produce their trademark brand. 

3. Kome (Rice)

Rice shochu is produced from either Japonica or Indica varietals, with both strains having key differences. 

Japonica is usually grown in temperate climates like Japan and China, while Indica tends to thrive in more tropical climates such as India and Thailand. Japonica rice is also shorter and stickier than Indica, which has a fluffy quality and usually separates from each other after boiling. 

4. Kokuto (brown sugar) 

Kokuto is an interesting ingredient that’s either translated as brown or black sugar and comes from the Amami Islands. To prevent confusion and to give kokuto the justice it deserves, it’s much easier to refer to it by the Japanese name as it’s nothing like the brown sugar of the western world. To learn more about the qualities of kokuto sugar, check out this comparison that I’ve made between kokuto shochu and rum in The Rum Ration.

It’s also important to remember that kokuto shochu has its own Geographic Indication (GI). For alcohol to be classified as kokuto shochu is must be made exclusively in the Amami Islands.

5. Soba (Buckwheat)

Buckwheat is a challenging ingredient to produce shochu from. This is due to the husks being hard and they need to be removed before the kernels can be crushed and steeped during the production process. There’s also the challenge of buckwheat holding onto moisture, which stops healthy koji creation. 

However, this hasn’t stopped distillers from innovating, as the first buckwheat shochu, Unkai, was created in 1973 by Unkai Shuzo of Miyazaki Prefecture. Unkai used barley koji in this particular drink. 

Takara Shuzo solved the koji issue in 2004, making a unique buckwheat koji. This led to the creation of Towari, the first 100% buckwheat shochu. 

To learn more about the shochu industry, be sure to read Yamato Magazine’s glossary of key terms. It’ll give you the confidence to buy your first shochu! 

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