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Spark Your Sense With Japanese Shochu

“The beauty of the shochu category is that the flavors and aromas are as diverse as the raw materials used to create it,” says Matthew Belanger, general manager of Death & Co in Los Angeles. “Shochu has huge terroir, especially when you consider the hand of the maker and all the various ways shochu can be made.”

Belanger is among a growing number of bartenders across the U.S. who are embracing shochu as a versatile cocktail ingredient. “Shochu is a really exciting category to play around with when making cocktails, thanks to the unique flavors and textures of the category,” Belanger says. “Many of the grain-based distillates that are used behind the bar—vodkas, whiskeys, etc.—are either neutral spirits (thus containing no flavor of the original raw materials) or are barrel-aged such that the flavor of the final spirit is obscured by the finished process of the spirit. With shochu, the flavors of these grains (as transformed by fermentation with koji and the distillation process) are central to the flavor of the spirit, so you can deploy these unique flavors more centrally in the context of the drink.”

What Is Shochu?

Like sake, shochu is known as Japan’s national drink, and it is consumed in Japan more than sake and whiskey. The origin of shochu in Japan is believed to stretch back 500 years. And shochu has been produced in Kyushu since 1500.

The most common base ingredients for shochu are sweet potato, barley, and rice. But a total of 49 ingredients can be used as the shochu base, which determines the spirit’s flavor characteristics. “You can enjoy different flavors from different ingredients as [shochu] retains flavors derived from main ingredients. This can be only achieved by its unique fermentation processes and distilled only once by pot still,” explains Toshio Ueno, WSET certified spirits educator, certified shochu sommelier, and Awamori Jinbner.

Shochu must be produced with koji, which is made by adding mold to steamed rice and letting it reproduce. Brewing with koji gives shochu its unique aroma, flavor, texture, and richness. The koji converts complex carbohydrates to sugars that will be consumed by yeast to ferment and produce alcohol. “This fermentation process is different from Western spirits,” says Ueno. “In Western countries, conversion of carbohydrates is done by using malts, which produces enzymes to break down the carbohydrates to sugars. Also, shochu is distilled by single distillation. Because of this single distillation, shochu has more flavors and complex characteristics derived from raw ingredients.”

While most of the world’s stills, such as those for whisky, are made of copper, most shochu stills are stainless steel. Direct distillation, in which steam is blown directly into the mash, has become the most common method of distillation. This is because it offers a way to heat mashes of ingredients without burning them. There is no limit to the number of distillations. However, shochu is typically distilled only once and finished to 20-25 percent alcohol by volume, yielding an extremely aromatic spirit that brings out the characteristics of its base ingredients.

How much oil is left in during filtration impacts the weight and character of shochu. The spirit’s oil component lends a distinctive roundness and depth to the flavor. But determining the right amount of oil to leave in is a delicate balancing act. Excess oil will oxidize and spoil the taste, but removing too much oil will diminish a shochu’s flavor. For this reason, shochu producers use various methods, such as skimming off the oil with a net and filtering it out with paper, depending on the character of shochu they are aiming for.

Shochu Cocktails

Despite an alcohol content of 20 percent, shochu’s intense flavors allow it to mix well in cocktails. And the spirit can be employed particularly well in low-ABV drinks. “The texture of shochu, which is contributed primarily by its lower-proof relative to other spirits, provides unique opportunities for balancing drinks in general and creating low-ABV serves in particular, which are hugely in vogue,” says Belanger of Death & Co.

In Japan, the Shochu Highball is the most popular signature cocktail and an ideal way to enjoy the aromas and flavors of shochu. However, the spirit can mix seamlessly in a wide array of cocktails, allowing the specific flavors of shochu’s base ingredients to shine. Click here to explore some creative recipes.

A Special Shochu Experience in LA

From January 20 to February 19, some of LA’s best bars and restaurants will be mixing and serving their own original takes on the Shochu Highball. 

Participating bars include:

Additionally, on January 26, LA’s Death & Co will host a one-night-only immersive shochu event, where guests will learn about shochu and enjoy shochu cocktails.

Head to and follow @shochu_japan to find out how you can experience these special cocktails and events and to learn more about the world of Japanese shochu. “Despite its long history in Japan, shochu is still one of the most novel spirits to our consumers,” says Belanger. “As a result, there’s a huge opportunity to use shochu to present new, exciting flavors and structures of cocktails to our guests.”

This article contains information reprinted with permission from JFOODO.

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