What is Shochu? Japan’s Distilled Beverage of Choice

by Jillian Giandurco

If your alcoholic drink of choice is usually liquor-based, you’re definitely going to want to try shochu on your next night out. Shochu is traditional Japanese hard liquor that’s been distilled from grains like rice, barley, and buckwheat, or vegetables like sweet potatoes and carrots, and is known for its slightly earthy, nutty flavor. Shochu is much different than Japanese sake, so if you want to learn the difference between the two drinks and more, keep reading on!

What Is Shochu?

As mentioned, shochu is a liquor, which means it’s made through a distilling process, not fermentation. It’s unclear when shochu was first created, but it has been determined that shochu has been in production since at least the 16th century, when a missionary visited the Kagoshima Prefecture in 1549 and recorded his findings. At the time, shochu was referred to as araki, which came from the Middle Eastern word arak, a generic term for distilled alcohols.

Japanese shochu is often compared to vodka because of its taste and production process, but it should be known that shochu is not a type of vodka. Shochu is sold at convenience stores, supermarkets, and liquor stores across Japan, but it’s not nearly as available outside of the country. Luckily, shochu has seen a rise in popularity in North America over the last few years, and therefore it's much easier to find dedicated shochu bars in big cities like New York, Toronto, and Los Angeles than it was 20 years ago.

Shochu vs. Soju vs. Sake

Because they’re both Japanese alcohols, it makes sense that shochu and sake are often compared to one another, even though they’re not all that similar. Another sip that shochu does share some qualities with, however, is soju. If you don’t know, soju is a distilled drink that is also made from grains or potatoes, and is the most popular liquor in Korea.

Soju can be enjoyed as a spirit in a cocktail or on its own, but where soju and shochu vary the most are their respective flavors. Shochu has been described as tasting like a mix between whiskey and vodka, thanks to its dry palette and strong alcoholic flavor. Soju, on the other hand, has a much sweeter taste to it due to the fact that sugars are added during the distilling process. Shochu is never made with sugar, just like vodka.

As for the difference between shochu and sake, sake is made with rice that’s been naturally fermented, not distilled. Sake is very smooth, and its flavor is often compared to that of wine. It is mildly sweet, but also features a balanced astringent yet savory taste.

How Do You Drink Shochu?

Japanese shochu can be enjoyed in multiple different ways, including on its own (or “neat”), with ice (also known as “on the rocks”), or mixed with an oolong tea, fruit juice, or water. The water can be hot or cold, or it be added 24 hours in advance as a way to combat the strong alcoholic taste. This drink can also be consumed with common citrus flavor like yuzu candy and yuzu peel, or sea urchin, that pairs exceptionally well with Japanese drinks!