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att. Japanese Culture - Shochu
att. Culture - Shochu
You are here: att.JAPAN > General Information > Shochu
att.JAPAN Issue 33, March 2007

Shochu - a taste of the east

ShochuWant a new experience with a type of alcohol so vital to the modern day night life of Japan? If so why not give "shochu" a try - a traditional alcohol locally produced in Kyushu, southern Japan.

Rice, malt, sweet potatoes, brown sugar, chestnuts are all used as raw materials in the production of shochu! Unlike other forms of alcoholic drink such as beer (hops), wine (grapes) and sake (rice), shochu is not limited or dependent upon just one material for use in its production.

Essentially a strong spirit (containing 25% alcohol on average) produced in a distillery*, it could potentially be viewed as a member of the same 'alcohol family' as whisky (Scotch) / whiskey (Irish and American) which is made using a similar, if longer process as well as whisk(e)y production requiring the presence of processed malt while shochu uses steamed grains known as "koji."
(*distilleries 'distill' liquids by heating the original fluid until it turns into a steam prior to cooling the same steam to produce liquid again - a process often repeated in whisk(e)y production)

Shochu is generally transparent and can be divided into two main types; Kou and Otsu. The Kou type is often used in the production of Chu-hai (a mixture of shochu and other soft drinks) and fruit wines including Ume-shu (a Japanese apricot based liquor); neither so strong in terms of the scent they emit.

The Otsu type is termed, basically, Shochu or Honkaku (full-dress) Shochu today and the formula for developing this spirit originated in Thailand. The method made its way to Japan in the 14th century and was adapted to suit local conditions, the results much loved in the Kyushu area of Japan. Around this time it was given the name of "shochu" - the burnt or distilled alcohol, and later became popular throughout the country. Since its introduction and through the seven centuries since, shochu has been popular with the working man due to a combination of (low) price and scent.

 Why so popular?
Today, Japanese of both sexes and all ages like to drink and one of the most popular drinks is shochu - an alcohol once regarded as 'for the oldies' but now hugely popular with the younger generations - ladies in particular. Why would this be?
One of the prime reasons behind this appeal to the nation's youth centers on the number of brands potential drinkers can align to and select from; coming in several price ranges - from the more sophisticated and thus more expensive types of shochu to the more economical forms targeting the younger drinker with cool-cum-cute packages and commensurate price labels. Compared with other types of readily available alcohol shochu is relatively cheap when considering quality; Japanese-style bars known as izakaya selling the drink by the glass for around 500 yen per shot. Another added plus, for those watching calories are the relatively low numbers that come in a glass of shochu.

 Effects on the body
Shochu, say its fans when comparing the after effects with those of beer or sake, claim lower levels of headache or heartburn although this hypothesis is not scientifically proven. Some experts have insisted limited quantities of shochu can even have a beneficial effect in a manner similar to the limited intake of wine and / or beer, by lessening the likelihood of arteriosclerosis or blood clots and thus heart attacks or strokes.

When all is said and done though, it is the tastes and fragrances of shochu that attract the most fans! The variety of materials that can be used to produce the drink are so vast with kome shochu and its mellow taste of rice, imo shochu tasting of fresh sweet potatoes, mugi shochu carrying the savory smell of barley but three examples. Using the blessings and materials provided by Mother Nature, the boundaries of shochu expansion are limitless!

 How to drink shochu
So, explanations done with - down to the nitty gritty - the tasting.

- with hot water
After first pouring hot water into a glass, add about the same amount of shochu and mix in. (this method is ideal for warming chilled bodies)

- with cold water
Prepare several pieces of ice then add to shochu. After the ice and shochu start to interact add water to taste.

- on the rocks (rokku in Japanese)
Pour shochu onto several pieces of ice to enjoy the taste almost straight.

If the smell of shochu doesn't appeal, and it doesn't to everyone, try adding a little juice of citrus fruits such as oranges or citron (yuzu).

 Unique shochu
Okinawa, the southernmost islands of Japan are home to a particularly famous shochu known as "Awamori." Made predominantly from Thai rice it is a stronger drink than many other types of shochu coming in with an average alcohol level of about 30% but with some varieties as strong as 60 percent! Awamori, especially older, more mature brands are popular as souvenirs of the islands but are available around the country today - in shops or bars.

More recently, with the popularity of shochu on the rise, more freedom of expression has been included in selecting the raw materials of shochu to help catch the eye of female drinkers. Lettuce shochu, pumpkin shochu, tomato shochu and even milk shochu are all now available so why not try a dram or two and let us know what you think.

Alongside the working men mentioned above, shochu has long been a favorite of the 'keepers of language' - poets. The following haiku evidence in 5,7,5 format:

Natsu no yowa Shochu uri no hitokoe ni --- Natsume Seibi
(Hear the shout of (the) shochu-seller, and realize the night of summer)

Still spring now? Worried that summer is still months away? Fear not as shochu is available anytime, anyplace so go on out and experience the world of shochu!

Kurokirishima My own favorites:

Iichiko
Perhaps the most famous shochu in Japan - the one made from barley (mugi-shochu). Iichiko lovers have given it the nickname of (the) "Napoleon of Shitamachi."

Kirishima
Made from sweet potatoes (imo-shochu), a mild and aged taste produces and carries well a noble flavor - one for 'better times.'

Tantakatan
Produced in Shiranuka-cho, Hokkaido using shiso leaves (perilla) and date palm, Tantakatan is a refreshing shochu - ideal year round.

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