Thursday, October 14, 2010


One of the challenges in trying to understand Japanese alcohols in Japan is simply in being able to tell what you're looking at from the bottle. The grocery and liquor stores do try to help by listing the key ingredient on the price sticker at the front of the shelf (this one's made from kome that one from imo), but then you need to be able to read kanji for the sticker to make sense. It's a bit awkward, breaking out an electronic dictionary and trying to hand-write in the kanji you want to decipher. So, what I did was to go through every shochu brand at my local Summit grocery store and wrote down every key ingredient name I could find. Then I returned home and made up this list.

Below are all the kinds of shochu that the Summit near my apartment has.

黒糖 -- Kakutou -- Brown Sugar
The "kaku" in "kakutou" is "black", meaning that what westerners call "brown sugar", Japanese call "black sugar". Kakutou shochu is very sweet, with a recognizable sugar taste. Not a lot of other subtle undertones, though. It goes well with club soda. (Kokutou is one of the three types available for refills at the Ultra Machi shop, and was the most expensive of the group.)

泡盛 -- Awamori -- Okinawa liquor

Awamori is a very distinctive product of the Okinawan islands, with a very strong, earthy flavor. Many people, Japanese included, don't like it. As a type of alcohol, rather than a kind of shochu, awamori can have a range of flavors as well. The challenge is to find an awamori that you like. The wiki entry says that awamori can be served straight, on the rocks, in cocktails, or with water and ice. I've had it at a neighborhood Chinese restaurant, where it was served hot with a glass of water on the side, and was pretty good in small doses, assuming that you consider paint thinner to be a beverage.

そば -- Soba -- Buckwheat noodles

According to the wiki entry, soba shochu originated in 1973, when Unkai Brewery Co., in Gokase, Miyazaki, developed it using local buckwheat. It started as a regional product, but has since gained nationwide popularity. It has a very clean, sharp taste similar to rum or vodka, but not exactly the same as either. It works fairly well with Coca Cola as a "rum and coke" alternative, but is also good straight. It's not bad on the rocks or with club soda.
Takara Zusho site, distributors of Towari soba shochu.

芋 -- Imo -- Potato (薩摩芋)
This actually refers to "satsuma imo", or sweet potato. Satsuma imo shochu has a strong, "earthy" flavor that makes it poor for mixing with sodas and juice. It does work on the rocks and straight, while some people like mixing it with hot water. (This was one of the three refill flavors at Ultra Machi, and the cheapest of the group.)

米 -- Kome -- Rice

Normally, when you talk about alcohol made from rice, you're referring to sake. For shochu, the two changes are in the variety of rice used, and the choice of yeast (there are three types of yeast, and only one type is used for sake. One of the others is used for shochu, giving it a slightly different flavor). The brand I selected has a very clear, astringent taste, along the lines of vodka or gin (minus the juniper berries). It mixes well with club soda, but is also good straight or on the rocks.
Hakutake site.
Hakutake Calendar page.

紫蘇 -- Shiso -- Perilla

"Shiso" is also known as the "beefsteak plant", "Japanese basil" and "purple mint". The leaf itself has a strong flavor reminiscent of fennel or mint. Shiso shochu has been described as having an apricot flavor. For me, it's very perfumy, with some apricot notes. It clashes with tonic, club soda and juice, but blends to become almost indistinguishable in Canadian Club ginger ale.
Tantakan site.

麦 -- Mugi -- Barley
"Mugi" can be translated as "barley", "wheat" or "oats" (although wheat is usually called "komugi" (小麦)), but generally mugi shochu is made only from barley. This one also has a strong, "earthy" flavor that makes it poor for mixing with sodas and juice. It does work on the rocks and straight, while some people like mixing it with hot water. (This was one of the three refill flavors at the Ultra Machi shop, and was medium-priced.)

甲類 -- Kourui -- Multiple Distillation

According to the wiki entry, this is the cheap stuff. It's easily mass-produced and because it has been distilled several times, has little flavor on its own. Supposedly, when drunk with water, the nature of the water has the ability to draw out certain subtle nuances in the shochu. Kourui is often used as a base for commercial mixed cocktails like chuhai. It can be made from the same range of ingredients as given in the rest of this list.

Pure was the cheapest of the cheap kourui at Summit (600 yen for 900 ml (1000 ml = 1 liter)). It's sweet, implying that it was made from a sugar base, but with a very clean, sharp alcoholic taste similar to vodka. It mixes well with Coke for a rum and coke-like drink, and also holds up well against orange juice for a kind of screwdriver. I tried simply adding cold water to it, but rather than bringing out any special flavors it just tasted watered-down. This particular brand is 25%, or 50-proof. Not all that strong, but if the idea is not to drink just to become drunk, then kourui works out fine as a mixer.

胡麻 -- Goma -- Sesame

Goma shochu is one of the novelty flavors, and there was only one label offering it. It's in a paper carton, implying it's a cheaper grade, but the 1000 yen price ($12 USD) for 900 ml is in keeping with the pricier brands.

The ad copy on the carton says "Beniotome is made from selected wheat, malted rice, and sesame. Since no additives have been used, it tastes quite natural. Moreover, we took much time for ripening so that you could enjoy its mild aroma and taste." It is a milder shochu, slightly astringent, and with a subtle, but noticeable sesame flavor. It works really well straight and on the rocks. The sesame kind of clashes with club soda but isn't too intolerable. Mixed in with diet coke for a "rum and coke" effect, it becomes overly sweet and cloying.
Beniotome site.

A note about "chu-hai": (or "chuhai" or "chu-hi".) A Hi-ball is any hard liquor mixed with club soda. Hi-balls were very popular in Japan after being initially introduced, and naturally people mixed shochu with club soda as well to make a "shochu Hi-ball". Hence- "chu-hi". But, to get the pronunciation right using the Japanese alphabet, it became "chu-hai", which is pronounced the same. There's no restriction on which flavor shochu to use, but as mentioned above, the cheaper, easier to mass-produce one is kourui.

Summary: While I can drink just about anything, many of the stronger "earthy" shochus (tastes like burlap, loam, and burned potatoes) don't really appeal to me. I prefer alcohols I can mix with orange juice or tonic water, meaning that I want things with simpler flavors. Right now, the soba shochu is one of my favorites, although the kome is good too. The shiso was interesting to try once, but I'm not planning on getting any more in the near future.

1 comment:

Bunny said...

I totally approve of the paint thinner comment.