A Beginner’s Guide to Shochu

By Ashley Owen
Updated: March 23, 2023

Sake might be Japan’s most famous alcoholic beverage, but it’s not the only one! Enter shōchū. This distilled spirit is the country’s other national drink, and is actually more widely consumed in Japan than sake. Its versatility, low-calorie content and delicious taste all help explain why it’s such a popular choice.

But what is shōchū? How does it differ from sake? And how do you drink shōchū? We answer all these questions and more in this comprehensive beginner’s guide to shōchū.

So grab a glass and let’s get started!

What is shōchū?

A glass bottle of golden shochu with a gold label, lying on its side on a white cloth backdrop

Beginning with the basics, shōchū is a clear, distilled spirit that was first made in Japan around 500 years ago. Legally it must have an alcohol content of 45% or less, however most varieties are about 20-25% ABV. The drink is particularly popular in Kyūshū, and there are several renowned regional shōchū brands that hail from this region.

Shōchū can be made from a wide variety of ingredients, as we’ll discuss below. This means it’s a wonderfully diverse drink, that you can enjoy in lots of different ways and pair with many different foods. Because it doesn’t have any added sugar and hardly any carbs, shōchū is also a low-calorie option of alcoholic drink.

The taste of shōchū varies depending on factors like its base ingredient and how many times it was distilled. It could be anything from rich and earthy to light, sweet and refreshing. So don’t be shy about trying a few different varieties until you find the style you love!

The best way to try a variety of shochu is to join a Bar Hopping Tour!

What is shōchū made of?

Several different bottles of shochu lined up in a row, leading diagonally away from the camera

As mentioned above, the reason that shōchū is such a versatile drink is that it can be made from a huge selection of base ingredients. The most common styles include:

  • Imo shōchū – made from sweet potatoes, with a complex, earthy flavor and strong aroma
  • Mugi shōchū – made from barley, with a lighter taste that’s great for shōchū newbies
  • Kokutō shōchū – made from brown sugar on the Amami islands, with a light, tropical and sweet taste
  • Satōkibi shōchū – made from sugar cane, with a mildly sweet taste
  • Kome shōchū – made from rice, with a thicker, sweeter flavor that’s sometimes floral and sometimes fruity
  • Soba shōchū – made from buckwheat, with a smooth, mild taste featuring floral notes

There are actually over 30 different base ingredients used to make shōchū, so this is only the tip of the iceberg! Many regions of Japan have their own versions made with local crops, so be sure to give them a try.

To learn more about how shochu is made, you can join our virtual Shochu Distillery Tour.

How is shōchū different than sake?

A dark grey bottle of a shochu with a silver label lying on its side against a black cloth background

Although shōchū and sake are both types of Japanese alcoholic beverages, there are some key differences between the two. Firstly, sake is made through a fermentation process, whereas shōchū is distilled. Secondly, sake is always brewed from rice but shōchū doesn’t have to be. As discussed above, rice is only one of shōchū’s many possible base ingredients. Finally, shōchū is generally stronger than sake, which is usually around 15-20% ABV.

Because shōchū is a clear, distilled spirit, it’s sometimes referred to as Japanese vodka. However, the comparison isn’t entirely accurate. So, how is shōchū different from vodka? For starters, it usually has a lower alcohol content. Moreover, shōchū – especially single-distilled varieties – tends to retain more of the underlying flavor of its base ingredient. Having said that, the similarities between the two drinks do mean that shōchū can be a fantastic substitute for vodka in cocktails!

Another beverage that shōchū sometimes gets confused with is the Korean spirit soju. So is shōchū same as soju? Again, there are similarities, but no. Soju has a slightly lower alcohol content, at 15-25% ABV, and unlike shōchū retains little flavor from its base ingredient. Soju is also often made with a mixture of these base ingredients – such as barley, corn and rice – whereas shōchū tends to focus on purity by sticking to just one.

Types of shōchū

A row of shochu bottles, with lanterns above them

The different styles of shōchū aren’t only distinguished by their base ingredient. The drink can also be classified according to its distillation method:

  • Otsuri shōchū – also known as honkaku shōchū, meaning genuine or authentic shōchū. This variety is single-distilled, and therefore of higher quality. It retains more of the flavor and aroma of its base ingredient, and is best enjoyed neat or on the rocks.
  • Korui shōchū – this variety is distilled multiple times, resulting in a clearer color and milder taste and scent. It’s best enjoyed in cocktails or with a mixer.
  • Konwa shōchū – a blend of otsuri shōchū and korui shōchū, this variety is more affordable than single-distilled shōchū but still offers a refined taste.

There are also four regional shōchū brands that have been granted geographical indications by the World Trade Organization. This means that, like champagne, they can only be produced in their respective areas. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they all hail from the southwest of Japan:

  • Iki Shōchū – a rich barley shōchū from Iki island in Nagasaki, with a sweet taste and clean finish
  • Kuma Shōchū – a smooth rice shōchū from Kumamoto, with a mellow aroma and rich flavor
  • Satsuma Shōchū – a sweet potato shōchū from Kagoshima, with a rich taste and floral aroma
  • Awamori – the Okinawan version of shōchū, made using long-grained Thai rice instead of Japanese rice. It’s often aged longer than other types of shōchū, giving it a deeper and more refined flavor

How to drink shōchū

A ceramic grey cup with no handles, filled with clear shochu over ice. In the background there are two small plates of food

Now that we’ve covered what is shōchū, let’s move on to the all-important question: how do you drink shōchū? Just as there are many different types of shōchū, there are lots of ways in which you can enjoy it.

The best choice will depend on the type of shōchū you’re drinking, and your personal preferences. So try them all and see which you prefer! Browse our selection of shochu on the byFood gourmet market.

  • Neat – this enables you to experience the full flavor and aroma of the shōchū, and is especially recommended for honkaku shōchū. However, like any spirit, drinking it this way can be a bit intense for beginners
  • On the rocks – having shōchū over ice keeps it cool without diluting the drink too much. However, this method does slightly lessen the aroma of your shōchū
  • Mizuwari (with water) – adding a splash of water to your shōchū softens the drink a little without losing its flavor, making it a good choice for newbies. It’s also one of the most popular ways to enjoy shōchū in Japan
  • Oyuwari (with warm water) – ideal for cold weather, having shōchū with hot water helps to accentuate some of the drink’s taste and fragrance. For the best flavor, put the warm water in your cup first and then add the shōchū, so they mix naturally
  • In a cocktail – korui shōchū is a fantastic base for cocktails, as its taste and aroma are not overpowering. For example, fruity and refreshing chūhai (shōchū highballs made with flavored carbonated water) are very popular in Japan

So, what is shōchū? A unique distilled spirit that you’re definitely going to want to try when you visit Japan! Which variety will you sample first?

We strive to be as accurate as possible and keep up with the changing landscape of Japan's food and travel industries. If you spot any inaccuracies, please send a report.
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Ashley Owen
Ashley is a freelance travel writer from the UK who spent the last two years living in Japan, and is about to embark on her next adventure to New Zealand. She's always on the lookout for exciting new vegan treats wherever she goes!
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