As session beers are all the rage these days—who would ever have imagined we’d live in a world where “session IPA” is a thing—it seems only logical that the same concept could be applied to other alcohol categories. That’s why, if there were any justice in the world, Japanese shochu would be having its stateside moment right now as a session spirit.
The spirit usually falls in the modest (relative to distilled beverages) 20-25% ABV range (there are higher-strength exceptions), which means you can sip a few of these over the course of the evening and not totally regret it the morning after. It also means you can treat yourself to a flight reflecting the range of styles—and there are many—and get a pretty good shochu education in a single sitting. Even then, you’d still only be scratching the surface because there are more than 50 bases from which the spirit may be distilled, including such curiosities as tomatoes and milk. Those are in the minority; the likelihood you’ll encounter them is slim. There are, however, five core bases that are most commonly consumed—some more than others—and those are enough to give the drinker a sense of the flavor spectrum: mugi (barley), imo (sweet potatoes) kome (rice) soba (buckwheat) and kokuto (black—really dark brown—sugar). T
he vast majority of shochu production is concentrated on the southern main island of Kyushu, and certain areas within Kyushu specialize in a particular style (for instance, Kagoshima Prefecture is known for imo; Kumamoto Prefecture for kome). One ingredient that’s common among all shochu styles (and to sake, as well) is koji, a rice mold that converts the fermentable bases into the sugars that the yeast will turn into alcohol. There are three basic types of koji: black, white and yellow. Black is the least refined and imparts much more robust earthiness. White is used for mellower, more delicate offerings and yellow is noted for its floral, aromatic influences.
The method of consumption can enhance shochu’s session-worthiness. I tend to gravitate toward “on the rocks,” but many also consume it mizuwari (with water) or oyuwari (with hot water). It’s usually a 50-50 water-to-shochu ratio, which dilutes it to the point where you’re essentially drinking a beverage that’s around 12% ABV, about the equivalent of a glass of wine. Though I highly recommend a trip through Kyushu to sample shochu at the source, there are far less bank-breaking ways to do it close to home. Brands representing the big five styles are available in the U.S., so just find an izakaya or head to a well-stocked liquor store.
5 TO TRY
Satsuma Shiranami and Kuro Shiranami (imo)
Sweet potato shochu is the runaway favorite style in Japan and the distillery Satsuma Shuzo produces what many would consider the quintessential imo shochu. A good exercise to get a sense of the role koji plays would be to taste Satsuma Shiranami, which uses white koji, alongside Kuro Shiranami, which uses black koji. Satsuma Shiranami’s subtly sweet and toasty elements come to thefore. With Kuro Shiranami there are earthier, more rough-around-the-edges elements that faintly recall the sensation of biting into a just-harvested potato.
Many soba shochus blend buckwheat with other grains like rice and/or barley. Not Towari. This is 100 percent soba. Every time I drink it, it evokes a bowl of pan-fried noodles topped with fire-roasted peanuts and a side of Japanese pickles.
Given their barley base, mugi shochus tend to be an easier sell for whiskey fans looking for something a bit more sessionable. It’s aged for a year in ceramic pots, so there’s no woody, barrel influence characteristic of whiskey. Flavor-wise, think of it as a good friend: a little bit sweet and a little bit nutty.
I like to think of the unfiltered Kawabe, from Kumamoto Prefecture’s Sengetsu Shuzo, as a good bridge from sake. Aside from being made from rice, the two share common fruity elements—most notably bananalike notes, not unlike the ones you’d get out of a good hefeweizen.
Given their common sugarcane lineage, kokuto shochus might appeal to rum drinkers. Amami presents a considerably more assertive molasses flavor (flavor intensity sets black sugar apart from what we know as brown sugar), with a moderately sweet finish.