Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association | JSS
Shochu is made of koji and one of many base ingredients.
The character of shochu depends on the selected base ingredient. There are over 50 legally approved base ingredients. However, the most commonly used are sweet potatoes, barley, rice, brown sugar, and buckwheat.
There are over 40 varieties of sweet potatoes used in shochu production. These include both commonly eaten varieties and those bred specifically for shochu making. Sweet potato varieties used for shochu can be split into four categories based on color: yellow, white, purple, and orange. The variety of the sweet potato used influences the overall flavor of the shochu. For more on the different varieties and flavor of sweet potato shochu, read here.
Sweet potato shochu, or imo shochu in Japanese, traditionally has the distinct aroma of steamed sweet potatoes. It has a round taste with a hint of sweetness. In addition, depending on the variety of the sweet potato and the distillation method, it can also taste light and fruity. For example, Joy White, which is a white variety developed specifically for shochu making, produces a light citrus flavored product. Beniazuma, an orange variety called benihayato, produces a carrot-like flavor. For more on the different varieties and flavors of sweet potato shochu, read here.
Kagoshima, Miyazaki, and the Tokyo Islands are the main production areas of sweet potato shochu.. Sweet potatoes are cultivated all over Japan, however, Kagoshima and Miyazaki lead the production of sweet potatoes used in shochu making. Naturally, these two prefectures are also the leading producers of sweet potato shochu. In addition, Kagoshima is GI-designated for their “Satsuma Shochu.”
Yellow Sweet Potatoes
White Sweet Potatoes
Purple Sweet Potatoes
Orange Sweet Potatoes
The main type of barley used for shochu production is two-row barley, which is also used in making beer and malt whiskey. Two-row barley is the preferred variety due to its large kernels, high starch content, and low protein levels. However, other types, such as six-row barley and hulless barley, are also used in some products. Barley used for shochu includes both domestic harvests and harvests imported from Australia.
Barley shochu has a hint of barley-like aroma and a mellow sweet taste. Depending on the distillation method, barley shochu has a wide range on the flavor spectrum, from light to rich. Atmospheric pressure distillation brings out a nutty and roasted barley-like flavor that results in a product with a rich flavor. On the other hand, reduced pressure distillation produces a fragrant, light, and refreshing flavor.
While barley shochu is produced across the country, Iki island and Oita Prefecture are the most significant producers. Iki Island barley shochu is GI-designated and also known to many as the “birthplace of barley shochu.” Oita Prefecture is known for its 100% barley shochu.
Rice serves as a base ingredient for awamori, and rice shochu. It also plays a role as the basis for koji in several types of shochu. There are mainly two types of rice used in shochu: japonica rice and indica rice, along with their subvarieties. Japonica rice is short, round-grained, and sticky. It is also a popular table rice variety grown and eaten across Japan. Indica rice is characterized by thin, long grains. It is primarily grown outside of Japan and imported from countries like Thailand.
In addition, sakekasu (sake lees) is a byproduct of sake, and therefore, is originally made of rice as well.
The flavor profile of rice shochu changes significantly by the distillation method. Atmospheric distillation produces a fragrant and full-flavored shochu that is abundant in umami with a round taste. On the other hand, reduced pressure distillation produces a lighter and slightly fruitier flavor. In addition, aged awamori, or “kusu,” often has a vanilla-like flavor, which is derived from components in indica rice.
Rice shochu is produced across Japan, with two regions that have been GI-designated. Kuma Shochu is a rice shochu made using local ingredients in the Kuma region in southern Kumamoto prefecture. Ryukyu Awamori is an awamori produced in Okinawa Prefecture that is made with indica rice and black koji mold.
Brown sugar is a product of sugar cane. Sugar cane is grown on several islands in southern Japan. However, due to legal reasons, brown sugar shochu can only come from the Amami Islands of Kagoshima Prefecture.To make brown sugar used in shochu, sugar cane juice is boiled down to concentrated syrup, then cooled to solidify. Unlike in the conventional sugar refining process, crystalized sugar and the syrup are never separated.
Brown sugar shochu is light and refreshing with a hint of sweetness despite the little amount of sugar content actually in the drink.
The Amami Islands of Kagoshima Prefecture is the only region that can legally produce brown sugar shochu in Japan. The history of how the Amami Islands became the only production area of this type of shochu is slightly complicated. For those who are interested, the full story can be found here.
Sugarcane Harvesting Season: February
Main Shochu Production Area:
Amami Islands of Kagoshima Prefecture
Buckwheat is a staple crop grown in several places across Japan. It is especially prominent in cooler climates that are not ideal for rice production. For most of its long history, buckwheat did not see much use outside of daily consumption as table food. It was not until the 1970s that it first became a base ingredient for shochu.
Buckwheat shochu is light and smooth with a hint of sweetness and depth in flavor. In addition to the standard method of drinking, some soba establishments serve it mixed with the hot water used to boil the soba noodles at the restaurant. It can also be mixed with soba soup or sauce.
Buckwheat shochu is mainly produced in the buckwheat production areas of Japan. The method to produce buckwheat shochu was developed by a distillery in Miyazaki Prefecture during the 1970s. In addition to Miyazaki, Nagano is also known for buckwheat noodles, and for buckwheat shochu production as well.
Buckwheat Harvesting Season: September to October
Main Shochu Production Area:
Miyazaki, Nagano, Other Parts of Japan
Koji is absolutely essential in shochu production and usually made of rice or barley.
Koji is koji mold cultivated on steamed rice, barley, or other ingredients. Shochu production uses a wide variety of koji due to the impressive diversity of both koji mold and koji ingredients.
Three types of koji mold are used in shochu production: white, black, and yellow. The most commonly used variety is white koji mold, while black koji is the variety used for awamori as well as some products of other types of shochu. Yellow koji mold is less common in shochu production due to the amount of care it requires for use in warm climates.
White koji mold creates a light type, whereas, black koji mold produces a shochu with a fuller flavor. Yellow koji mold adds fruitiness to the flavor.
For more information about koji, read here.