In the 10th episode of the Japan Distilled podcast, your hosts Christopher Pellegrini & Stephen Lyman continue with part 2 of a 3 part series to clear up multiple misconceptions about Japanese shochu. In this episode we explain the differences between Japanese sake and shochu (and awamori). Both of these drinks traditions have a long history and were officially designated as the national liquors of Japan in 2012. They are both uniquely Japanese due to some key similarities, but their key differences make them very different in how we enjoy them.
Mixing and Editing: Rich Pav (https://www.uncannyjapan.com/)
CHRISTOPHER PELLEGRINI Vermont born and bred, long-time Tokyo resident and author of The Shochu Handbook, Christopher learned about delicious fermentations as a brewer at Otter Creek (Middlebury, VT). He now spends most of his waking hours convincing strangers that shochu and awamori are unlike anything they’ve ever tried before.
STEPHEN LYMAN discovered Japan’s indigenous spirits at an izakaya in New York City. He was so enthralled that he now lives in Japan and works in a tiny craft shochu distillery every autumn. His first book, The Complete Guide to Japanese Drinks, was nominated for a 2020 James Beard Award.
We are both certified sake and shochu professionals. While we generally prefer distilled spirits, a good sake warms the cockles of our hearts.
If you have any comments or questions about this episode of Japan Distilled, please reach out to Stephen or Christopher via Twitter. We would love to hear from you.
Sake and shochu packaging can be deceptively similar both in Japan and overseas. Without the ability to read kanji, close inspection of other elements on the labels becomes vital.
The easiest telltale sign is the alcohol percentage (assuming its written in roman numerals, which is usually the case). Shochu is usually bottled at 25% or higher so if you can find that on the label, you can be confident you are looking at shochu or awamori. Sake is usually under 20% so again if you find those numbers, you are probably looking at sake. However, 20% becomes problematic since both are sometimes bottled at 20% and the legal drinking age is 20 so in those instances it becomes harder to discern.
A few key kanji:
日本酒 (nihonshu) or 清酒 (seishu) – seishu is the official legal name of sake so that must appear on labels. However, on bar or restaurant menus you will more often seen nihonshu written.
焼酎 (shochu) or 本格焼酎 (honkaku shochu) – honkaku shochu is the good stuff as we discussed in the last episode. Other styles will have shochu somewhere on the label even if honkaku is missing.
２０歳 (ni-ju sai) – thi is how “20 years old” will be written on a warning statement so you know this is a false angle to discover what you are looking at.
度 (do) – this is the counter for alcohol percentage so if you see 25度 you are holding a 25% ABV drink (very likely shochu).
Sometimes the ABV will be written in kanji as well so you need to know your counters.
1 = 一
2 = 二
4 = 四
5 = 五
6 = 六
7 = 七
8 = 八
9 = 九
10 = 十
Counting is then done by adding up these characters.
十二 = 12
二十 = 20
二十五 = 25
It takes some time to get used to this counting style, but once you do you can start to identify the alcohol percentage and other numbers on labels pretty easily.
Ingredients: water, rice, koji, yeast, ±brewer’s alcohol, and either commercial lactic acid or lactic acid bacteria.
Production Steps (simplified): Polish rice, wash rice, steam rice, propagate koji, shubo yeast starter, main fermentation, ±add brewer’s alcohol, press, filter, age, ±dilute, and bottle. Pasteurization is often done after filtering and/or after bottling.
Ingredients: water, koji, yeast, ±rice, ±barley, ±sweet potato, ±kokuto sugar, ±buckwheat, ±45 other possible approved ingredients.
Production Steps (simplified): wash rice (or barley, soba, or sweet potato), steam rice (or barley, soba, or sweet potato), propagate koji, first fermentation (shubo), steam or roast main ingredients (e.g., more rice, barley, soba, sweet potato, etc.), main fermentation, ±third fermentation with aromatic ingredient, distill, age, filter, ±dilute, filter, bottle. shochu referred to any distilled spirit even after introduction of the column still.
- Sake and shochu rely on koji for saccharification of starches during fermentation.
- Sake and shochu rely on multiple parallel fermentation with yeast and koji simultaneously active during the same fermentation process.
- Sake and shochu rely on Japanese craftsmanship for premium category products.
- Sake is brewed and then bottled while shochu is brewed, distilled, and then bottled.
- Sake can only legally be made with rice as a starch source. Shochu has about 50 approved ingredients depending on how you count them.
- Shochu is almost always between 20-44.9% alcohol while sake is typically between 13-20% alcohol.
**Errata: Stephen and Christopher’s weekly “Shochu’sday” livestream has migrated from Instagram to the Japan Distilled accounts on Facebook and YouTube. Please check those accounts for upcoming broadcasts.