In the 11th episode of the Japan Distilled podcast, your hosts Christopher Pellegrini & Stephen Lyman tackle their most controversial topic yet: shochu vs. soju. One made in Japan (shochu) and one made in Korea (soju). A previous shochu vs. soju post on kanpai.us ended up garnering the most visits and more comments than usual, many defending soju. Well, we are here to set the record straight.
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. Christopher lived in South Korea and is intimately familiar with this similarly named drink. Stephen usually regrets trying it one more time.
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.
Back when we started promoting shochu and awamori overseas in the late-aughts to early 20-teens, when we would ask, “Have you ever tried shochu?” 9 times out of 10, the answer was, “Yes, at a Korean restaurant.”
Shochu and soju sound very similar to western ears and even more confusingly, they actually mean the same thing in their respective languages: burned liquor.
This, of course, refers to the traditional use of fire in distillation, which is absent from most brewed beverage traditions, which were developed before distilled spirits became a thing.
The concern regarding naming was further confused by Korean American lobbying efforts in the US, which was successful in getting “soju” classified as a low proof beverage, allowing it to be sold on a “soft liquor” (beer, wine, sake) rather than “hard liquor” (spirits) license in several US states, most notably California.
Japanese shochu makers, seeing an opportunity (California is a huge market on its own), started slapping soju on shochu export labels. Enter: consumer confusion.
Shochu vs. Soju Basics
Region: can be made anywhere in Japan, but rice from Kumamoto, barley from Iki Island, sweet potato from Kagsohima, and kokuto sugar from Amami Island are protected.
Ingredients: rice, barley, sweet potato, buckwheat, kokuto sugar, and approximately 45 other grains, tubers, vegetables, and aromatics allowed. Non-approved ingredients prohibited for honkaku (authentic) designation.
Fermentation: koji starter fermentation required.
Distillation: pot distillation required.
Additives: water and time. No other additives permitted for authentic designation. Small amounts of sugar allowed, but must be disclosed for otsurui (single distilled) shochu.
Region: can be made anywhere in Korea, but Andong soju can only be made in Andong City. This is marketed as a traditional soju, though there are no rules around production.
Ingredients: anything goes.
Fermentation: anything goes.
Distillation: anything goes.
Additives: common. Typically natural or chemical sweeteners, acids, other flavorings.
As you can see, these are very different products in their production philosophy.
- Relatively low ABV among spirits so goes well with food
- Made in Asia
- Sound similar
Q: In the head to head battle of shochu vs. soju, who wins?
A: Depends on what you are eating.
**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.