Shochu: Is the Japanese spirit lost in translation?

Kate Malczewski

Kate Malczewski

14 April 2020

The long read: BrewDog may have just launched a shochu of its own, but with many different styles, flavour profiles, serving methods and more, the Japanese spirit still has its work cut out to become a category on the rise

So often when we write about specific spirits categories it’s because that drink is ‘on the rise’. These stories are the bread and butter of many drinks writers, including yours truly. Identify a trend, seek out the innovative, pioneering, new generation of mavericks and let the clichés do the work.

The hook for an exploration of shochu isn’t so straightforward. Its long history, deep regional identities and dedication to tradition disqualify the innovation angle. And though it’s the most popular spirit in its home country, the Japanese drink is hardly ‘on the rise’ in the UK. Exports of shochu by volume from Japan to the UK peaked at 13,810l in 2010, with no significant growth since then – in fact, they have hovered around 10,700l since 2017. (As a point of comparison, saké exports in 2018 neared 300,000l.)

Some of the biggest challenges shochu faces in the UK are consumer confusion – it’s frequently mixed up with the Korean spirit, soju, and the brewed Japanese beverage, saké

‘Shochu is a unique drink,’ says Toshio Ueno, an award-winning shochu and saké educator (he is actually a Master of Saké) who has worked at US-based Japanese drinks distributor, Mutual Trading Company, for nearly 20 years. ‘It is hard for non-Japanese people to understand. We’re trying to promote it more in non-Asian markets but it’s still in the developing stage.’

LAYING THE FOUNDATIONS

Some of the biggest challenges shochu faces in the UK are consumer confusion – it’s frequently mixed up with the Korean spirit, soju, and the brewed Japanese beverage, saké – and, frankly, consumers’ lack of shochu knowledge altogether.

There’s quite a lot of information to absorb in order to begin to grasp the category. First of all, there are two distinct types of shochu: korui, a vodka-like neutral spirit that is column distilled to 96% abv and bottled at no more than 36% abv; and honkaku, a spirit fermented with koji and single pot distilled to around 25% abv, so that it retains all the character of the materials used to produce it.

Then there’s the fact that honkaku shochu can be made from rice, barley, sweet potato, buckwheat, brown sugar, green bell pepper, sesame seeds, dates and more. Each of these raw ingredients results in a flavour profile all of its own.

At her saké bar Moto in Covent Garden, Erika Haigh stocks a sweet potato shochu that she imports directly from Kokubu Brewery in Japan’s Kagoshima Prefecture. ‘It has terroir,’ she says. ‘You taste this one and immediately it evokes the style of the region.’

To her point, some honkaku shochus even have designated Geographical Indications protected by the World Trade Organization, the same as scotch whisky and Kentish Ale. All this, and we haven’t even mentioned awamori, a type of honkaku shochu made in Okinawa from long-grained Thai rice which is a world unto itself; the many ways shochu is typically served, among them with hot or cold water and in highballs; or the fact that certain honkaku shochus are bottled genshu, or undiluted, so that they have a higher abv. 

This information hasn’t always been easy to come by. In the past, there were few resources written in English that explained the finer points of shochu styles and production. Fortunately, there’s now the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET)’s Level Three Award in Spirits, which contains a whole chapter on the stuff, and books such as Christopher Pellegrini’s The Shochu Handbook. It’s certainly a start.

BALANCING ACT

Here’s something you’d never read in an article on shochu’s ‘big break’: few UK bars stock shochu at all. Even fewer offer a selection that allows for the comparison of different styles and showcases what the spirit can do in cocktails. One of the handful of venues with a well-stocked shochu collection is the aptly named Shochu Lounge, tucked below the Japanese restaurant Roka in London.

Simon Freeth, Roka’s global bar manager, sees cocktails as key to shochu’s future in the UK. ‘The easiest way to introduce it to a customer is to have it inside a cocktail with familiar flavours,’ he explains. The drinks at Shochu Lounge typically use honkaku shochu as a modifier, since the bartenders there have found that different styles work well when paired with specific higher-abv spirits.

For instance, Freeth says that ‘sweet potato shochu holds up nicely against a darker spirit’. Meanwhile, honkaku shochus that are more delicate, such as the Toyonaga Honkaku Rice Shochu used in the bar’s Kuma Martini ‘need to be treated really carefully, because they can be overpowered’. In order to preserve the shochu’s flavour in the drink, Freeth amplifies the abv with rice vodka, then balances it out with a bit of dry sherry.

Considering the movement towards lower-abv drinks in the UK, says Antony Moss MW, the lightness of honkaku shochu – typically 25%-30% abv – works to its advantage in cocktails.

Moss is the director of strategic planning at WSET and wrote the chapter on shochu for the aforementioned level three spirits course.

‘With honkaku styles, you can make a very tasty cocktail that is a little bit lighter in alcohol than would be typical. That’s the specific win with shochu – lots of flavour without huge amounts of alcohol.’

However, the delicate nature of many shochus means that its use in cocktails is a point of contention for some producers. ‘We’re aiming at bartenders trying to utilise shochu as a cocktail ingredient, but it’s not really how we want it,’ remarks Ueno, expressing the views of the shochu makers his company represents. ‘Shochu is a unique drink. It should be enjoyed on its own or with dilution.’

The producers’ intentions aren’t lost on Freeth and his team at Shochu Lounge, who often serve their shochus neat or over ice. The same goes for Haigh at Moto. ‘We do it all,’ she says. ‘Served neat, with cold or hot water, with oolong tea, with tonic for a highball and in classic cocktails.’

Her aim is one shared by the bartenders at Shochu Lounge, and it’s a message that shochu producers can support: ‘We want to show that shochu is as versatile as you can get.’

A STORY IN PROGRESS

Shochu is a unique drink and should be enjoyed on its own or with dilution

Toshio Ueno

To become a category on the rise, shochu has its work cut out. From its many different styles, to its traditional serves, to its relatively low abvs, there’s a lot that makes it unusual to western drinkers. These same characteristics are also what make shochu such an exciting prospect (it’s an opportunity that Scottish craft brewer BrewDog has recognised, with the company’s distilling arm launching its own shochu, Inugami).

‘If you think of trends in the industry today that so many people are championing, like low abv and working with ingredients sourced locally, shochu makers have been doing those things for hundreds of years,’ comments Freeth. 

Confusion and education, creativity and compromise, remaining static and stepping forward – the story of shochu in the UK is about development and persistence. It’s less sexy than the chronicles of spirits categories with pioneering mavericks and inspiring comebacks, but the drinker definitely wins in the end.

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