Welcome to Kyushu: The Shochu Kingdom
By Stephen Lyman
If you walk into an izakaya in Kyushu, especially southern Kyushu, and order sake, you’re very likely getting shochu (pronounced ‘show-chew’), which is the traditional local alcohol. “Sake” means “alcohol” in Japanese – what we think of as sake is officially called seishu (清酒) in Japan.
Note: To find shochu look for 焼酎– all of the kanji in this article is intended to help you identify information on menus and those fascinating, but inscrutable Japanese domestic market labels.
Seishu is traditionally made in winter and Kyushu is warm most of the year. Before air conditioning and refrigeration, seishu made in Kyushu just wasn’t usually very good. So the locals turned to distillation to make their booze.
A (very) Brief History Lesson
As you may know, distillation is the process of extracting alcohol from a fermented liquid. The origins of distillation trace back to ancient alchemists in the Middle East who extracted the “spirit” from wine. Centuries passed before these distilled “spirits” were consumed as beverages. Early uses were restricted to cleansers and medical tinctures. This is likely because improperly distilled spirits can be lethal. Nevertheless, distilling technology spread and by the 9th century Italian monks were making a safely drinkable spirit. The rise of international trade resulted in this technology spreading like wildfire, so much so that the first written mention of Scotch whisky, French apple brandy, and Japanese shochu all occurred within 70 years of each other between the late 15th and mid-16th centuries.
So why do we all know whisky and brandy, but almost nobody outside of Japan has heard of shochu? Well, when Europeans were exploring the world and trading with anyone who was willing, Japan closed to the outside and would remain so until the mid-1800s when Commodore Matthew Perry sailed his black ships into Tokyo Bay and demanded that the Japanese open to trade. Incidentally, he brought whiskey as a gift for the emperor. Word is none of it made it to the palace, but the samurai responsible had a great time. Unfortunately, when Perry left, the Japanese had no idea how to make the stuff so it wouldn’t be until the 1920s that Japan made its first real whisky.
Nevertheless, Japan had been making distilled spirits for at least 400 years before that. It’s believed distillation technology arrived via trade with either Korea or Okinawa (at that time an independent kingdom). While it will never be known for sure which route was the first, let’s go with the Korean route, because one of the key ingredients for making Okinawa’s traditional awamori did not arrive in Japan until long after shochu was being produced.
Styles of Shochu
Japanese shochu and Korean soju as made today are wildly different drinks despite the very similar names, both of which mean “burned alcohol” in their native tongues – a reference to the use of fire to heat the still to extract the alcohol as opposed to fermented beverages like beer, wine, or seishu in which the liquid is filtered out and then bottled without distillation. Fermented beverages usually have an alcohol percentage of between 3% (light beer) and 20% (undiluted seishu) while spirits typically range from about 18% (Korean soju) to 60% (barrel proof whiskies). Today Korean soju is an industrial spirit while the fermentation process for authentic shochu is nearly identical to seishu. In fact, the first shochu was likely distilled seishu just as brandy is distilled fruit wine. As such, shochu began life as a distilled rice spirit. In fact, “Kuma Shochu” (球磨焼酎), kome (米, rice) shochu produced in Kumamoto Prefecture, has a geographic indication from the World Trade Organization (just as Champagne is sparkling wine made in the Champagne region of France).
Today shochu can be made from more than 50 ingredients with the most popular style being imo (芋 or 甘藷, sweet potato) shochu from southern Kyushu. In fact, imo shochu (芋焼酎) from Kagoshima Prefecture, where the sweet potato was first introduced to Japan by a fisherman returning from Okinawa, also has WTO GI status for its “Satsuma Shochu” (さつま焼酎, Satsuma being the old name of the region). Second most popular is mugi (麦, barley) shochu, which is predominantly made in Fukuoka and Oita Prefectures, though “Iki Shochu” (壱岐焼酎) gained WTO GI status since Iki Island of Nagasaki Prefecture is the birthplace of the style. It seems local samurai were hard on local peasants for making rice shochu (rice was a taxable commodity in pre-modern Japan) so the locals switched to barley. Today just seven of Iki’s distilleries remain.
Two other popular styles are kokuto (黒糖, “black” sugar) shochu from the Amami Islands between Okinawa and Kyushu, and soba (蕎麦 or そば, buckwheat) shochu from Miyazaki Prefecture. Amami was essentially turned into a sugar plantation by the Satsuma Clan after it was taken from Okinawa in battle and today the local economy is largely sustained through protection of their shochu industry – 28 distilleries on the islands are the only place kokuto shochu can be made in Japan. Otherwise, it’s labeled and taxed as rum. Soba shochu was developed in the 1970s so it’s one of the most recent styles, but is usually quite light and refreshing. These 5 styles (kome, imo, mugi, kokuto, and soba) reflect 99% of the shochu market. The remaining ingredients (including mushrooms, seaweed, and milk – yes, milk) are just 1% of the market.
A final style worthy of mention is kasutori (粕取り) shochu, which is made from sake lees (酒粕) – the solids left over after sake production – much like Italian grappa is made from wine lees. These lees contain residual alcohol so they are distilled, which makes them safe for use as fertilizer for rice fields. Thus, the shochu lees fertilize the rice that is used to make the sake that results in the lees that make the shochu that fertilize the rice for next year’s sake. This is a common style in Fukuoka and Saga prefectures in northern Kyushu, which are well known for their sake production.
Shochu is fermented using a mold called koji (麹菌). This mold, usually grown on steamed rice or barley, converts starches in the grains to sugars so yeast can turn the sugars into alcohol. Almost all Japanese fermentation uses koji: soy sauce, miso, mirin, and seishu. Seishu is almost always made with yellow koji (黄麹), but that’s a very temperamental mold so shochu is usually made with white or black koji. Black koji (黒麹) is an ancient mold from Okinawa (the missing ingredient in that possible trade route) and white koji (白麹) is a recently discovered mutation. In shochu, yellow koji tends to impart floral aromas and flavors, black koji is earthy and deep, and white koji is sweet and neutral. This koji-propagated rice or barley is mixed with water and yeast to create a starter fermentation. After about a week, this start is mixed with the main ingredient and more water to make a second fermentation, which runs for about two weeks. By the end of this time the alcohol will have reached between 15% and 18%. After that, it’s off to the still.
Shochu is always distilled once in a pot still. Traditional atmospheric pot stills make rich, deeply flavored spirits while modern vacuum pot stills make a light, clean style. Shochu is usually filtered and diluted but sometimes not filtered (unfiltered is ‘muroka’ むろか) or not diluted (undiluted is ‘genshu’ 原酒). Finally, modern shochu is usually aged in a neutral vessel like an enamel tank, but is traditionally aged in clay pots, which adds a richness, and is sometimes also aged in oak barrels owing to the popularity of whisky in Japan. Shochu aged for at least three years, regardless of aging vessel, is called ‘koshu’ (古酒).
How to Enjoy Shochu
Today shochu is more popular in Japan than sake. It’s typically sold at 25% alcohol and due to the lower alcohol it is a very food friendly spirit. It’s usually served either on the rocks, mixed with cold water, mixed with hot water, or mixed with sparkling water. The soda and cold water styles are particularly refreshing in the summer heat while the hot water mix is a perfect winter warmer. Generally, richer styles go well on the rocks or with hot water, while lighter styles are best diluted with water or soda. Fruits can be added as garnishes to suit your fancy.
You’ll likely come across chu-hai, (shochu-highballs). These light, fizzy drinks are technically made with shochu, but it’s a kind of shochu made with a patent still, resulting in a neutral spirits much closer to vodka or Korean soju. It’s nearly flavorless, which is why it works well as a base for sparkling fruit cocktails. They can be quite refreshing, but the good stuff is known as authentic, or honkaku shochu (本格焼酎) – this is distilled once, made from an approved ingredient, and with nothing added after distillation other than water (to dilute the base spirit down to 25% alcohol) and time. This is where the truly interesting craft spirits live. To find very traditional styles, look for “handmade” (‘tezukuri’, 手作り) “made in clay pots” (‘kamejikomi’, 甕仕込み) or “aged in clay pots” (‘kamejukusei’, 甕熟成) on the labels.
A Handy Kanji Guide to Shochu
Japanese alcohol bottles can be beautiful and mysterious. In order to demystify domestic market labels and help you find interesting shochu, here are some common kanji you may find on bottles. This should help you find out if it’s authentic, the base ingredient, koji type (not always revealed), and the alcohol percentage.
Where to Buy
International airports throughout Japan have decent shochu selections and some very nice examples can be found if you know what you’re looking for. However, if you want some more in-depth shopping in and around Fukuoka, these are some of the best liquor shops around.
Satsuma Shochugura Takumi
A Satsuma and kokuto shochu specialty shop in Tenjin next door to the Hotel New Otani.
Address: 1-11-11 Watanabe-dori, Chuo-ku, Fukuoka
Closed: New Year’s
(Kagoshima Chuo Station) – one of the largest shochu selection in Kyushu. Maybe 1,000 brands at any one time.
Address: B1F Amu Plaza Kagoshima, 1-1 Chuo-machi, Kagoshima
Open: Mon. ~ Thu. 10:00~20:30, Fri. ~ Sun. & hol. 10:00~21:00
(Hakata Station and elsewhere) – Small, but very nice selection.
Address: 1F Hakata Deitos, 1-1 Hakataeki-chuogai, Hakata-ku, Fukuoka
(Yakuin, and a main shop near Minami-Fukuoka Station) – The Yakuin Stand includes a standing bar and a decent selection.
Address: 3-7-30 Yakuin, Chuo-ku, Fukuoka
Open: Store 12:00, Bar 16:00~21:00
Closed: Sun., hol. & last Mon.
A wide selection on display in an over-hundred-year-old building. Helpful staff too!
Address: 2-11-18 Haruyoshi, Chuo-ku, Fukuoka
Tel: 092-761-6027 (10:00~19:00)
Open: Mon. ~ Sat. 10:00~21:00, Sun. & hol. 11:00~18:00
Where to Drink
You may be traveling light and don’t want to carry bottles back, but you’d like to explore this local spirit. In that case, there are some excellent bars and restaurants worth visiting. Most izakaya will have shochu, but most only have a few main brands rather than a wide selection of interesting products (there are more than 5,000 brands from nearly 500 distilleries in Kyushu alone).
Shochu Bar Sunkujira
Selection of about 460 bottles, 70% of which are sourced directly from distilleries in Kagoshima.
Address: 2-3-33 Hirao, Chuo-ku, Fukuoka
Amami no Yuraidokoro Gokui (Daimyo)
This izakaya specializes in food from the Amami Islands and kokuto shochu. Japanese menu only, only Japanese spoken. Please go with someone who speaks Japanese. Smoking OK.
Address: 1F Etos Daimyo, 1-8-42 Daimyo, Chuo-ku, Fukuoka
Akatan Yobanashi (Daimyo)
This is a shochu-focused standing bar specializing in takoyaki (octopus balls). No English. Smoking OK.
Address: 1F Koto Bldg., 1-13-12 Daimyo, Chuo-ku, Fukuoka
Glocal Bar Vibes (Kumamoto)
If you happen to go down to Kumamoto City, this shochu-focused bar is owned by an English speaking bartender from Kagoshima. No Smoking.
Address: 3F Arita Bldg., 1-5-6 Shimo-dori, Chuo-ku, Kumamoto
Iki no Shima (Ropponmatsu)
This izakaya specializes in food and drink from Iki Island in Nagasaki, birthplace of barley shochu. No English. Smoking OK.
Address: 2-14-1 Ropponmatsu, Chuo-ku, Fukuoka
Satsuma Shochu Bar (Kagoshima Chuo Station)
If you make it to the last stop on the Shinkansen, you’ll find a shochu bar with more than 200 brands before exiting the ticket gate. No English. No Smoking.
Yoidana Togo (Otemon)
This Kagoshima-themed izakaya is run by a nice couple. A large shochu selection, but little English. Smoking OK.
Address: B1F OM Bldg., 3-4-22 Otemon, Chuo-ku, Fukuoka
Closed: Sun. & hol.
Yokaban NY (Akasaka)
A shochu-focused standing bar helmed by an English speaking guy from Kagoshima. No smoking inside (but outside seating with ashtrays).
Address: 2-4-5 Akasaka, Chuo-ku, Fukuoka
Open: Mon., Wed., & Thu. 13:00~20:00, Fri. & Sat. 13:00~24:00, Sun. 13:00~19:00
Stephen Lyman randomly stumbled into shochu at an izakaya in New York City in 2007 and his life has never been the same. Today he is based in Fukuoka, holds the title of Shochu Ambassador from the Japanese Government’s Cool Japan Project, manages the shochu-focused website www.kampai.us, and has written a book, The Complete Guide to Japanese Drinks [to be released October 1st (International Sake Day), but currently available for preorder on Amazon.com]. You can find him on Twitter or Instagram @shochu_danji. If you tweet at him he may just meet you out for a drink or three at Yokaban NY (full disclosure: he’s a partner in that business).