What Makes Sake and Shochu Different?

To an outsider, Japanese culture can be confusing, and due to their similar-sounding names and lack of understanding outside of Japan, nihonshu (otherwise known as sake or seichu) is often confused with shochu, a completely different drink altogether. To make matters even more confusing, shochu is commonly referred to as “sake” in shochu’s birthplace in Kyushu, with sake just being the Japanese word for alcohol. While different, both are an important part of Japanese cuisine with an enormous range of sakes and shochus to choose from. There’s just as much difference between sake and shochu as there is between beer and brandy, both in terms of strength and production.

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What are the processes of brewing sake and shochu?

A major distinction between sake and shochu is in how they’re produced. Putting it very simply, sake is fermented like wine and shochu are distilled like brandy. This is shown in shochu’s name, literally meaning “burned liquor” (焼酎), as does soju in Korea and shaojiu in China. Unlike sake, which is made exclusively from rice, shochu can be made from a wide range of raw ingredients, including, but not limited to, sweet potato, barley, and rice. While sake is left to ferment in a mash thanks to the use of koji, yeast, and water, shochu is distilled, creating stronger alcohol. Like sake, shochu differs in quality depending on a wide range of factors, but most premium shochus (known as honkaku shochu) are made as a result of a traditional single distillation process as opposed to the multiple distillation processes that were introduced through machinery brought in by the British.

The single distillation process means that more of the flavors of the raw material can be tasted, while multiple-distilled shochu is clearer and stronger and lacks these distinct flavors. Rice shochu (komejochu) has a distinctive, thick taste, and is made principally in areas that are too warm for sake production. Awamori, which is the Okinawan equivalent of shochu, and to which shochu owes its inspiration, is also made from rice following a distinct single fermentation and distillation process. Barley shochu (mugishochu) can be cask-aged with flavors reminiscent of a fine single malt Scotch. Sweet potato shochu (imjochu) is widely popular in Kyushu, with a distinctive nose and taste, while soba shuchu is somewhat milder.

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The production method is different to sake production but still uses koji and fermentation. The most popular single distillation process is the moromitori shochu method. A raw material (usually rice or barley) is initially steeped in water. Then, like with sake, koji is introduced to break down the starch molecules. It is then fermented for about a week, and water is later added so it ferments for a second time. It is at this point that the steamed main ingredient is added, which will give the shochu its distinctive flavor. This is then distilled to create the finished product. Thanks to this flexible process, a wide range of flavors can be introduced, making it a hugely versatile spirit.

Why are they different from each other?

A principal reason for the difference between sake and shochu is in their method of production, and the reason for this is that cooler areas are more conducive to sake production, meaning that warmer areas of Japan in the south traditionally favored shochu over sake. While the sake production technique was first introduced via China, shochu production knowledge came much later along the Silk Road, starting in the Middle East, then India, then South East Asia, the Ryukyu Kingdom (modern-day Okinawa) and then Japan in the 16th century. There are cases of early Christian missionaries in Japan noting the popularity of this so-called “Japanese arak”. The distillation process means that shochu is stronger, with most hovering at around the 25% mark and going as high as 45%, while undiluted sake tends to be around 18% alcohol.

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Sake and shochu are also served in many different ways. Shochu can be enjoyed neat, on the rocks, mixed with hot water or oolong tea, or in cocktails. Chuhai (an abbreviation of shochu highball) are popular cocktails, often canned, that mix relatively strong multiple-distilled shochu with carbonated water and fruit juice. On its own, shochu varies enormously in flavor, and is far less fruity than sake, with more of an earthy finish. However, the taste depends on the raw ingredient used in the shochu and it can be clearly tasted in single-distilled honkaku shochu. While sake is more well-known outside of Japan, shochu is more popular within Japan and overtook sake consumption in 2003 thanks to being seen as a trendy, healthy alcoholic drink. The two are both fascinating drinks with complex flavors and a rich history and are both perfect for a number of different occasions.

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