Shōchū (焼 酎) is considered the traditional Japanese spirit. While the brewed sake as a “rice wine” is endemic to the lower alcohol ranges and the Umeshu is a Shōchū-based liqueur, the Shōchū itself is the pure, genuine-Japanese spirit drink. Sometimes it is also called “Japanese vodka”, which is not really a viable term. But what exactly is the Japanese spirit Shōchū? And how does Shochu taste? (provided test products*)
These and other questions I would like to once again pursue today. I’m saying “once again” because I have already outlined at least the basic principles of the Shōchū production in my article about three different Choya Umeshus. Nonetheless, I would like to go a bit more into detail than I did in that particular article. However, as it was also the case with sake (more on that in my article on the Gekkeikan Nouvelle Tokubetsu Honjozo), I’m not claiming to be able to deliver an encyclopaedic treatment of the subject as this would go beyond the scope.
Shōchū is – that much I already did explain in the above mentioned article – a spirit drink, which can be made from different starch-containing basic materials. These include rice, barley, sweet potatoes, but also sugar cane, chestnuts, buckwheat (from which the Japanese also produce their very healthy soba noodles) and indeed there is also a producer who offers a Shōchū made from milk. The name translates as “burned liquor” and was ultimately brought to Japan from the Chinese or Korean cultural area. It is not possible to exactly date when it was first manufactured in Japan under the name of Shōchū. The cradle and at the same time the most important production site of the Japanese Shōchū lies in the south of the island of Kyūshū in the port city of Kagoshima. The earliest records of Shōchū date back to the 16th century and were written down by the Spanish Jesuit Francisco de Xavier, who described Shōchū as some kind of Japanese “Arak made from rice” while also pointing out that he had never seen a drunken and weaving Japanese man since they immediately go to bed “once inebriated“.
During the Shōchū production, the basic resource is treated with a special white Kōji mold and fermented over a period of several weeks. Depending on the Shōchū type, the product is then distilled one or more times and afterwards matured (usually in steel tanks, but it is also possible to mature in wooden barrels). Multiple distilled Shōchūs are also referred to as kōrui shōchū (焼 酎 甲類) or class A-Shōchū, while the singly distilled ones are called otsurui shōchū (焼 酎 乙類) or class B-Shōchūs. Don’t be irritated by the names class A and class B because (at least for me and presumably for most cocktail enthusiasts) the clearly more interesting Shōchū is the one from class B. With each distillation process certain flavor-bearing substances are lost and so it is little surprising that most kōrui shōchūs are completely odorless and tasteless. Although this variety is often “recommended” for the use in cocktails – but as we can find it very often, if something is recommended for cocktails, it is unfortunately in fact exactly the opposite (unless you drink only for the sake of getting drunk and don’t care about any depth of taste). The otsurui shōchūs, on the other hand, retain more of their own character which began in the fermentation process and which is based on the raw material used.
So the name “Japanese vodka” makes a certain sense for the class A-Shōchūs, but finally it does not contain enough alcohol. While at least the European Union calls for a minimum alcoholic strength of 37.5% ABV for vodka, the classical alcoholic strength of a Shōchū lies at 25% ABV. (But there are also much stronger ones, 35% vol. is also quite common, some varities reach up 43% ABV – here we would have to discuss the vodka thing again).
The two bottles which I would like to introduce and review here today accordingly both correspond to the class B Shōchūs. They listen to the names Tokiwa Kome and Tokiwa Mugi and were made from rice and from barley. They come from the Sake brewery and distillery Ninki Inc. in the city of Nihonmatsu. Both have the classical alcohol content of 25% ABV and come in simple but beautiful frosted glass bottles.
The Tokiwa Mugi Barley-Shōchū can look back on a maturation period of three years after the distillation (in steel tanks, I guess), while I could not find out anything about the exact time of maturity of the Tokiwa Kome (but I assume that it is quite similar, maybe a bit shorter).
But now to the actual exciting part, the Tasting Notes!
Tasting Notes „Tokiwa Kome Shōchū“:
Aroma: This is indeed a very light and subtle spirit. Nonetheless the product is immediately present with a special note that cannot deny its proximity to sake. However, this typical flavor of slightly acidified rice with its dry fragrance reminiscent of Fino Sherries is much lighter here than it is with sake. You can’t really speak of a sour overall smell, there is rather a fine sweetness to it, which is reminiscent of sweetened curd and – I dare not say it – actually reminds a little bit of some (better) vodkas. The alcohol is basically not noticeable (that would be a bad sign at such an ABV).
Taste: very fine and delicate, the Tokiwa Kome unfolds its slightly flowery and sweetish earthy notes, on the tongue. After some time there are increasing nuances of rice. Also a subtle, grassy note comes through. The alcohol is wonderfully soft and there is no sharpness at all. A very delicate and filigree spirit that I definitely like.
Finish: dry with notes of sweet grass and wild rice
Tasting Notes “Tokiwa Mugi Shōchū”:
Aroma: This one is clearly the more aromatic of today’s two Shōchūs, which on the one hand is due to the barley as the genuinely stronger starting grain, but certainly also the presumably longer maturation period. While the Tokiwa Kome is a representative of the very fine and subtle spirits segment that will probably perform best in cocktail recipes with a very fine balance of flavors, the Tokiwa Mugi will probably be able to compete against other, stronger ingredients. A clear, spicy barley character emerges, as it is peculiar to many Moonshine whiskeys. Also I feel somewhat reminded of the VOR Icelandic Gin. Behind this first “barley momentum” hides a fine and sweet vanilla, breakfast cereals, then some white pepper and actually very fine, spicy anise. Contrary to the labeling, this Shōchū reminds me far less of a vodka than the Tokiwa Kome. But they both please me in their own way.
Taste: The palate confirms what the nose foretold: this Shōchū offers a more distinguished, slightly spicy character with fine roasted aromas, sweetish barley, associations of milk rice and a very fine herbal infusion.
Finish: dry with notes of barley and rice waffles
Buying sources: Both Shōchūs are available at the Berlin Sake-Kontor.
*The fact that this product has been sent to me free of charge for editorial purposes does not – in any way – imply any influence on the content of this article or my rating. On the contrary, it is always an indispensable condition for me to be able to review without any external influence.