Highlighted Japanese IngredientHonkaku shochu

Rich in the flavors of its ingredients, honkaku shochu is based on traditional manufacturing methods

Among liquor, shochu is a distilled beverage just like whisky or brandy. Generally speaking, shochu comes in two types: pot-distilled shochu, which is based on traditional manufacturing methods, and continuously distilled shochu, which is based on comparatively new manufacturing methods that were developed during the Meiji Period. Among the various pot-distilled shochu types, those that use prescribed ingredients and that satisfy specific standards are referred to as "honkaku shochu." The Japanese government recognizes a total of about 50 different types of ingredients used in honkaku shochu, including not only rice, barley, sweet potatoes, buckwheat, and brown sugar, but also milk, matcha (powdered green tea), oolong tea, and even tomatoes.

Honkaku shochu has an ABV (alcohol by volume) of 45% or less. As a feature, if served on the rocks or mixed with hot water, one can enjoy the particular flavors of the ingredients. In addition, shochu that is indigenous and unique to Okinawa exclusively using rice koji that incorporates black koji mold and water is known as "awamori." Honkaku shochu is also suitable for cocktails. In recent years, cocktail competitions using honkaku shochu among bartenders have been taking place in bars at hotels that are frequently visited by guests from abroad to increase the awareness of shochu.

On the other hand, continuously distilled shochu that has less than 36% ABV has no particular taste and is suitable for mixing with soda water, lemon juice, and other soft drinks. In recent years, in addition to continuously distilled and pot-distilled shochu, "konwa shochu" has also started to make an appearance. This is a beverage that blends both of the above two types of shochu. Manufacturers have established product labeling standards to ensure that consumers are aware of the mixing rates and the raw materials being used.

Several theories on how shochu was introduced to Japan

Shochu was reportedly produced on the Chinese continent and in countries in the southern seas during the 13th or 14th century. There are several theories about how shochu made its way to Japan. Picking three convincing theories, the first is that shochu came to Ryukyu (present-day Okinawa Prefecture) from Siam (present-day Thailand), as Ryukyu was a trading hub in and around the 15th century. The second theory is that it came via countries in the southern seas. It is said that Japanese pirates known as wako advanced to the Korean peninsula, the coastline of the Chinese continent, and other places, and brought it back to Japan as a barter item at sea during the 14th or 15th century. The third theory is that it came via the Korean peninsula, by which, in the 15th century, shochu came from Korea and other countries via the Iki and Tsushima islands (both currently part of Nagasaki Prefecture) in the form of articles of trade.

Honkaku shochu has more than a 500-year history. Since ancient times, it has been part of life in Okinawa and Kyushu, with many stories about honkaku shochu orally passed on. At one point in time, preparing sake was considered a job for housewives. The person in charge of sake brewing is referred to in Japanese as a toji, as this word originated from the homonym, toji, which means "housewife."

Three types of koji molds with different flavors

Honkaku shochu is generally classified into two types. One is moromitori shochu, in which the main raw materials are prepared using koji and distilled in a pot still. The other is kasutori shochu, which uses sakekasu (sake cake)—which is distilled in a steaming basket-type still. Among the myriad of distilled alcoholic beverages, honkaku shochu is characterized by the use of koji and sakekasu.

In particular, koji is a Japanese traditionally fermented food material, garnering substantial attention even overseas these days, and koji molds to prepare koji have a function that transforms starch into glucose. The manufacturing process of moromitori shochu involves a process of mixing rice or barley with koji-kin (koji mold) to create moromi. Koji-kin has three types: kuro koji-kin (black koji mold), shiro koji-kin (white koji mold), and ki koji-kin (yellow koji mold). The flavor of each shochu changes depending on which koji-kin is used. The finished moromi is then fermented, matured, and distilled in a pot still. There are two methods of pot distillation. Atmospheric distillation is a long-established traditional method, where one can enjoy the original flavors of the ingredients. Decompressed distillation is a new manufacturing method, enabling distillation at low temperatures by decompressing the air pressure within the pot, thereby resulting in shochu with a light taste.

The more time that is spent on maturing shochu, the less irritating and milder it becomes. Different from distilled alcohol such as whisky or brandy, honkaku shochu, especially imo shochu (sweet potato shochu) can be enjoyed even when not matured for long periods. This is due to the fact that one of the umami ingredients—a high-grade fatty acid ethyl ester—gives it a mellow taste. In Japan, November 1st has been established as the "Day of Honkaku Shochu and Awamori," as brewing preparations start in August or September, and one can enjoy a new brew of the current year by in and around November 1st.

No sugar or purine body, less prone to hangovers

Honkaku shochu and awamori as distilled beverages have no sugar or purine body. When drinking imo shochu (sweet potato shochu), one can experience the slightly sweet taste of the sweet potato, but this sweetness is a mellow flavor of the potato. With only the alcohol and the flavor component of the raw material in play, it contains no sugar from the sweet potato.

Honkaku shochu also has a tendency to produce less of a hangover compared to other alcoholic drinks. The reason is that, during distillation, any unnecessary components are removed to enable the liver to better decompose the alcohol. In addition, when shochu components are absorbed into the blood vessels, they output an enzyme that can dissolve blood clots, and this characteristic is said to lead to the prevention of cerebral and myocardial infarctions. In addition, Minami-Nippon Shimbun (dated January 25, 2020) reported that kokuto shochu and imo shochu contain a material that has a function that is the same as the hormone that reduces aging. Please note that shochu is still alcohol and that overindulging could cause adverse effects, while remembering that moderate amounts of alcohol can be beneficial.

Globally recognized specialty brand from Kyushu/Okinawa

With the trend toward health consciousness, honkaku shochu enjoyed a popularity boom in the early 2000s. In FY2003, the total volume of shipments of shochu exceeded that of Japanese sake. The head offices of the top 50 companies in Japan in terms of sales are concentrated in Kyushu and Okinawa. Kagoshima Prefecture has 21 companies, i.e., the largest number of such companies, followed by Miyazaki Prefecture with five companies and Oita and Okinawa prefectures with four companies each (according to a 2018 survey by Teikoku Databank, Ltd.)

Japanese shochu is also exported. The largest importers are China, the U.S., and Taiwan (according to 2018 Trade Statistics of Japan by the Ministry of Finance.) "Iki shochu," "Kuma shochu," "Satsuma shochu," and "Ryukyu shochu," distilled in Kyushu and Okinawa, are subject to geographical indications, while also being recognized as global brands by the World Trade Organization (WTO), in the same manner as champagne or scotch. In Japan, the Japanese Patent Office aims to develop local brands. "Oita Mugishochu," "Miyazaki no Honkaku Shochu," "Amami Kokuto Shochu," and "Hakata Shochu," etc., are all recognized as regional collective trademarks.