New to Shochu? Beat the Curve with These Four Bottles

Shochu, a delicious and endlessly diverse low-proof spirit, is the new sake, whether or not stateside bars have caught on.

Chase Pellerin

By now you’ve probably heard: shochu is the new sake. Sure, it’s still taking a while for the stateside bar scene to truly catch on — a sake bar is a sake bar, so it’s not like they can just switch over — but that only gives you ample time to put yourself ahead of the curve.

For those of you who haven’t heard: shochu is a distilled spirit made from barley, sweet potatoes or rice (bottles made from each are dubbed, respectively, mugi, imo, and kome), though various other base ingredients can be used — anything from soba to sugar cane to sesame. Whereas sake, a rice wine, is fermented, shochu’s distilled nature lends itself to a wide variety of production methods. Triple distillation, as with most spirits, results in a higher-proof product appropriate for mixing, whereas more traditional single distillation brings bottle proofs to around 50, enjoyed straight, on the rocks or, as per tradition, cut 50/50 with hot water. And apart from the base ingredient and distillation, the vessel in which the shochu matures plays a big part in overall taste: steel tanks, clay pots and oak barrels all imbue the spirit with different flavor profiles.

What that means for you, the aspiring shochu connoisseur, is a wildly diverse drinking experience; you’ll taste shochus as pungent as Smirnoff and as vexingly complex as your rarest single malt. For now, acquaint yourself with the basics a select handful of more adventurous examples.

Additional editorial support provided by Susan Lee, Beverage Manager at NYC’s Morimoto.

Iichiko Silhouette Mugi Shochu

Best Barley Shochu: Iichiko is universally recognized as the go-to starter shochu. For this reason it’s widely available in stateside liquor stores. The spirit is single distilled from barley and blended with pure spring water. It’s a one-two punch that packs the bottle with grainy, sake-like notes and unparalleled smoothness, making it a worthy vodka replacement.

Learn More: Here

Jinkoo Imo Shochu

Best Sweet Potato Shochu: Sweet potato shochus tend to be off-putting to newcomers, contrary to what you might think (because sweet potatoes are delicious). Jinkoo gets it right and gives newbie drinkers what they’d expect: sweet herbal notes and a rich, buttery mouthfeel.

Learn More: Here

Kumejima’s Kumesen

Best Rice Shochu: For a crash course in the distinctions created by shochu’s various production methods and regions, try Kumejima’s Kumesen side by side with a pick like Yokaichi Kome. The former, a traditional Awamori — an Okinawan spirit made specifically from Thai long-grain indica rice — is savory and fatty, the latter more neutral, as is common for the kome style. For variety’s sake, you’ll want to go with the Kumejima.

Learn More: Here

Beniotome Sesame Shochu

Best for Branching Out: Once you’re accustomed to the basic flavors of shochu, start reaching for deeper cuts. Beniotome is a worthy first try: with a mash bill of 60 percent barley, 30 percent rice and 10 percent sesame, it’s a measured mix of common flavors, with that less common sesame component (indeed, it’s the only sesame shochu available in the US) adding a nutty sweetness distinct from what you’d find in more common chestnut-based shochus.

Learn More: Here

Keep Branching Out
Sudachi Chu: Distilled from molasses and Japanese citrus, Sudachi Chu should be mixed with club soda and lemon for a nice spin on the typically Grey Goose-based drink, says Morimoto’s Susan Lee.
Kitaya Shuzo: For this barley shochu, which is aged between 4 and 5 years in used Jim Beam or Jack Daniels barrels (depending on the bottle), the “branching out” part is a bit open to interpretation.
Towari: Soba-based shochus are plenty common — so what better way to acquaint yourself with the flavor than with a 100 percent soba mash bill like Towari’s?

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