Shochu Tasting Notes
Our shochu reviews focus on U.S. imported Japanese honkaku (“authentic” single distillation) shochu, though sometimes we’ll review Japanese Domestic Market (JDM to borrow from automobile lingo) honkaku shochu or honkaku shochu imports to other countries if we can’t find them in the States. One of our contributors is a frequent traveler to Taiwan via Narita International Airport (NRT) in Japan. Therefore, you can expect a fair number of shochu reviews based on NRT Duty Free shopping and Taiwan imports.
For now we will not be reviewing Korean soju, though if Korean single distilled soju arrives stateside that will change.
Our shochu reviews will be updated periodically as we find new information about the shochus we review – English language information is sparse for many of them. We’ll also update our reviews as we revisit the shochus in light of others we’ve tried.
Here’s how we review:
PHOTO: We take all our own photos of shochu bottles (unless attributed), usually in our homes or in izakayas we visit.
BRAND: This is the name of the shochu we’re reviewing. Sometimes it is difficult to identify the specific product line since we don’t read Japanese and the English on the bottle may be incomplete. When we can garner more information we try to provide it. Fortunately, we have access to both Japanese and Chinese translators.
DISTILLERY: This is the name of the distillery where the shochu is made. We try to link to their website if we can identify it.
LOCATION: This is where the shochu was made. We try to narrow it down to the city, prefecture (Japanese state), island, and country of origin (we’re optimistic that traditionally distilled Korean soju will make it to our shores). Sometimes with the major distillers location is difficult to identify, becuase they’ll have more than one facility. Virtually all traditionally produced shochu is made on Kyushu Island while all Awamori is made in Okinawa Prefecture, which is a string of hundreds of islands off the southwest coast of the main Japanese islands.
GRAIN: This is the grain or grains used in production of the shochu. “Grain” is used liberally since sweet potatoes, carrots, green tea, and other exotic distillates are used to make shochu. These exotics are usually mixed with either rice or barley so grains are still part of the distillation process.
KOJI: Koji is the rice mold used in the distillation of the grains into shochu. It acts as a yeast, converting the grain sugars into alcohol. Most shochu is made with white koji while Awamori is always made with Okinawan black koji. However, some shochus are made with black koji as well. While uncommon, some shochus are also made with yellow koji, the koji most common in sake production. This is not routinely used in shochu, because it is more temperamental than other koji strains and sometimes dies out during the distillation process, ruining the batch. This information is not always available from an English language source, but we will update as we find more complete information.
DISTILLATION: When we can find it, we report whether the shochu is made using atmospheric (joatsu) or low pressure (gentsu) distillation. Low pressure distillations require a lower boiling temperature and provide a smoother, more neutral flavor profile. Atmospheric, or normal pressure, distillation requires a higher boiling temperature, which brings out more character from the distillate, resulting in a richer flavor profile. When mixed with black koji, normal pressure shochus can be extremely robust despite a low alcohol content.
ALCOHOL: Most shochu is cut with spring water after distillation, reducing the alcohol content from 40-60% down to 20-30%. Genshu shochu is bottled in its full strength form and some aged Awamori have higher alcohol content. While most U.S. imports are within a few degrees of each other, you may see the occasional high alcohol genshu profiled here.
PRICE: Since the price varies a great deal by geographic area and whether or not you’re ording in a restaurant or buying at a liquor store, we’ve decided to price them based on their liquor store retail price in the New York City area (where we’re based). This rating scale should give you some sense of their relative price differences.
- $ = <$20
- $$ = $20-29.99
- $$$ = $30-$39.99
- $$$$ = $40-$49.99
- $$$$$ = $50+
While the higher end shochus available domestically can run up to $80+ and Japanese-only aged Awamori can run to several hundred dollars a bottle, we do not distinguish above $50. If you are buying in that price range, you likely don’t need this guide to help you make relative price decisions.
TASTING NOTES: The tasting notes are our impressions of the shochu, usually enjoyed first as a neat sip, then cut with cold water, and finally on the rocks. Sometimes we’ll try oyuwari, or with hot water, which really opens up the shochu’s flavors, though this is not always a good thing. We try to reflect on the scent, the initial mouth feel, the taste/palate, and finally the finish. However, as we’ve discovered, not all of these stages are distinguishable with all shcohus, so in cases where that appears to be ignored, it’s likely because we couldn’t find anything worth commenting.
THE VERDICT: This is where you get a short summary of advice about how to enjoy this shochu and sometimes whether this is a good one to start with if you’re beginning your journey. We find that every shochu we review has a place and that everyone has a different palate. We just try to provide a little guidance based on our own preferences.
We rate the shochus as:
- Highly Recommended
- Worth Drinking
THE CHART: These charts are intended to give you sense of the robustness and the flavor of the shochu. These spirits can range all over this spectrum.
Here’s an example from iichiko silhouette, a mugi (barley) shochu and the first we profiled on here. As you can see, it’s pretty neutral both in flavor and robustness. It’s a slightly sweet, very mild shochu. A “starter shochu” if you will.
Now her’e an example from Ginza No Suzume Kohaku, a mugi shochu aged in oak barrels. As you can see, it’s full flavored and tends toward the dry side, yet they’re both mugi shochu.
We hope you enjoy these Shochu Tasting Notes and we would appreciate any feedback you might have as to how to improve this site.