Visit Japan! > Japanese Sake and Shochu (Shoju)

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Sake and Shochu (Shoju)

Japanese sake and shochu have become popular the world over right along with Japanese sushi. In Japan there is an incredibly wide variety of sake and shochu for you to sample. During your stay in Japan be sure to enjoy these drinks along with some good Japanese cooking.

SAKEHistory of Japanese Sake
Sake is an alcoholic beverage that has been beloved by the Japanese for more than 1,000 years. The same distilling methods established more than 500 years ago are still being used to this day. A major characteristic of sake brewing is the use of malt. The brewing process is quite complicated and requires some sophisticated skills. This rich brewing tradition is probably one reason why the Japanese love sake so much. With the development of high-quality “Ginjo” sake and with the advancements in brewing equipment and technologies, it has been said that today’s sake is of the highest quality of any time in Japan’s rich sake history.

History of Shochu (Shoju)
Japan began making shochu roughly 500 years ago soon after distillation technology was introduced from China. Shochu is commonly produced in the southern sections of Japan. Recent advancements in distillation equipment have led to the creation of shochu with very light and pleasant fragrances and this sparked a “shochu boom” in Japan.

Indispensable Part of Japanese Life
Sake and shochu have become indispensable parts of everyday life in Japan. Sake is a key element of many Shinto rituals and Japanese festivals. In fact, sake is so revered that it is used as a tribute to the Gods during the harvest festivals and other celebrations. Even now sake and shochu are used for various important occasions in Japan. From long ago there has been the belief in Japan of many gods that reside in all things (not only mountains, rivers and forests, but man-made things as well). In fact, there is the belief that a female god named Matsuo lives in all sake. Craftsmen that produce Japanese sake and shochu have been known to pray to Matsuo and ask that she infuses their skills with the spirit needed to make the best possible sake.

SAKETypes and Characteristics of Japanese Sake
Japanese sake grades are based on the quality of the rice or rice malt used as the basic raw material and on the type of fermentation process using small amounts of distilled alcohol. Only high quality rice is selected and a portion of the rice kernel is ground away so that the underlying starchy portion can be used as the basic raw material. (The amount of kernel ground away is called the “milling rate”. A milling rate of 70% means that 30% of the external kernel was ground away.) Milling away a greater portion of the rice kernel raises the cost of the raw materials and requires much more effort and more sophisticated techniques. However, the result is high quality sake with a fruity fragrance that reminds you of juicy apples, peaches, bananas or pears. This type of sake makes for an excellent before-meal drink. Also, this sake uses a very small amount of distilled alcohol in the fermentation process and so compared to the additive-free “Junmai” (pure rice wine) it is more aromatic and has a more luxurious feel.

SAKEWhen not very much of the rice kernel is milled away, the sake takes on a simple fragrance, but maintains a full body. This type of sake goes well with food and is the perfect drink to have during any meal. This type of sake is also more affordable and can be easily enjoyed at home. Because Japanese sake comes in so many different grades, you can have fun selecting the best sake for the occasion and the one that best suit your own tastes. The following table provides a breakdown of Japanese sake types and characteristics. Here you should be able to find the perfect sake just for you.


Japanese Name Raw Materials Milling Rate
Daiginjo Sake Rice, Rice Malt, Fermented Alcohol Up to 50%
Ginjo Sake Rice, Rice Malt, Fermented Alcohol Up to 60%
Honjozo Sake Rice, Rice Malt, Fermented Alcohol Up to 70%
Junmai (pure) Daiginjo Sake Rice, Rice Malt Up to 50%
Junmai (pure) Ginjo Sake Rice, Rice Malt Up to 60%
Junmai (pure) Sake Rice, Rice Malt No unpolished rice

Types and Characteristics of Japanese Shochu
Shochu is created by fermenting and then distilling various carbohydrates such as rice, wheat, potatoes and molasses. The main raw materials can be classified into such groups as rice, malt, potatoes, brown sugar as well as many others. There is probably no other alcoholic beverage that makes use of such a wide variety of materials. The biggest appeal to shochu is that you can enjoy so many different flavors. In many cases shochu is made using locally grown items as the main raw material. In this case the shochu tends to have a unique affinity with the local cooking. This local color is just another reason why shochu is so popular.

Different Shochu Characteristics and Flavors based on Ingredients
- Kome-jochu (rice based): This shochu is made with rice or rice malt as the main ingredient. The fragrance is similar to that of Ginjo sake. This is a mild, easy-to-drink shochu that can be enjoyed by everyone.

- Mugi-jochu (barley based): This shochu is made with barley or rice malt as the main ingredient. In some cases barley malt is used in place of the rice malt. This type of shochu has a mild taste and a pleasing fragrance similar to whiskey.

- Imo-jochu (sweet potato based): This shochu is made using sweet potatoes and rice malt as the main ingredients. Potato (sweet potato) malt is sometimes used in place of the rice malt. Compared to the rice and barley-based shochu, this type of shochu has a more dynamic fragrance and tends to leave a stronger impression. Various characteristics can be obtained based on the type of malt bacteria (white, yellow, black) that is used, resulting in a very wide variety of shochu.

Shochu comes in so many varieties, but none of them interfere with the taste of food. Shochu is the perfect drink to enjoy with any meal. Shochu can be enjoyed straight, on the rocks, with water or even hot water. One of the joys of shochu is trying to discover the perfect combination just for you. You should get started right away!


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