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An introduction to the Japanese spirit shochu, which is nearly always drunk with food.
Can spirits ever successfully pair with food? In recent years, restaurants and liquor brands alike have started to tout spirit pairings, different pours matched with each dish within a meal—a practice we once saw primarily with wine and sometimes beer. But while interesting conceptually, other booze-based pairings often fail. Liquor at 80 proof, or 40 percent ABV—the standard proof for most spirits—is sufficiently alcoholic to wipe out your palate. There is abundant nuance in whiskey, say, or brandy, but with the spirit itself so dominant, it can be hard to taste food at all. With some very specific exceptions (particularly aggressive cheeses, sweet desserts or brawny meats) most spirits just aren’t the logical partner for a meal.
That’s why the Japanese spirit shochu is so fascinating. Though similar to Korean soju, shochu has a distinct and proud lineage in Japan, where the popularity of the traditional spirit is booming. And shochu is nearly always drunk with food.
“In Japan, food and drink are so perfectly linked that when people here invite each other out for drinks, they often say ‘Let's eat’—meaning, ‘Let's drink with some otsumami [drinking snacks] to keep us from getting too drunk,’” says Stephen Lyman, certified shochu adviser and editor of Kampai! “The concept of a ‘food pairing’ is largely foreign. The thinking is, of course, alcohol goes with food. Why wouldn't it?”
Why is shochu so rare in its ability to pair with a meal? Its proof, for one. The majority of shochus (though there are exceptions) are 20 to 25 percent ABV. Additionally, the drink is often served over ice, or cut with hot water, bringing down the proof further—to that of a sake or a robust wine.
Though sometimes compared to vodka, shochu has a character all its own. Whereas vodka is multiply distilled, driving up the alcohol content and stripping flavor, the best shochu (designated as Honkaku Shochu, or “genuine” shochu) is distilled only once in a pot still, such that some of the original ingredients’ flavors are clearly present. Shochu can be made from barley, rice, sweet potato, sugar or dozens of other ingredients—any and all of which are discernible in the spirit. “That base ingredient is distinct and palatable, allowing the drink to pull out flavors that pair with food,” says sake and shochu specialist Chris Johnson.
A comparative tasting immediately shows how dramatically shochu's central ingredient impacts the spirit. While a first-time drinker might not pick up a glass and immediately spot “sweet potato!” the differences between various shochus are stark. Rice (kome), generally smooth and delicate, exhibits many of the same flavors of rice-based sake; sweet potato (imo), a robust earthiness; black sugar (kokuto), a rum-like sweetness; buckwheat (soba) is often toasty and nutty.
And while those ingredients contribute much of a given shochu’s character, koji also plays a role. “Koji is a microbe that converts starches into sugars,” explains Lyman—an essential first step to any fermentation process—“but in doing so, it also creates its own unique flavor profile.” These complex, subtle flavors echo others in Japanese cuisine; according to Lyman, “Koji is central to Japanese food culture, playing a role in the creation of shochu, sake, mirin, soy sauce and miso.”
Between the range of base ingredients, the various flavors contributed by koji, methods of distillation and methods of aging, the variety in shochu is staggering; in some ways, it seems more a category than a distinct spirit. But while every brand differs, there are some general rules for pairing. “Rice shochus tend to be more delicate, and pair with lighter fare and preparation styles—raw dishes, simple fish preparations. Whereas sweet potato shochus have a fuller flavor that I see with roasted foods, meats and hot pots,” says Johnson. "Given shochu’s wide variety of styles, it’s without a doubt the easiest spirit to place on the dinner table."
Here, Lyman recommends a handful of bottles to start you off:
Barley: Perhaps the most familiar tasting to Western palates, thanks to our love of beer and whiskey. The widely available Iichiko is as easy-drinking as they come—pleasant, crisp, and inoffensive, if not particularly distinctive. Those looking for a more aggressive, earthier flavor can opt for Yamanomori, Iichiko’s polar opposite—robust rather than mellow. Lyman affectionately dubs Yamanomori “old man shochu”: “I imagine old Japanese men sitting around a smoky izakaya, drinking down this bottle,” he says.
Rice: While Kazunobu Torikai’s family has been in the shochu-making business for centuries, his methods are anything but traditional; a scientist and an innovator, he has honed his process through constant experimentation in his mountainside distillery. His Ginka Torikai—the brand’s only label, a statement in itself—has a delicate fruitiness that is followed by a sharp hit of anise. It’s best served over ice. For more typical (and less expensive) rice shochu, give the light, clean Hakutake Shiro a try.
Sweet potato: The flagship bottle of distiller Komasa Shuzo, Kozuru Kuro is an excellent value and an ideal introduction to imo shochu: earthy and robust, a touch sweet in the manner of its star ingredient. Try it on its own, or cut with a bit of hot water. For something still more refined, the label’s Kura No Shikon—aged in clay pots for three years—is best tried neat.