Shochu: The star of the chu-hai show
Japanese shochu, the boozy ingredient that gives life to Chu-hai and Lemon Sours all across Japan, finds itself woefully underappreciated internationally compared to its national brethren sake. More shochu is consumed across the country each year than what locals call nihonshu (Japanese for “sake”) so perhaps its lack of fame outside the country can be attributed to the fact that it’s largely, though not exclusively by any means, drunk in cocktail form.
Shochu usually sits between 20 and 25% ABV, meaning it has a kick but you can keep drinking it longer than hard liquor, making shochu and shochu-based cocktails like the aforementioned chu-hai one of the most popular alternatives to beer in Japan. When you consider how much shochu is drunk and how many party drinks you can craft with it, it’s high time we stopped taking it for granted.
So what exactly is Japanese shochu?
Shochu can be distilled from a number of different ingredients, the most common variants coming from Japanese sweet potato and rice through traditional brewing methods that are thought to date back to the 1500s. Many regions in Japan have their own spin on the drink, some utilizing entirely different ingredients such as Kagoshima’s famous brown sugar shochu – surprisingly not-so-sweet – and Okinawa’s staple drink, awamori.
While connoisseurs can distinguish the micro-differences, most shochu typically embody a mild alcohol flavor, which makes them perfect for casual drinks, party cocktails, and lavish hotel bar concoctions alike. Those who are particularly passionate about shochu, enough so to enjoy drinking it straight, will likely prefer a honkaku shochu, which are sourced from premium ingredients and exclusively subject to single distillation.
Shochu cocktails: From staples to the extraordinary
Being so decidedly versatile, shochu cocktails run the gamut from simply being mixed with 100 yen oolong tea from the convenience store to multilayered, complex delectables that tell a drinkable story. While shochu cocktails are the most common permutation, chu-hais and sours can truly only be called the tip of the adult beverage iceberg.
Mix shochu with your favorite fruity liqueur like Blue Curacao or Japanese Midori for an easy yet refined night-time treat. Go DIY with your shochu cocktails via homemade combinations of fresh-pressed juice of choice and locally produced honey for a naturally refreshing drink. Go ahead and have that second martini, or whichever staple Western cocktails you fancy, with shochu being a great lower-ABV substitute for both vodka and gin that doesn’t compromise any of the flavor-profile.
Cocktails at home, anywhere in the world
If you find yourself outside of Japan wanting to make a refreshing green tea cocktail – don’t fret! Despite not yet carrying the sake prestige outside of Japan, these days liquor stores and Asian markets across the world are bound to have a bottle or a carton of shochu – which they’re often sold as – and this particularly smooth and agreeable liquor has gained more traction internationally in recent years.
Whether you want to experience a fresh lemon sour, found a noteworthy recipe online you want to try your hand at, or your inner bartender is clamoring to mix some original drinks – shochu remains an affordable alternative to hard liquor with lower ABV and purine counts, with centuries of Japanese history and culture in every drop.