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Mixing with Shochu: Exploring Japanese Spirits

Shochu, pronounced Sho-Chew, is a Japanese spirit deeply rooted in the country’s heritage. At its core is a vital component called Koji, which is often misunderstood despite its pivotal role in crafting authentic Japanese Shochu. Koji is a mold that thrives on rice, barley, or sweet potato, unleashing enzymes that transform complex starches into simple sugars. This process not only imparts sweetness but also activates protease, heightening the umami flavor. The various types of Koji are primarily differentiated by color, with white Koji being the preferred choice for Shochu, black Koji for Awamori, and yellow Koji for Sake.

Shochu distinguishes itself from Japanese Vodka, high-strength sake, and Soju—a Korean spirit which is typically diluted, flavoured, and sweetened. With over 50 potential ingredients, Shochu presents a vast array of styles. Common base ingredients are sweet potato, barley, rice, sake lees, brown sugar, and buckwheat. Although unconventional options like green tea, wasabi, carrot, kelp, and even milk exist, sweet potato shochu however, reigns as Japan’s most beloved choice.

Within the realm of Shochu, there are different styles to explore. Korui Shochu, a costeffective option, undergoes multiple distillations and is commonly utilised for infusions or as a base in mixed drinks. On the contrary, Honkaku Shochu epitomises the essence of the category. Its name translates to “Authentic,” as it strictly adheres to production regulations with the goal of capturing the genuine nature of the chosen base ingredient.

Honkaku Shochu is single pot distilled, the aim is to create a shochu which represents the flavour of the base ingredient as well as the artistry of the creator. 

Shochu lends itself perfectly to Western-style mixing, despite its slightly lower alcohol content compared to other spirits. What sets it apart is the distinctive character each base ingredient brings to the table. For instance, Kokuto (Brown Sugar) Shochu makes for a wonderful alternative to Caribbean Rum, while Kome (Rice) Shochu can be used in a manner akin to Vodka. Additionally, Kasutori (Sake lees) Shochu imparts the notable qualities found in high-quality sake.

A notable member of the Koji spirit family is Awamori, predominantly crafted in Okinawa.

This unique spirit is made from rice and employs Black Koji, resulting in more robust and intense esters compared to its White Koji counterparts. These distinctive characteristics make Awamori an especially enticing choice for bartenders.

Incorporating Honkaku Shochu and Awamori in mixology introduces a world of exceptional Japanese flavours rarely encountered in Western drinks. It transcends the mere addition of commonplace elements like sesame, yuzu, or wasabi to achieve a “Japanese” taste. Instead, Shochu elevates cocktails by imparting a captivating complexity and a delightful umami essence.

Author : Samuel Bolton 

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