The Shochu Guide

Kame, traditional fermentation jars used in shochu production

Here's a drink that's ultra-popular in Japan, yet relatively unknown in France. Originating in Kyushu, its history, the way it is produced, and its versatility in terms of consumption patterns make it a very interesting subject to delve into. That's what we suggest you do in this guide.

and distillation in Japan

Shochu, literally translated as "cooked alcohol", is a South Japanese alcoholic beverage of around 25 degrees produced from a variety of ingredients, the most common of which are sweet potato, barley and rice. These are then fermented and distilled to produce a refined, distinctive spirit.

In southern Kyushu, Kagoshima and Mount Sakurajima, the origins of sweet potato shochu.

The first written references to shochu date back to the 16th century. They come from the Spanish Jesuit missionary Francisco Javier, who was attempting to evangelize Kyūshū. But the origins of shochu can be traced back to around the 14th and 15th centuries, when distillation techniques from the Middle East began to arrive on the main islands, notably Kyūshū, via the Ryukyu Kingdom, of which the Okinawa archipelago was a part. It was one of the first places in what is now Japan to introduce the production of an alcohol distilled from long grain rice called "Awamori", a kind of primitive form of shochu. Other sources place the appearance of shochu on the island of Iki, to the west of Kyūshū, where cereals are said to have been distilled for the first time using techniques brought over from the Chinese mainland via Korea.

It was on the island of Iki, to the west of Nagazaki, that barley was first distilled using techniques brought over from neighboring Korea.

While there is some debate as to its origins, the fact remains that production techniques traveled widely and rapidly throughout the archipelago, improving considerably during the Meiji era.

Although the tradition is rooted in the south, today shochu is incredibly popular in Japan, with production and consumption widespread throughout the country. Its success is due to the diversity of flavors and versatility it offers in terms of tasting, which can be enjoyed on its own, with meals or as an ingredient in cocktails.

A regional link

The type of shochu is determined by the main ingredient used in its preparation, each conferring distinct flavors. It's important to note right away that fermentation always begins with rice, followed by the main ingredient.

The main ingredients and their regions of origin :

  • Imo shochu (Imojochu 53%) : produced from sweet potato, widespread in Kagoshima and Miyazaki.
  • Mugi shochu (38%) : barley-based, found in Oita and Nagasaki.
  • Kome shochu (Komejochu 4%) : made from rice, typical of Kumamoto.

Together, these three ingredients currently account for over 95% of shochu produced in Japan. The remaining 5% is shared by the other ingredients.

The main ingredients used to produce shochu

More rarely, shochu may be made from other ingredients, depending on local availability :

  • Soba shochu : buckwheat-based product, mainly found in Miyazaki and Nagano.
  • Kokuto shochu (Kokutojochu) : unrefined cane sugar, mainly produced in Okinawa.
  • Kuri shochu : chestnut-based.
  • Kasutori shochu : based on sake lees, also known as sake kasu. Found throughout Japan, it is often distilled in sake breweries.

Shochu in a few steps

Preparing the ingredients
The first step is to prepare the main ingredient. If sweet potato is chosen, it is first cleaned and peeled. If it's rice, it's generally 90% polished round rice. If barley is selected, it is first dehulled, retaining around 60% of its original weight. This ingredient can then be cooked or treated in a suitable way to facilitate fermentation.

preparing sweet potatoes for shochu production

1. Ichiji Shikomi : this is an initial fermentation containing only koji*, water and yeast. The aim is to generate a sufficiently large and active yeast population to move on to the second stage.

*Koji refers to steamed rice on which koji kin, a microscopic fungus of the Aspergillus Oryzae type, has grown. This fungus transforms rice starch into sugars that can be fermented by yeast.

fermentation dans la production du shochu

2. Niji Shikomi : when the yeast population is sufficiently robust and active, the starter is moved to a larger tank, into which the main ingredient is added. The duration of this stage can vary from a few days to several weeks, depending on the type of shochu and the producer's preferences.

fermentation of sweet potatoes in the preparation of shochu

The koji used for production will have a significant impact on the aromatic profile :

  • White koji (shiro koji) : refined aromas, clean, straightforward shochu.
  • Yellow koji (Ki koji) : fruity aromas, aromatic shochu.
  • Black koji (kuro koji) : rustic aromas, powerful shochu.

We have two typical examples of this kind of experimentation at the Nishishuzo and Omoya Shuzo distilleries, which use the same base ingredients (sweet potato or barley) to vary the koji (see our suggestions).

Once fermentation is complete, the distillation process begins, and the producer has the option of producing two distinct types of shochu, depending on the method and instrument chosen :

sweet potato distillation in the preparation of shochu

- Honkaku shochu : distillation in traditional local stills or, increasingly, in pot stills. This is generally a simple distillation process that fully preserves the characteristic richness and aromas of the basic ingredients.

- Korui shochu : continuous distillation, i.e. a single distillation mechanism repeated inside the machine. The disadvantage of this method is that it reduces the complexity of the aromas.

Storage and maturation
Shochu is traditionally matured for one to three months in wooden casks, enamelled stainless steel vats or, much more traditionally, in earthenware jars called "kame". The idea is to round out its perception on the palate and allow complex flavors and rich aromas to develop.

Earthenware "kame" jars containing shochu

Before bottling, the alcohol level of the shochu is adjusted with the final addition of water, bringing it to around 25%. Shochu in its classic form is ready for consumption.

Special cases : unreduced and/or aged shochu
Some shochu are distinguished by the fact that they have not been diluted at the end of production. When they reach over 36% alcohol, they are known as "Genshu". They offer intense flavors and a robust character.

aging shochu in wooden barrels

Shochu can undergo a prolonged aging process in casks or jars. It then expresses subtle aromas and woody, spicy or fruity flavors, depending on the medium and length of aging. This adds depth and complexity. Under Japanese regulations, a "Choki chozoshu" is a shochu that must be at least 50% shochu aged over 3 years.

from table to cocktail


For pairings, although its alcohol content (25°) is unusual in our country, shochu is traditionally consumed with a meal. To savor its complexity, we recommend that you enjoy it neat, perhaps on the rocks with a slice of lemon.

It is quite possible, and indeed traditional in Japan, to dilute it with hot (oyuwari) or cold (mizuari) water. This reduces its alcohol content and modulates its intensity.

serve Shochu with dishes

Shochu goes well with an infinite number of culinary preparations, and the type of shochu you choose will directly determine the pairing. If we think of classic French dishes, an imo shochu (sweet potato) will go perfectly with cured ham or grilled pork chop, while a kome shochu (rice) will be more delicate and will gladly accompany white fish and seafood.

For those of you lucky enough to have visited Japan, you've no doubt frequented the Izakaya where shochu is served with delicious "o-tsumamis" or "sake no sakana". Perhaps even served with an umeboshi plum !

In cocktails, shochu's distinctive aroma makes it a perfect candidate for original cocktails. Many mixologists are already using it in their creations, and we've chosen two examples :

A perfect 3-citrus harmony, blending bitterness and sweetness, enhanced by Pandan leaf. An exclusive recipe devised by Gérard Margeon, Executive Chef Sommelier at Alain Ducasse Paris, for Bar 228 at the Hôtel Meurice.
1 cl Filtered lemon juice
2 cl Orange liqueur, l'Orangerie de la Distillerie de Monaco
1 cl Filtered orange juice
1 cl Kombucha - Feuille de Pandan
4 cl Alain Ducasse Sustainable Spirit shochu
Shake all ingredients in a shaker, then pour into an old-fashioned glass containing a spherical ice cube.

coctail au shochu Alain Ducasse sustainable spirit

Shochu Martini
4.5cl Gin Kanoshizuku
2.5cl Kiccho Houzan Imo Shochu
Add the gin and shochu to a mixing glass filled with ice cubes, stir, then pour into a martini glass and garnish with olives.

There's a lot more to say about shochu, but we've come to the end of this brief escapade. We hope it has inspired you to discover this age-old tradition from southern Japan !