Shochu (pronounced Show-Chew) is written 焼酎 in Japanese Kanji characters.
The 焼 charactor means "to burn" and 酎 "to concentrate" . Therefore, the name Shochu implies a distilled spirit that has been "concentrated by fire" . In comparision, Sake is fermented with rice, with more common parallels to wine making than to spirit production.
In Japan, There aew two legal classifications of Shochu.
a spirit made by single distillation, the traditional method by which shochu was originally made in small batches by family-owned producers before liquor conglomerates started producing more 'contemporary' and cost-efficient alternatives (please see below) to the authentic products. Previously, this category was known as the Otsu-rui group.
mass-produced, diluted pure ethyl alcohol obtained by continuous distillation of polysaccharidic materials such as molasses and is often dubbed 'Japanese vodka' due to its more neutral flavors. This category used to be known as the Koh-rui group.
Additionally, there are multi-grade blends which the shochu industry calls Konwa (meaning 'blended together'). These products are also mass-produced and still classified in the White Liquor group, however they somewhat resemble the Honkaku Shochu as a small amount of it is in fact added to the White Liquor, giving it a more Honkaku-like character.
Of these categories, it is only the Honkaku Shochu that would be comparable to a pot-distilled malt whisky against grain whisky, which is distilled continuously in a patent still. Honkaku Shochu and malt whisky both retain distinct flavors and aromas characteristic of the raw materials due to single distillation. Honkaku Shochu, however, is particularly unique because of these two notable differences from other spirits: 1) 'Parallel Dual Fermentation' triggered by Japan's unique microbe called Koji Kin; 2) colorful yet mild flavors that can be enjoyed without longterm aging.
In 2003, the overall (i.e. all categories) shochu consumption surpassed that of sake for the first time in 53 years. In the following year, the consumption of Honkaku Shochu exceeded that of White Liquor, which is used primarily for mixing and infusion purposes. It has been said that this most recent shochu boom was created principally by a rapid surge in the popularity of Honkaku Shochu. The factors explaining this trend include the following:
About 500 shochu distilleries (plus 300 additional sake breweries that also distill shochu) across Japan, the majority of which are small family businesses, produce several thousand brands, offering drinkers a wide variety of characteristics reflecting the ingredients, the processes as well as the distiller's philosophy.
Continuous efforts by the ambitious distillers to innovate the production methods and packaging have paid off, triggering the interests of highly discriminating, cosmopolitan consumers, especially young women.
Some of these distilleries operate within their own regional boundaries, therefore finding such rare shochus is like treasure hunting.
Some of these 'cult' shochus are extremely hard to find. When you are lucky enough to find them, a price tag of around US$350 a bottle or more may await you!
The origin of shochu is thought to be China and South East Asia in the 13th or 14th Century. There are several theories on how shochu was introduced to Japan. The South Route theory suggests that shochu reached Japan from Thailand through the Ryukyu Islands (Okinawa). According to the North Route theory, shochu came from China via the Korean Peninsula, Iki Islands and onwards, arriving in north Kyushu. Another theory (the South China Sea theory) holds that shochu came directly from China.
It is most likely that shochu production in Japan began around the 15th century, triggered by the introduction of distillation methods from Thailand. By the 16th Century, shochu is believed to have already become part of people's everyday life. Joshua Alvarez, a Portuguese sailor who visited Kagoshima in 1546, later recorded in his book that the Japanese drank “orraquas from rice”, which is most likely to have been a rice shochu.
Also, an inscription - or rather, graffiti - on a piece of wooden plank found at the Koriyama Hachiman shrine in Kagoshima - is thought to be the oldest existing direct reference to shochu in Japan. There, two carpenters working on the shrine in 1559 wrote, “The high priest was so stingy he never once gave us shochu to drink. What a nuisance!”
In these early days, the mainstream variant was rice shochu. However, rice was very precious as it was sent annually in tribute to the Tokugawa Shogunate. Distillers, therefore, painstakingly tried to produce shochu from alternate raw materials, including sweet potato and barley. By the Edo Period (1603 to 1867), these derivatives had created a basis for the foundation of the modern shochus as we see them today.