I’ve told you before to drink clear, distilled liquor if at all possible. It has the least non-alcohol stuff in it, and thus doesn’t ruin a good time with weird party-crashers like gluten and sugar. The best of these will have a unique flavor to enjoy, or at least learn to appreciate, like tequila, rum, scotch, bourbon, tequila etc. Well, you can include shochu (焼酎 – Japanese distilled liquor) in that group. To take things one step further, while trouble with the grains in grain-derived alcohol isn’t a problem for most, supporting monstrously unsustainable grain-production remains morally questionable to some. Alcohols like tequila, rum and shochu (where its made from more sustainable stuff) become better choices for the concerned.
So shochu: it’s a low to medium strength distilled liquor that can be made from a variety of different things: barley, potatoes, sugar, rice, wheat, buckwheat, chestnuts and a few other things. It’s pervasive: just about any place you can get alcohol in Japan, you can get shochu, and it’s one of three drinks served in a traditional izakaya, along with beer and sake. It has a very distinct, unique, strong flavor; some will be thrilled by it, and some will turn up their noses at first. It seems, anecdotally (and somewhat off the subject), that it’s these strong flavors that make for the lasting psychosomatic symptoms which turn people off of tequila, rum, etc. after an… over-indulgent experience. Perhaps that’s just what I’ve heard.
Tips: the shochu I’m referring to above as having a unique, strong flavor is “Honkaku” shochu. Honkaku shochu is distilled only once, and thus retains its flavor, which varies depending on what its made from. The other kind of shochu is “Korui” shochu, which is flavorless (at least to my palate), and is used in mixed drinks. Again, I’m a fan of distilled liquors, unadulterated or on the rocks, so Honkaku is my preference. Kokuto (黒糖 – “black” sugar) or Imo (芋 – sweet potato) if you please. Still, Korui in mixed drinks is fine, and Japan offers some mixed drinks that are much healthier than anything you can find in America (shochu mixed with green or oolong tea, hot or cold!). I’m quite partial to having shochu mixed with seltzer and lemon, which is called a “nama remon sawa” (生レモンサワー) or “Japanese Norcal Margarita” (only by me, actually). One of these “sours”, made with lemon, grapefruit, yuzu (a Japanese citrus fruit), grapes, etc. is refreshing on a hot night, and has gotten me through many a meal at local yakitori-ya and izakaya. When you order, however, make sure that you’re getting all of the words you’re trying to say understood: “nama” (生 – raw) is the Japanese shorthand for a beer from the tap. Not the same thing.
Before we go on… I do not mean to disparage sake! I love sake, and it’s obviously more famous, both in Japan and abroad. It even has the best song: 酒よ. Most Americans I meet don’t even know what shochu is, but nearly everyone’s heard of sake (pronounced “saki”… unless you’d like to be understood by Japanese people, then its pronounced sake, with a “e” like “bed”). But sake isn’t distilled, so I’ve just found it harder on my system in general, and I’m not always ready for the hangover, much as I love it. For most nights, shochu quickly became, and has stayed, my preference.
History: I will try to be as informative as I can, though I’m not much of an
alcohol historian, and anyway the origins of shochu aren’t definitively understood. We believe that shochu came to Japan from Thailand (that’s the best theory, anyway). It is said to have made its way to the mainland through Okinawa and the Ryukyu Islands, first to Kyushu, the southernmost island of the Japanese mainland. The tradition of shochu remains strong in southern Japan, especially in the Ryukyu Islands and around Kagoshima. Chinkan, the Chinese Envoy to Shoseio, the fourth King of the Ryukyu Kingdom, wrote in his 1534 “Record of Serving in Ryukyu” about “Nanban-Shu” – Southern Barbarian Alcohol, which had come to the islands from Shamuro (Thailand), and was distilled in the same way as Kanroshu, Chinese distilled liquor. Additionally, the first written records of shochu on the mainland come from the southern island, Kyushu. In a famous anecdote, a Portuguese tradesman who arrived in Japan in 1546 wrote about a piece of graffiti on a Shrine in which a carpenter refers to the local lord as “so stingy he wouldn’t buy you a cup of shochu.”
I guess I’ll wrap this up here. If you’re in Japan and have a chance to imbibe, I hereby encourage you to expand your horizons to shochu. If I missed something important, don’t be afraid to comment about how much I suck.