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Wednesday 23 March 2011

Sake vs Shochu – Do You Know the Difference?

Earlier this month, I was invited to a couple of very interesting tastings. The first, organised by JETRO London, took place at the Japanese Embassy and was all about Shochu. A few days later I returned to the WSET for a lecture on Sake and had the opportunity to meet various producers from the Niigata Prefecture who were visiting, and taste some of their fare.

Unlike Sake, not much is known about Shochu outside Japan, and even there, the Japanese are sometimes confused by its limitless forms and styles. To make things worse, the word “Sake” in Japan can actually refer to all alcoholic drinks in general, although it most often refers to Sake as we know it in the West. In some parts of the far Western or Southern regions, the word “Sake” is sometimes used interchangeably to describe a type of distilled drink i.e. Shochu (Sake being a fermented drink).

So what is Shochu?

Native to Japan, Shochu is a DISTILLED drink, and can be made from a combination or one of a number of different raw materials - sweet potatoes, rice, barley, buckwheat, corn, rye, brown sugar, and chestnuts to name a few. The alcohol content is normally 25%, although it can be as high as 42% (if multi-distilled).

Raw Materials

Each of these raw materials will give very distinct flavour and aroma profiles to the final Shochu from light and smooth (rice) to peaty and earthy (potato) in the same way that the different peat and barley of regions in Scotland will determine the character of the final Scotch Whisky being made.

Koji & Saccharification

Unlike wine where the grape sugars are turned into alcohol during fermentation, to make Shochu (as well as Sake), the sugar needed to produce alcohol must first be converted from starch. This process is known as “saccharification” and is achieved by the addition of KOJI, a type of fungus, to the raw material i.e. rice, sweet potatoes or barley. Different types of KOJI can be used for this (white, yellow or black) with each bringing out different characters in the final product. Once the sugars have been created, they will then need to be converted into alcohol, and this is done by adding water and YEAST. Both processes, saccharification of starch and alcoholic fermentation, happen concurrently.


Following fermentation, Shochu is either single or multi distilled. Single, pot-distilled Shochu will retain more of the character of the base ingredient, and is more “artisan” in production with a strongly individual taste and aroma. Multi, patent-distilled Shochu is higher in alcohol content, is cheaper and less flavoursome and is normally used as a base for cocktails.


Unlike Sake which is made to be drunk within a year of production, Shochu can improve with ageing. Maturation or ageing normally lasts between one and three months, but sometimes three or more years - for example Awamori Shochu from Okinawa can be matured for more than ten years. Vessels used to mature Shochu will impart their own character to the final drink - ceramic or earthenware pots, oak and sherry casks or the neutral stainless steel tanks.

In Japan, Shochu has enjoyed a tremendous rise in its popularity and sales over the last 10 years. Originally perceived as an old fashioned drink, it has gone through a change of image and is now drunk by a trendy and mostly young crowd. This is because Shochu is thought to be a healthier alternative to other spirits - containing a similar amount of enzymes to red wine, it is thought to help prevent heart attacks and strokes by naturally stimulating the breakdown of blood clots. In addition, it is a very low-calorie drink and some even claim that it will give less of a hangover as it is thought to be a purer drink due to being multi distilled (although there is no scientific proof to back this up).

At the Japanese Embassy event, of the many Shochu I tasted on that evening, NISENNEN NO YUME (Two Thousand Year Dream by Ikinokura Distillery Co.) was particularly outstanding. An unusually high alcohol content Shochu at 42% made from 2/3 barley and 1/3 malted rice, it had been matured for many years in Spanish sherry casks. The wood imparted an amber colour, aroma and flavour akin to a light whisky. It was smooth, subtle and very easy drinking.

The ASAGIRA NO HANA (Morning Mist Flowers by Takata Shuzohjyo Co.) was also very good. It was made entirely from malted rice with a 25% alcohol content and wild yeast taken from the native Japanese "nadeshiko" flower. Unsurprisingly, the floral aromas were intense in this fantastic Shochu.

Also outstanding was the BENI SATSUMA CHIRUZU BLACK (by Kami Distillery Co.), a 25% alcohol Shochu made from red sweet potatoes. This Shochu had a confectionary-like sweetness and an intense earthiness from its ageing in 140 year-old clay urns.

So what is Sake?

Also native to Japan, Sake is a FERMENTED drink , made solely from RICE and with an alcohol content of around 15%.

Sake Making Process

The process of making Sake, “Multi Parallel Fermentation”, is a complex and laborious one, and more information can be found here.

In summary, the main steps are as follows. Before fermentation takes place, Sake rice will need to be milled or “polished” to remove protein and oils from the exterior of the grains, leaving behind starch. Roughly speaking, the more “polished” the grains are, the more refined the Sake will be with some rice grains being polished to 80% (down to 20% of its original size). After polishing, the grains are rested, washed and steamed.

As in the production of Shochu, the sugar needed to produce alcohol must first be converted from starch (saccharification) which is achieved by the addition of KOJI to the cooked rice. The fermentable sugars will then need to be converted into alcohol, and this is done by adding YEAST.

After fermentation has taken place the Sake is pressed to separate the liquid from the solids. For some types of Sake, a small amount of distilled alcohol is added before pressing.  The dead yeast is then removed, the Sake is carbon filtered, pasteurised and diluted to around 15%. It is then matured for six months before being bottled and sold.

Ageing, Vintage, Hot or Chilled

Sake is not aged beyond the six month period mentioned and is meant to be consumed soon after purchase or within a year of production. There is no such thing as "vintage" in the Sake world.

Premium Sakes (see category below) should be served nearly always chilled; sometimes it can be slightly "warmed" but it should never be hot. There is no ideal temperature, but cool to chilled temperatures bring out the best in most Sakes, with subtle differences at each temperature range. Sake was traditionally served warm to hide the rougher characteristics of this type of drink, but much has changed in the last decades, and today, only table Sake is served heated.

Categories of Sake

Broadly speaking, there are only two types of Sake: FUTSUU-SHU (table Sake - 80% of the market) and TOKUTEI MEISHO-SHU (special designation Sake - 20% of the market).

FUTSUU-SHU - Table Sake

For this type of Sake, there are no "polishing" requirements, rice used is normally of a lower grade, and distilled alcohol is added in amounts far exceeding those permitted for the higher category.


Premium Sakes fall within two categories - the ones that have NOT been fortified by the addition of distilled alcohol (JUNMAI) and the others which have (HONJOZO and GINJO).

Classification within these two categories will depend on various factors, but most importantly it will consider the amount of "polishing" of the grains and the quality/grade of rice being used. There are about 65 varieties of Sake rice and naturally some are more prized than others.

At the "Sakes of Niigata" tasting at the WSET, it was fascinating to notice the differences in style and flavour characteristics from one classification to another. In my opinion, the top classification Sakes i.e. DAIGINJO and JUNMAI DAIGINJO, were also the best Sakes of the evening.

Of the eight Sakes tasted on that evening, the ICHISHIMA GINNOYOROKOBI DAIGINJO (by Ichishima Sake House, polished down to 35%!) was particularly fine and complex with  floral and clay notes on the palate, and a very long finish. Another excellent Sake was the SETCHUBAI GINJO (milled down to 40%) by the Maruyama Sake House - gutsy, with floral notes and very smooth.

Thanks to Denise Medrano (The Wine Sleuth) and John Toppon of The Japan Society for inviting me along to these fantastic events.


  1. I became a HUGE shochu fan a few years ago when a good Korean friend took me on a "food educational tour" of Korea town. There are so many different food and drinks out there I find it sad to know how little I really know.

  2. How very informative. Thanks for sharing! The only sake I've ever had is happy hour at the sake bar near uni..

  3. very great event! wish it would happen more often in London!

  4. Not something I know much about; being so different from my regular western wine. Sounds a fascinating time well spent.

  5. I must admit I had never even heard of schochu before reading this post - thanks for the education Luiz!

  6. Quite interesting & lovely post!
    Personally I prefer Sake - especially Dai Ginjo. Hope fully see you at next Sake tasting!!

  7. @ London Lady - Hi Koreen, I know exactly how you feel. I would like to learn more about Shochu and Sake but feel that 1. it is difficult to find the variety/range of these drinks in supermarkets, 2. it is not affordable to a lot of people and 3. the labelling is not designed for a western audience. It is a shame but I hope these will change in future.

    @ Lucy - thanks Lucy, it was a pleasure! I learnt so much by researching about these drinks for the post I am the one who should be thanking you!

    @ Pimienta - indeed I completely agree! Specially the shochu event as it is still very undiscovered in the West.

    @ Andrew - I know what you mean, even the tasting denominators and what one evaluates when drinking shochu and sake are a completely different ball game compared to western wines.

    @ Gourmet Chick - oh my Cara, I am chuffed I have shown you something new! We should go for a shochu drinking evening soon!

    @ Lemon - thank you very much, I also love a good daijingo, although I find that Shochu is a slightly more versatile drink... I am not an expert though.


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