For many people, the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of Japanese alcohol is sake. You might see it called Japanese rice wine, or even learn that it can be served either hot or cold, but this this barely skims the surface of these remarkable beverages.
What is sake?
Sake (酒) is a catchall that comes from the Japanese word for alcohol or alcoholic beverage. And while sake is a very big term, the two most prominent kinds of sake in Japan are nihonshu (日本酒), what many western people think of when they hear the word sake, and shochu (焼酎), a distilled liquor more similar to vodka, and is often confused with its Korean sibling, soju.
Nihonshu, which can be translated literally as "Japanese alcohol", is a brewed and fermented liquor using rice, water, and koji. While sometimes called rice wine outside of Japan, nihonshu is technically closer to a beer in brewing style, but differs in a key way. Beer brewing is typically done in two steps: the first step converts starches to sugars, and the second introduces yeast to convert these sugars to alcohol.
Nihonshu, on the other hand, combines these two steps, so they happen at the same time. The reason for this is the introduction of koji into the rice (the very same koji that is used in miso and soy sauce!). Nihonshu is also a more gentle liquor, coming in at 15 to 20% alcohol by volume (abv). This puts it closer in line with wine or fortified wine than something like vodka.
Shochu is closer to a liquor like vodka than its cousin, nihonshu. Shochu is a neutral grain spirit, the same classification as vodka or whiskey. Compared to nihonshu which only uses rice as its primary grain, shochu can use rice, wheat, or sweet potatoes. It is important to note that while both CAN use rice, the quality of rice used in nihonshu is generally higher than that of shochu.
Also unlike nihonshu, shochu is distilled to help remove impurities and increase its alcohol content. Similar to commercially produced vodka, shochu is advertised as being either single (焼酎甲類 korui shochu) or multiple (焼酎乙類 otsurui shochu) times distilled. One major difference between shochu and other products like vodka is that the alcohol content is generally lower, between 25 to 35% abv.
While both can be enjoyed straight, shochu is generally the only product used for mixed drinks, as its neutral flavor lends itself well to blending with mixers. Nihonshu can be enjoyed both hot and cold depending on how it was brewed, and comes in a variety of qualities. Shochu is commonly served mixed with water (hot or cold) under the drink name mizuwari (水割り).
Both liquors are delicious and special in their own right, so whichever you choose, you will be sure to enjoy it! Try pairing your favorite with our Japanese Food That Pair With Alcohol: "Otsumami" Care Package.
About the author:
Michael is originally from Chicago, IL in the United States, but has lived in Japan for seven years in Niigata and Hokkaido. He is an avid home chef, baker, and coffee enthusiast, but his one true love is ramen. Ever in pursuit of the perfect bowl of noodles, you can always find him by listening for the tell-tale slurp of ramen being enjoyed!