The mere utterance of the word conjures up heady romantic images and bittersweet nostalgia for a bygone era strewn with noble characters and a thick layer of folklore something akin to Scottish whisky.
This revered elixir is made from the powerhouse fungus Aspergillus oryzae or to you and I, Koji. This mould is responsible for the production of Miso, Sake, Soy sauce, Shochu and its variations such as Aspergillus luchuensis(black koji used to make Awamori) further add to a serious culinary monopoly that nobody is complaining about.
Almost exclusively hailing from Kyushu in the south west of Japan, Shochu is enjoyed all over the country and overtook Sake in popularity partly because of its perfect attributes as a base for mixed drinks such as Chuhai but more recently it has become increasingly desired in its own right, not just for its looks but its personality too and there is a lot to like about Shochu. I would go so far as to say that in the world of alcohol, this thoroughbred has no equal when it comes to across the board excellence in important categories such as taste, craftsmanship, health giving properties and value . Consider also the potential for synergistic matching with a meal, quite an uncommon thought for a distilled spirit with maybe Scotch and smoked salmon coming to mind but with Shochu you can find a match for dinner from amuse bouche to dessert and cheese that will have you intensely engaged in your gustatory delights be it a plate of curry or an 18 course tasting at a 3 star Michelin restaurant even though it lacks acidity . This relationship with Shochu, if you choose to have it, will be no late night rendezvous, quickie or fling ending in broken hearts and bruised egos but will instead be a slow starting love affair filled with awe, naive enthusiasm and heart pounding excitement blossoming into a strong bond and journey with continuing surprise around every corner, with every new find. I will share what I’ve learned but the true joy and passion will come from your own journey but do have a plan as there are innumerable choices and some will keep you more enlightened than others so choose wisely but dive in with an open heart and mind.
There are literally thousands of choices but let’s stick to the 3 main types for the sake of simplicity. Other than sesame, brown sugar, buckwheat and some other esoteric choices on the periphery and the more common Awamori from Okinawa which uses long grain Thai rice and local black Koji we will focus on Rice Shochu in all its refined sophisticated glory, then we have Barley which has a distinctive aroma and ranges from light to sweet and last and definitely not least is sweet potato Shochu which, thanks to sugars, creates a colorful depth, assertive aroma and taste. And while distilled spirits like vodka can be refined multiple times, our beverage of choice”honkaku Shochu” is distilled once helping it maintain the defining characteristics of its source so this is no rudimentary flavourless vodka. There are some examples that come in heavyweight on the booze and even some rice types that are full bodied and sweet potato ones that are exceptionally delicate but we shall generalise here as a starting point…
Probably the best starting point on this mission as it can be delicate and mild giving you an engaging first experience with the koji which bridges science and craftsmanship with deliciously nuanced detail.
I would agree with the general consensus that sashimi, light fare and simple preparations go well in general with rice Shochu . I would also add that if you are sensible and don’t try to match it with a symphony of flavours, it could offer synergy with say sake kasu&ginger ice cream, grilled mushrooms, shio yakitori, cheese, nuts, coconut, lemon, honey, seaweed, salads etc. The range is expansive as long as you keep the dish focused without too much aggression!
Barley is my Shochu of choice for sipping with otsumami and its earthy, clean, vibrant taste also works well with lightly seasoned fish, oysters, grilled vegetables and anything that comes to mind looking for a crisp, mildly assertive drinking partner.
Sweet potato Shochu
Sweet potato Shochu allows heartier dishes with a more assertive personality to shine beautifully and it is incredible with smoked salmon, roasted lamb, tare yakitori, tempura, curry, bbq, fatty foods and will revel in the focused viands containing flavours such as ginger, cardamom, orange, persimmon, allspice, togarashi etc.
As we part ways and you head into Shochu bliss, I would like to say that on the health front, which is always mentioned where this elixir is mentioned, of all the scientific papers I have read from study groups and distinguished universities around the world on the health benefits of Shochu from blood circulation, quality sleep, and health in general, the moderate consumption of this fine drink is equaled by none in the ability to enjoy its status as a truly healthy part of your diet. Kanpai!