Thursday, July 27, 2006

Basic course: Introduction

Shōchū is Japan's indigenous distilled spirit. It is quite different from its more widely known sibling sake and has its own tradition in the Southern part of Japan dating back at least to the 1500s.

It has had a resurgence in popularity in Japan in recent years, with a huge variety of quality spirits now on the market and smart new shōchū bars lined with all shapes and sizes of the drink very much the cool places to hang out. However, it is still under explored by non-Japanese. In my opinion, this partly because it is often quite difficult to understand the labeling of shōchū bottles. That is the hurdle this four lesson course is aimed at vaulting.

In a shōchū bar

This course is aimed at the consumer. I am not going to go into the technical details of production unless it helps people better understand the differences between the bottles in front of them. Neither am I offering a connoisseurs' course here: no insights into taste, history etc. Before you can become a connoisseur you have to be able to buy the drink. We will do the other stuff some other time. Finally, this is not Japanese language course. We are only going to be looking at 10 or 11 words that will help us get vital info off the back of a bottle.

I believe that with a cool head and these four lessons anybody can start to navigate their way around the shōchū shelves, even without any understanding of the language. The course ends with a vocab crib sheet to take along with you if you ever get a chance to go shōchū hunting.

The photographs come courtesy of Titanium 22 and Typester respectively. Both come with share alike conditions.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Lesson 1: The two basic categories of shōchū

Shōchū (焼酎) means "burning sake". It is a distilled spirit (unlike sake, which is a brewed rice wine) and typically has a much higher alcohol content than sake, ranging between 20 and 45 per cent.

These are the characters for shōchū:

You should find them somewhere on the bottle, in some kind of stylised form.

Shōchū is made from all kinds of things: potato, rice, barley, buckwheat etc. etc. etc.. However, all of these spirits fit into two major and very different classifications:

Korui (甲類) shōchū

This is sometimes abbreviated to kōshu (甲酎).

This is a multiply distilled spirit and is best compared to vodka. In general, fairly characterless and odourless. To confuse things, the "" in kōrui actually means "first rank", but this is the colourless liquid that they sell dirt cheap in huge plastic containers in Japanese supermarkets. There are posher brands but lets move along the supermarket aisle to the really interesting stuff:

Honkaku (本格) or Otsurui (乙類) shōchū


This is the stuff I am fascinated by. It used to be called otsurui shōchū, which means "second rank", but, because this legal classification was misleading people into thinking it was second rate, its makers have been allowed to call it Honkaku, which means authentic or "classical method" shōchū. It is singly distilled and often retains more of the character of the original ingredients than kōrui shōchū.

See this entry if your browser can't read the Japanese characters in brackets.
The photograph is taken from islodelba. Islodelba is sharing it on these creative commons conditions.

Lesson 2: The many ingredients of shōchū

Shōchū (焼酎) can be made of all sorts of things. There are a few standard types but I have seen a variety of weird and wonderful base ingredients: milk, pumpkin, green pepper, chestnut, carrot, shiso leaf, sesame. Some of these shōchūs are one-off gimmicks, so I will concentrate for now on four classic shōchū bases:

Barley etc. shōchū

The Japanese word "mugi" () has quite a broad meaning. It can refer to a wide variety of cereal grains such as wheat, barley, rye, and even oats. Mugijōchū (麦焼酎), meaning "mugi" shōchū, is therefore not a tightly defined term. These are the characters for mugi:

Or you may see the same word spelt out in the hiragana syllabary, in which case the same word would look like this:

Just to give an idea of how this might be combined with characters we looked at in the last lesson, mugijōchū would look like this:

Rice shōchū

The Japanese word for uncooked rice is "kome" and rice shōchū is called komejōchū (米焼酎). This is the character for "kome":

Or the same word in hiragana:

Just substitute the character/hiragana for the "mugi" character in "mugijōchū" above to get "komejōchū". Getting the hang of this?

Potato shōchū

The Japanese word for potato is "imo" and, if you have been paying attention to the emerging pattern here, you will have guessed that potato sh
ōchū is known as "imojōchū" (芋焼酎). Sweet Satsuma Imo potatoes are often used. Some people find the smell of sharp taste of many imojōchū challenging, but I am a fan. The character for "imo" is:

In hiragana, the same word would look like this:

You will often see "imo" in conjunction with the characters for Satsuma, which is an area on Japan's southern island:

Or in hiragana:

You might see it in a combination of the two types of characters above, often with Satsuma spelled out in hiragana and "imo" in the more complex characters.

Buckwheat shōchū

The Japanese word for buckwheat is "soba" (蕎麦). Many people will recognise this word as the name used for a type of Japanese noodle which is made from buckwheat. Buckwheat shōchū is called "sobajōchū". As often as not, the kanji for "sobajōchū" (蕎麦焼酎) is not used. Instead, the simpler hiragana characters are employed for the first part of the word (そば焼酎). The kanji characters for "Soba" would be as follows (notice that the second character in the "soba" is the mugi character we encountered earlier):

The hiragana is:

Awamori and soju

As I've said, there are many other types of sh
ōchū than these four main types. For simplicity's sake, though, I am boiling the list down to the essentials.

There are only two more categories of spirits that I must mention here, if only to distinguish them from shōchū. The first is Awamori (泡盛). It is made on the southern island of Okinawa out of long grain Thai rice and I believe it is properly regarded as a separate, though intimately linked, tradition of distilling from the mainland shōchūs. It usually sits in the same section of Japanese supermarkets, though, so you need to be able to distinguish it. These are the characters for "Awamori":

The second type of spirits you need to be aware of are the Korean distilled spirits called "soju". The name is similar but it is a completely separate tradition from shōchū. It is often to be found in the korui shōchū section of Japanese supermarkets (korui are is the multiply distilled, clear and in my opinion less interesting type of shōchū I distinguish from the fascinating honkaku world in lesson one.) Soju has become popular in some parts of the United States for use as a neutral spirit in cocktails. If the bottle is covered in Korean characters or says "Jinro" or has stylised green mountains on it, then you are probably in soju territory and there, I am afraid, this particular guide must turn back.

Intro -- Lesson 1 -- Lesson 2 -- Lesson 3 -- Lesson 4 -- Vocab

See this entry if your browser can't read the Japanese characters in brackets.
The photograph is taken from

Lesson 3: What is kōji?

A microscopic photo of a kōji spore.

Basically, this is the stuff that gets the party started. Here is the Japanese character for kōji:

Alternatively, you might see the hiragana for kōji being used instead:

I am going to keep it simple because I am a bit. Here is the really stripped down technical explanation of what kōji is:
Kōjikin (麹菌) are a type of mould spore that are cultivated onto an ingredient like rice or barley to make a kōji () mould. This in turn turns starches in the ingredient into sugars. These sugars can be fermented. And we all know what that means! Alcohol!

Of course many of you will have knocked back gallons of beer or wine in your time without having the first clue about how they are made. So why is Kōji the third lesson in my introductory course? Because there are different types of kōji and they make a difference to the taste of shōchū.

Different types of kōjikin

There are three broad categories of kōjikin (the mould spores used to make kōji):
White (白麹菌 - shirokōjikin): Easy for the distillers to use and is therefore the most widely used shōchū kōjikin today. It was invented as recently as 1923 as a more easily used refinement of black kōjikin.

Black (黒麹菌 - kurokōjikin): Is supposed to be good at extracting the characteristics of the base ingredients and imparts much more acidity than the yellow kōjikin used in sake making (see below). It is difficult to use and at one time was almost completely dropped by the shōchū industry (although it has always been used in the Okinawan awamori distilling tradition). However, it has come back into vogue and several makers advertise their use of it. I think beginners who are reading this are already probably suffering from character overload so, not wishing to overcomplicate things, the Japanese character for black is:

If you see that character near the characters for kōji above, you have an evens chance of it being black koujikin. On the other hand, it might just be made near black mountain or by a black bottomed monk or something.

Yellow (黄麹 - ki-kōjikin): Is used in sake making. Because it reacts to high temperatures very easily, it is difficult to use in the southern parts of Japan which are shōchū's stronghold. At one time it had been very widely used by honkaku shōchū makers but it fell out of favour. It has had a resurgence because it is supposed to promote a relatively light taste. The Japanese character for yellow is:

Different kōji ingredients

Many bottles of shōchū do not state clearly what kind of kōjikin they are using. However, they all state what ingredient the spores have been cultured on to to make the kōji. There are two ingredients in common use, rice and "mugi", and the choice between the two effects the flavour. It is sometimes but not always the case that the main ingredient of the shōchū is the same ingredient used to make the kōji. You will find the characters for rice and "mugi" in the list of ingredients in lesson two (or in the vocab crib sheet). Look for them in conjunction with the kōji characters.

So, for instance, here is a label of mugi shōchū (blue underline) using mugi as the base of its kōji (red underline):

Whereas here is a label of a mugi shōchū (blue underline) with a rice kōji (red underline):

See this entry if your browser can't read the Japanese characters in brackets.

Lesson 4: Reading a bottle

Most shōchū bottles are covered in a mass of Japanese characters that for many Westerners will look completely inaccessible. At first sight, many people will find it difficult even to distinguish the sake shelves in a Japanese supermarket from the shōchū ones. I believe this is one of the reasons why this incredibly rich corner of the the world of distilled spirits has remained terra incognita for most people outside Japan and many foreigners within it.

However, I am confident that even someone completely ignorant of the Japanese language can, if they don't panic, begin to navigate their way around with just half a dozen or so key bits of vocab. I have put together a crib sheet to take along with you if you ever get the chance to shop for this stuff, but let's see how you fare on a dry run:

First, some bad news. Both of the bottles above are mugijōchūs. There appears to be no standardization at all in the types of bottles used for shōchū. The bottle on the right, in particular, could easily be a sake.

You are going to have to look closer to get any information. I recommend a "hit and run" mentality: accept from the outset that you are not going to understand everything on the bottle. After all, most people don't understand everything on a French wine bottle. They just know a few key phrases and hunt for them on the label.

The characters on the front of the bottles displayed above are new to us (left: "Hakuho", right: "Fukuro, which is also spelt out in English characters). They are the names of the brands. They needn't delay us any longer. Let's look at the sides:

Can you spot them? The characters on the gold label were introduced in Lesson 1. The read "honkaku shōchū", the type of shōchū we are looking for. It is not always made easy to spot what we are looking for. The characters on the right column of the pottery bottle are the same! I am afraid that is the way it is going to be. About 5 to 10 per cent of bottles are just going to pass you by if you are a novice.

But hooray! Here comes the cavalry! In many shops, the stylised info on the bottles is supplemented with a little white sticker on the back which is usually much easier to read:

Using our "hit and run" technique we can just skim through that big block of verbiage at the top there. It is just scene setting (although if you look closely, you might find at least four familiar characters). The vital information is below it. The green arrow points to the now familiar
"honkaku shōchū" characters. The red arrow is the next piece of the jigsaw. It is typical to display the ingredients in this way. It says "Ingredients/barley, rice kōji". So this is a mugijōchū made with a rice kōji. I think you will be able to work out what the red arrow text is. And what might a "40" on a spirits bottle be referring to? Alcohol content, perhaps? This is a relatively strong shōchū.

See if you can decipher some of the information on the pottery bottle:

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Basic course: A vocabulary crib sheet.

I have put together a short "crib sheet" full of the basic terms and characters we have just reviewed. You might want to take it along with you if you get the chance to try out your shōchū skills in a real shop.

Monday, May 29, 2000

Not seeing Japanese characters?

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