How to drink Shochu - a guide

The 8 ways to drink Shochu

By Timo Torner / Last updated on July 15, 2022 
Shochu is a distilled liquor from Japan. Unlike Sake, Shochu is relatively unknown, and even fewer people know how to drink it.

Almost everyone has heard of Sake. But Shochu is still new to the majority of people. In Japan, though, the spirit is immensely popular. And depending on the type, there are different ways to drink Shochu.

In case this might intimidate you, don't worry. This article covers everything you need to know about Japan's favorite liquor, its different types, and above all: how you imbibe your Shochu the right way.

In case you want to try this amazing liquor, check out our list of the best Shochu to try.

What is Shochu?

Shochu is Japan's most popular alcoholic beverage; - more than Sake, Japanese Whisky, and even beer. It typically contains between 20% and 30% ABV, but there is also some Shochu with 40% vol. and above.

In contrast to Sake, which is a brewed liquor, Shochu is distilled either once (Honkaku Shochu) or multiple times (Kourui Shochu). The latter is purer, less aromatic, and free of impurities. 

The first, Honkaku Shochu, refers to the traditional way of producing the spirit. It is also often considered the premium version. The single-step distillation process makes sure that the resulting liquid contains as much aroma and flavor as possible. 

To distill Shochu, you can use a variety of ingredients. Depending on the respective ingredient, Shochu then is classified into categories like:

  • Imo Shochu (made from sweet potato)
  • Mugi Shochu (made from barley )
  • Kome Shochu (made from rice)
  • Kokuto Shochu (made from brown sugar)
  • Soba Shochu (made from buckwheat)
  • Shiso Shochu (made from Shiso herb)

There are more categories of Shochu, and not all of them are defined by base ingredients. Sometimes they're also regional, like the Okinawan Shochu (Awamori).

What is most important when serving Shochu?

The Japanese are very particular when it comes to the rituals surrounding Shochu. And to make things even more complicated, these rituals vary.

As you now know, there are different base ingredients, a wide range of ABV, and two main types. So, to drink your Shochu the right way, you should make sure to check the following:

Type of Shochu - is it made of sweet potato, rice, barley, or buckwheat? Or is it even a Shoshu from Okinawa?

Amount of Alcohol - Is it a low ABV Shochu of 20% or one that contains a lot of alcohol, above the 40% range?

With these two parameters in mind, you are able to determine the right way to drink your Shochu. To give you an idea about the different options you have, read on and find out all about the different ways to drink it.

8 different ways to drink Shochu

Preparing Shochu is a form of art. Just like Japanese tea ceremonies, the preparation takes time, knowledge, and experience. And not every Shochu is intended for neat drinking. Some require the addition of water.

The right combination of water and Shochu is a craft in itself. You can prepare it with cold water, hot water, sparkling soda water, and even pre-mix it.

But before you get confused now, here are the eight ways to serve and drink Shochu.

Straight up

When drinking Shochu straight up, no water or ice is added. The spirit is poured into a glass or cup and enjoyed as is.

This way is best to smell and taste the different flavors of the liquor. With a trained tongue and tastebuds, you can also detect the ingredient a specific Shochu is distilled from.

There are a few guidelines when it comes to drinking Shochu straight:

  • Serve it with a chaser of water.
  • A clean-tasting Shochu should be served chilled.
  • A rich and complex Shochu should be served at room temperature.

Serving a complex Shochu at room temperature allows the spirit to unfold its full spectrum of aromas and flavors. That emphasizes its richness.

On the other hand, if you drink a very clean Shochu, serving it chilled can also underline the clean and pure character. 

On the rocks

Drinking spirits on the rocks has a long tradition. For Shochu, this works best with aged Mugi Shochu (made from barley) and Imo Shochu (made from sweet potato).

The ideal manner to enjoy your spirit on the rocks is by using a large and clear ice cube. Refrain from using smaller ice cubes as they will melt quickly and dilute your beverage faster than you can drink it.

A big, clear, and solid chunk of ice looks better and chills your Shochu without diluting it.

When preparing the drink, add the ice cube first to cool the glass. The cube will melt a bit, so before pouring your Shochu on top, make sure to get rid of the water in your glass.

Then pour chilled Shochu on top of the ice cube. By doing that, the Shochu immediately touches the ice and gets cooled.

Mizuwari - mixed with cold water

If you find drinking neat Shochu too strong, mixing it with water is a great option. The Japanese term Mizuwari means mixing Shochu with cold water. 

In this case, the Shochu is combined with water and ice cubes to chill the drink. Typically you use 1 part Shochu for 1 part water and then add ice. 

If it's too strong for your liking, you can add some more water. Of course, if it's not strong enough, you can also add a bit of Shochu until you get the balance right.

The correct way to serve Mizuwari is by pouring the Shochu first. Since water has a higher density, it will sink to the bottom when poured into the glass, and the Shochu will blend better with the water. 

Maewari - pre-mixed with water

Maewari is a specific way to make a Mizuwari. The water and Shochu are mixed together at least 24 hours before serving. And you can even leave it for multiple days to improve results.

This preparation makes Shochu and water mix perfectly. After a couple of days, the taste of this drink will turn extremely mellow and rich. 

Nowadays, you'll rarely see Maewari served in restaurants. Still, if someone ever invites you to drink a Maewari with him, I suggest accepting the invitation. Traditionally, this drink used to be served to very important guests. 

So serving a Maewari is a gesture of courtesy and of paying respect. Plus, when do you have the chance to try an authentic Maewari these days?!

Oyuwari - mixed with hot water

If you feel we now should be done with different ways of mixing water with Shochu, you're mistaken. Because the term Oyuwari describes the art of mixing Shochu with hot (not warm) water to pronounce the umami flavor in the spirit.

Oyuwari is best with Shochus made from sweet potatoes. However, some other types also work a treat. 

This way of serving Shochu is pretty common during the cold winter months. As the steam of the hot drink rises, you can smell the different aromas and flavors in the Shochu.

To serve an Oyuwari the right way, make sure to follow these steps:

  • Boil the water and let it cool down a little. Aim for about 158°F or 70°C, and don't pour boiling water into your cup.
  • This time, pour the hot water first, as this will help warm the cup before the Shochu is added. That also prevents the alcohol from evaporating too quickly.
  • The ratio for a standard ABV Shochu is 3 parts Shochu to 2 parts hot water. 
  • A higher ABV (more than 25%) Shochu is best-poured at 1 part Shochu per 1 part hot water.

Pre-mixed and warmed

There's also a combination of Maewari and Oyuwari. Here, a mixture of Shochu and water (ratios like in an Oyuwari) are pre-mixed and set aside for at least 24 days.

As with regular Maewari, you can also let it rest for a bit longer for better results. 

The pre-mixed Shochu is gently heated until it reaches 113°F or 45°C. Traditionally this is done with a small pot put into boiling water until the liquid reaches the desired temperature.

Sodawari - mixed with soda water

Sodawari is - you might have guessed it - a mix of Shochu and bubbly soda water. Japanese also occasionally call it the "evil way of drinking Shochu".

Regardless, the refreshing mix of soda and Shochu makes a great drink. The carbonation in the soda water even pronounces the taste of the Shochu, making it easier to taste the different flavors in the spirit.

For a great Sodawari, mix 1 part Shochu with 3 parts chilled soda water. You can also add a slice of lemon or lemon peel to add a bit of citric freshness to your drink.

Enjoy Shochu in cocktails

Shochu cocktails are currently the most fashionable way to enjoy Shochu. Popular cocktails like the Oolongwari (mixed with Oolong tea), the Chuhai, and the Shochu Melon citrus cocktails are on the menu of Izakaya-style restaurants throughout Japan.

In case you want to try some, check out our post about the best Shochu cocktail recipes.

The best ways to drink Shochu by type

Shochu comes in many different types. Each has a slightly different taste that determines the perfect way of serving it.

Mugi Shochu: Shochu made from barley is clean and crisp in taste. As the taste isn't that strong and intense, you can sip it straight to get the most out of the aromas and flavors. 

If drinking straight is too strong for you, I recommend drinking it with cold water or mixing it into a cocktail.

Imo Shochu: Shochu made from sweet potato is quite common. This type is famous for its strong and aromatic taste and is often considered the best Shochu. 

To enjoy these bold flavors, serve this type on the rocks or combine it with hot water.

Kome Shochu: The base for Kome-style Shochu is rice, just like it is for Sake. The sweetness in the rice typically shines through in the Shochu. 

And the best way to appreciate sweet taste is by combining it with hot water in a traditional Oyuwari.

Kokuto Shochu: Kokuto Shochu is pretty famous, although only a few brands produce this type. The smell is quite untypical for Shochu and has a lingering sweetness. 

Some Kokuto Shochu tastes quite similar to Rum. Considering that Rum is made from sugarcane and this Shochu from brown sugar, it should be hardly surprising.

The best way to enjoy a Kokuto Shochu is on the rocks. But the sweet taste and delicate flavors also make it great for drinking straight.

Shiso Shochu: Shiso Shochu is made from a herb called Shiso. The taste of Shiso is sour with almost citric acidity. This refreshing flavor profile makes Shiso Shochu a perfect match for soda water in a Sodawari.

Soba shochu: Soba Shochu is made of the same ingredient as soba noodles. The taste is crisp, clean, aromatic, and refreshing. The best way to enjoy this Shochu is in an Oyuwari (mixed with hot water). 

Okinawan Shochu: Shochu made in Okinawa is usually mixed with cold water. Either in a Mizuwari (chilled water) or a Sodawari (chilled soda water). 

The aromas and flavors of Okinawan Shochu are rich and very aromatic. So it's a natural match for a drink made with water. 

Serving Shochu with food

Shochu and Shochu cocktails are a common sight in places called Izakayas. An Izakaya, similar to a pub, is a restaurant frequented by workers. They go there to enjoy a drink and food after a long day's work. 

And Shochu is excellent for food pairing due to the great variety of flavors and styles. Here is some general guidance that helps choose the right food for your Shochu (or vice versa).

Mugi Shochu - The clean and crisp taste of this Shochu makes it a fantastic fit for various cuisines. You can combine it with Japanese food, Chinese or Western food.

Imo Shochu - The aromatic and intense flavors of Imo Shochu will overpower delicate flavors. So, don't pair it with Sushi or Sashimi and stick to more aromatic or meaty dishes.

Kome Shochu - Kome Shochu is made from rice and goes perfectly with Japanese seafood. One of the best ways to pair it is with fresh Sushi or Sashimi. And Kome Shochu also works with Tempura.

Kokuto Shochu - The unusual and sweet taste of Kokuto Shochu goes perfectly with soy sauce. So choosing food flavored with soy sauce is an excellent choice. Try to pair it with dishes like sukiyaki or yakitori.

Shiso Shochu - Shiso Shochu is light and refreshing with a slightly citric taste. It's a wonderful match for fresh seafood and other light dishes.

Soba Shochu - If you plan to eat Japanese food of any kind, you can't go wrong by pairing it with Soba Shochu. 

Awamori - Awamori describes Okinawa-style Shochu. As this is a regional category, Okinawan Shochu goes best with food from the area. So stick to Okinawan cuisine to go along with an Awamori mixed with chilled water.

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