What Is Shochu? Behind Japan’s Most Imbibed Booze

The versatile spirit is finally hitting more Jersey menus and shelves.

Photo by Steven Ribuffo, courtesy of Mizu Shochu

Americans tend to think of sake as Japan’s signature alcoholic beverage. While that’s true, the country’s most imbibed booze is shochu. And we’re finally seeing more of it on shelves here. Unlike sake, which is brewed by fermenting rice, shochu is a single-distilled clear spirit typically made from rice, sweet potato or barley. Additional ingredients, such as chestnut, sesame seeds or lemongrass can broaden the flavor profile. Most shochus hover around 20 to 35 percent alcohol by volume. 

One of shochu’s most appealing aspects is its versatility. “In Japan, it’s an everyday drink to have at the dinner table,” says Jesse Falowitz, who in 2013 launched Mizu Shochu, now one of the best known shochu brands in the United States. “It’s sippable, like whiskey or high-end tequila, but also mixology friendly for cocktails.”

In 2003, sales of shochu in the States surpassed sake for the first time. Before then, the spirit “had never really found a home outside of Japan,” says Falowitz. Prior to launching Mizu, Falowitz worked for major spirits brands like Grey Goose and Chivas Regal in several Asian cities, eventually moving to Japan in 2010. There, he started visiting shochu bars and distilleries, developing a deep respect for the centuries-old tradition and craftsmanship involved in the spirit’s production. 

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Falowitz lives stateside again, where he and his team work to bring craft shochu to American consumers. Mizu shochus are made at Munemasa Shuzo distillery in southern Japan, with all ingredients locally sourced. Available expressions include Saga Barley (distilled from barley and black koji rice); Lemongrass (white koji rice and lemongrass); Green Tea (barley, black koji rice and fresh-picked green tea); and Sakura Cask, Saga Barley shochu that’s finished for nine months in casks made from sakura, the wood of cherry-blossom trees. 

Mitsuwa Marketplace in Edgewater carries the largest shochu selection in New Jersey, with brands such as Yamamoto and Gyokuro. You’ll also find shochu featured on drinks menus at Kuro, the Japanese restaurant at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Atlantic City, as well as at Dullboy and Ani Ramen in Jersey City. At Jersey City’s Ani Ramen (a new location with a bar is slated to open in New Brunswick this month), bar lead Sharon Zambrano uses shochu in highball variations like the Spiked Yuzu Lemonade. 

If it’s your first time trying the spirit, Zambrano recommends sipping it neat or on the rocks to get a sense of its individuality. “Each shochu has different flavors, so it depends on what your preference is,” she says. Compared to whiskey or rum, shochu is much lower in alcohol, so it is lighter and easier to drink. If the first one you try doesn’t strike you, move on to the next style. “There’s a shochu out there for everyone,” she says. 

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