Photo: Karl Panganiban/Shutterstock

If You Want to Understand Dining and Drinking in Japan, You Must First Understand Shochu

Japan Food + Drink
by Nickolaus Hines Jul 3, 2024

As someone who has centered his work around food, drinks, and traveling to find the best of both for the past 10 years, I am often asked which countries and cities have the best dining and drinking culture. It is an impossible question to answer. Yet Japan tends to spring to mind more often than others for me.

Japan’s culinary draws are well known and, in my opinion, even the highest praise doesn’t veer into the realm of exaggeration. There’s sushi — from conveyor belt sushi to high-priced omakase — ramen, soba, tempura, and an endless list of quick street food bites. When it comes to beverages to go with that food, Japanese whisky and sake are some of my favorite anytime drinks (though as I learned shortly after a trip to Tokyo and Kyoto, some of the rarest vintage bourbon can be found in the country as well).

There’s one beverage that is near ubiquitous in Japan and central to the dining out culture that hasn’t gotten the same amount of attention from those in the United States, however: shochu.

Shochu is Japan’s oldest distilled alcoholic beverage. Mentions of the spirit can be traced back to at least 1559, when carpenters working on a shrine carved “the chief shintō priest of the shrine was so stingy that he never once gave us shochu to drink” into the wood.

Today, shochu is the best selling spirit in Japan. There are 43 approved ingredients for making shochu — rice, barley, sweet potatoes, radishes, and sugarcane, to name a few. Like sake, miso, and other Japanese foods and beverages, shochu is largely defined by koji. This mold-inoculated starter (most often cooked rice or soybeans inoculated with Aspergillus oryzae) kicks off the fermentation process and adds flavors unique to each koji. Think of it like how sourdough starter impacts the final flavor of a loaf of bread.

Photo: Nikaido

Shochu’s low alcohol for a spirit (usually under 30 percent) and gentle flavor profile makes it a versatile beverage. In Japan, it is enjoyed neat, in cocktails, on the rocks, or with hot water. One of the most popular ways to consume shochu is in a highball, called a chu-hi, which is a contraction of shochu highball. Bars make a range of chu-hi with soda water, lemon, and fruit juices, and cans are sold in vending machines and convenience stores.

“When you travel to Japan, try going to any type of Japanese restaurant or izakaya,” Yuichi Nikaido, the eighth-generation president of Nikaido Shuzou, says over email. “The majority of them serve shochu, which will give you an idea of just how popular shochu is in Japan. Try finding your favorite bottle from the hundreds of brands available. Then, mark your bottle, come back and enjoy your shochu again, and experience the joy of becoming a regular guest at that izakaya.”

The Nikaido brand is credited with creating the first 100 percent barley koji shochu. The family company began as a sake brewery in the seaside town of Hiji in Oita prefecture in 1866, staying in the family to this day through eight generations. In 1949, production focus shifted from sake to shochu. Then a rice shortage and tough economic times led the company to innovate, and the sixth generation president of the Nikaido company developed a way to make 100 percent barley shochu (mugi). The first bottles came out in 1973. It became a regional favorite in Oita prefecture, then popularity grew across Japan.

The brand is led today by Yuichi Nikaido, and his younger brother Akihiro Nikaido is the production manager for all Nikaido brands after years of studying and working in sake brewing and the production of awamori, a distilled rice spirit native to Okinawa.

Yuichi Nikaido, left, and Akihiro Nikaido, right. Photo: Nikaido

Nikaido’s two core shochu expressions, Oita Mugi Shochu and Kitchom (aged Oita Mugi Shochu), are now available in the US for the first time. For years, shochu has been misunderstood stateside. That was in no small part due to laws in California and New York that required shochu 24 percent alcohol or less to be sold under the name soju — a Korean drink that predates shochu. That changed in October 2023 with California law AB 416.

It’s a step that could help bridge the gap when learning about Japanese dining customs before making a trip to the country.

“Japan is unique compared to Europe, America, and other Asian countries in that we drink shochu, a spirit, throughout a meal, from start to finish,” Yuichi Nikaido says. “Even at parties, it is normal to have several side dishes and snacks to go with the shochu or sake, and then the main dish is served at the end. I think that a distinctive feature of Japanese cuisine is that the menu is designed with the assumption that a spirit like shochu will be consumed; food is actually seasoned to pair well with shochu.”

I caught up with Nikaido to learn more about this distinctly Japanese spirit that any traveler to the country should have a basic understanding of.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Matador Network: Americans are more familiar with highballs now thanks to the proliferation of the whisky highball, particularly when it comes to Japanese whisky. What’s the first thing you want people to understand about the shochu highball?

Yuichi Nikaido: Like whiskey, shochu is one of the most popular spirit categories in Japan. We call a shochu highball a “chu-hi”, which is a combination of the last three letters in “shochu” and the first two letters in “highball.” By using shochu in a highball, you achieve a couple things: First, you’re presenting the spirit in a way in which people, particularly in the United States, are already familiar. Second, shochu is usually somewhere around 24 percent alcohol. So for those who want something that’s a little lower-octane than whiskey but still want to enjoy an adult drink, shochu is a great alternative. Finally, the carbonation adds a refreshing quality, making it appealing in a variety of situations, such as in the summer, at the beach, or while watching sports. It’s nice to drink spirits slowly at a bar, but we also recommend making it into a highball and drinking it in a friendly atmosphere with friends.

What sets a proper shochu highball apart from mixing some shochu with sparkling water?

In Japan, “chu-hi” or “chuhai” (shochu highball) is not just shochu mixed with soda, but also adding various flavors and fruits to find your favorite way to drink it. The best part of shochu highball is that you can drink it in various ways, such as making it sweet, dry, or higher in alcohol. All you need is one bottle of shochu to enjoy with friends.

Shochu has a long history. Where do you start when explaining the spirit to American consumers?

Shochu has a drinking history of about 500 years. When you think of Japan, you may think of sake, but there are just as many brands of shochu as there are of sake, and it has evolved through daily refinement of their techniques. If you can believe it, shochu is more commonly consumed in Japan than sake.

How is shochu typically consumed in Japan?

In Japan, people drink shochu during meals. You can think of it a little like the role wine plays in European countries like Italy and France. One of the attractions of shochu is that it brings out the taste of the food while allowing you to feel the flavor of the ingredients. At izakaya restaurants in Japan, you can actually write your name on the bottle neck chain and keep it on the shelf, and you can drink from it when you return to that restaurant. Shochu is often paired with any food, whether it be Japanese, Western, or Chinese. At home, people also drink their favorite way of shochu during meals. In Japan, shochu is enjoyed by people of all ages, socioeconomic levels, and genders.

Japanese bars deeply influence American bars. Do you see shochu making its way into a wider sphere of influence stateside with the new legislation that allows shochu to be accurately labeled and marketed?

I think it’s only a matter of time before shochu is, if not ubiquitous in American drinking culture, then somewhere close to it. Trends in America show that while people still love their whiskey and vodka, there’s an appetite for something easy to drink when you don’t feel like something high in alcohol, but don’t necessarily want to abstain from drinking entirely either. Bartenders are also starting to take notice of shochu in America. The day may be coming when shochu will be recognized as one of the most popular spirits in American bars. I’m dreaming of that day to come.

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