Though the names may sound similar, shochu and soju are very different spirits. Soju is a category of Korean distillates, while “Shochu is the national spirit of Japan,” says Julia Momose, creative director at Bar Kumiko and Kikko. “It is a true expression of the raw ingredients that is incredibly rich in flavor, yet supple and easy to drink with food. The most common base ingredients are sweet potato, barley, rice, buckwheat and sugar cane, and the key ingredient is koji, a special mold that is critical to the saccharification process.”
Robert Kidd, head bartender at Le Cavalier, continues "Shochu is a traditional Japanese liquor that can be distilled from just about anything! The main three products that can be found are imo-jochu (made with sweet potato), mugi-jochu (made with barley), and kome-jochu (made with rice). This makes shochu an amazing diverse liquor that can be used in cocktail applications, but it is a spirit that is best enjoyed neat or served with some cold filtered water.” We enlisted a slate of shochu-loving bartenders to dive into their favorites. (Not familiar with how to use shochu? Read on!)
Best Overall: Iichiko Saiten
ABV: 43% | Base: Barley | Tasting Notes: Mineral, Peach, Pepper
“When I am first introducing someone to shochu at the bar, I love to show them Iichiko Shochu,” describes Momose. “This is a barley-based shochu from Oita Prefecture in Kyushu. Sanwa Shurui is the distillery, and they are a leader in the category of barley shochu in Japan. In their portfolio is one classic style of honkaku barley shochu, Iichiko Silhouette, which is bottled at 25% abv, but they also have the more creative style Iichiko Saiten, which is more robust and bottled at 43% abv. Both are amazing on the rocks or in various styles of cocktails. In Saiten, delicious notes of honeydew melon and white grape come through.”
“Currently, I am really excited about an Old Fashioned variation which I make when peaches come into season that highlights the fruity notes of Iichiko Saiten. It is made with Iichiko Saiten, oolong tea, summer peach syrup, yuzu bitters and cardamom bitters.” — Julia Momose, creative director at Bar Kumiko and Kikko
Best for Cocktails: Nankai Shochu
ABV: 24% | Base: Black Sugar and Rice | Tasting Notes: Floral, Pear, Ripe red cherries
When Paul and Mai Nakayama were on their honeymoon in Mai's parents’ hometown in Amami, Japan they were introduced to a black sugar shochu and fell in love. Inspired to create their own brand of easy-drinking shochu made from kokuto or “black sugar,” they set off to research the process, created Nankai Shochu (which translates to “southern seas”), and now both continue to spread the shochu love in their home state of California and beyond.
Nankai Shochu is vacuum-distilled and made from 80% black sugar and 20% rice, resulting in a fresh, clean-tasting spirit that makes for an excellent and quite versatile cocktail base. Try subbing out vodka in a Moscow Mule or rum in a Hemingway Daiquiri.
"I love using Nankai Shochu in unexpected ways. Their classic expression works beautifully with Lillet or a sweet vermouth with a twist. It's also lower ABV so it can make a sessionable cocktail that won't knock you over the head." — Prairie Rose, Editor
Best Barley: Mizu Shochu
ABV: 35% | Base: Barley | Tasting Notes: Rich, Floral, Stone fruit
Mizu’s shochu is a single-distilled Genshu-style shochu made from two-row barley and rice. It comes in at a hotter 35% ABV. Expect notes similar to a young, unaged whiskey—floral, stone fruit, and slightly grassy, but still lively. “Shochu is distilled once and includes only one type of ingredient with no additives or sweeteners. This single distillation really preserves the full flavor of the spirit,” says Kidd.
Mizu’s recipe dates back 400 years, combining 67 two-rowed barleys, 33 black koji rice, and water from the Kurokamiyama Mountains. Cocktail-wise, sub it out for vodka in drinks but expect more body and richness (though what can you expect from a spirit that took home Double Gold at the New York World Wine & Spirits Competition?).
“I work with a barley shochu quite often called Mizu Shochu which is delightful served on the rocks with a slice of cucumber.” — Ariana Vitale, beverage director at Abigail Hall in Portland, Ore.
Best Sweet Potato: Jinkoo
ABV: 25% | Base: Sweet potato | Tasting Notes: Savory, Earthy, Creme brulee
Jinkoo calls for a base of Satsuma sweet potatoes grown in the Kagoshima prefecture cooked in clay pots and fermented with black koji. For newer shochu drinkers, Jinkoo (meaning ‘perfect sky’) has an approachable flavor palette, ideal for adjusting your palette to the flavors of shochu. Unlike some sweet potato shochu that are a little bolder, this is sweet, herbal, rich, and buttery. The sweetness chills out as you sip with a minty, slightly herbal finish.
Like most shochu, it’s distilled just once to keep the fragrance and characteristics of the sweet potato. Sip this on the rocks.
Best American: St. George California Rice Shochu
ABV: 40% | Base: California rice | Tasting Notes: Crisp, Vegetal, Super malty
This ever-innovative west coast distillery has transplanted this Japanese spirit to the other side of the ocean, giving it a unique California feel. It’s made by distilling the lees leftover from a local sake producer and steaming them with local Calrose rice and koji spores. After fermentation, the mixture is distilled through a copper still, resulting in a crisp, vegetal, super malty, and slightly sweet Cali shochu.
Take a look at the label—it nods to both the California state flag and the Japanese national flag.
The brand’s favorite serve is in a highball. “You can make great takes on Martinis by adding vermouth to the spirit or even try smoking the spirit to add fragrance and do an interesting take on a Manhattan or Old Fashioned,’ says Charles Bement, beverage director at The Bristol in Chicago.
Best Flavored: Mizu Green Tea Shochu
ABV: 35% | Base: Green tea and rice | Tasting Notes: Matcha, Passionfruit, Nori
Green tea has strong ties to Japanese history—it’s said the first seeds were planted in the Saga prefecture over 800 years ago. Mizu was inspired by this legacy, translating earth, rich sencha into a fragrant shochu.
Much like their standard bottle, the shochu is single distilled from two-rowed barley and black koji rice, but during the fermentation and distillation process, fresh Ureshino green tea leaves are added.
The resulting spirit is rich, with big notes of matcha, passionfruit, and nori. Try it in a snifter, with a dash of hot water, or in a highball with soda water. At 70 proof, it’s bold and buttery, with a big amount of body.
Best for Sipping: Kumejima Kumesen
ABV: 24% | Base: Rice | Tasting Notes: Earth, Anise, Banana
This bottle is a traditional Awamori—an Okinawan spirit made specifically from Thai long-grain (indica) rice. Awamoris are stored in clay pots that help mellow out the flavors.
It’s not a shochu for beginners: It’s earthy, herbal, fungal, and slightly sweet, with notes of ripe banana. Savory and fatty, Kumejima Jumesen is made with black koji mold—Okinawa’s hot, humid climate is ideal for the growth of the bacteria. The distillery is located high up on the mountain, giving the producer access to cool, clean water and a crisp climate.
Drink it chilled on the rocks or straight up to let the pleasant umami flavors shine.
If making cocktails is your goal, try either the Iichiko Saiten’s (view at Drizly) higher-proof shochu or the easy-to-mix Nankai Shochu (view at Drizly) for a wide range of cocktail applications. If you want to try a more interesting, unique bottle, Kumejima Kumesen (view at Astor) is excellent.
What to Look For
What shochu is made from will dictate how the beverage tastes. Rice shochu will be more silky and elegant, while barley will have more grip. That said, how the producer distills the spirit will also affect the end taste.
Shochu can vary wildly in ABV. If you prefer to sip it on the rocks, look for a lower option—you can also use these for lower-octane cocktails. If you prefer your shochu strong, options like Iichiko Saiten come in at a higher 43% ABV.
How is shochu made and what is it made from?
"Shochu is a traditional Japanese liquor that can be distilled from just about anything! The main three products that can be found are imo-jochu (made with sweet potato), mugi-jochu (made with barley), and kome-jochu (made with rice),” says Kidd.
What's the difference between shochu and soju?
“Shochu is Japanese and soju is Korean,” says Sukey Lau, the beverage director of the just-opened Sarashina Horii in NYC. “Both use the same distilling process, but shochu is a pure spirit, with no additives or flavoring, while most sojus uses additives for flavoring. Also, soju is diluted to reduce the ABV to 18% and 25%. Shochu is between 25% and 35%.”
What is the proper way to drink shochu?
The flavor profiles of shochu range widely from brand to brand. Often, it’s an excellent substitute for white spirits in cocktails, but you can also sip it chilled, warm, or over ice.
What's the proper way to store shochu?
Keep shochu in a cool, dark, place out of direct sunlight. If the shochu is lower than 20% ABV, consider keeping it in the fridge.
How long does it last after opening?
Once you open a bottle of shochu, it will not start going bad immediately, but over the course of a few months the flavors will weaken.
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Kate Dingwall is a seasoned beverage writer, with work appearing on Wine Enthusiast, Tales of the Cocktail, and others. She has been writing about the bar and spirits world for six years.