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Shochu is a distilled beverage containing around 25% alcohol, and produced from different ingredients such as wheat, rice, or sweet potato. Those products are fermented, and then distilled in order to obtain a beverage which is both rustic and refined.
The origins of shochu date back to the Eiroku period (16th century), when the distillation techniques from the East arrived in the Japanese main islands through South Asia, including Okinawa. The region of Kagoshima (island of Kyushu) is where people started distilling sweet potatoes to prepare Shochu for the first time. Other regions became famous, like the Oita area, known for its Shochu made of wheat; or Kumamota region, known for its rice shochu. During the Edo period, producing techniques have traveled throughout the archipelago. They have been improved considerably, especially during the Meiji period. The production of shochu then spread throughout Japan.
Sometimes called "Japanese vodka", shochu became a very popular beverage, in last few years.
Do you know about the "Izakayas"? These are traditional bars in Japan, and they are definitely the best place to enjoy shochu. There, shochu is served with "o-tsumamis", some kinds of delicious appetizers, "sake no sakana", or small dishes based on fish. These preparations are specifically designed to accompany shochu.
The best way to appreciate shochu is to drink it as is, with or without ice. A slice of lemon can be added, or more traditionally, with a pickled plum (umeboshi). It can also be adjusted with water or tea (hot or cold). Shochu is also an interesting cocktail base.
Ingredients used in the production of shohu contain complex sugars (starch) that cannot directly ferment into alcohol (like rice in the sake production process). A preparation stage is necessary, and this is done by the "Koji", a fungus, that will transform the starch into simple sugars that can be fermented by yeasts.
The koji used for shochu production can be of different types: black, white or yellow koji, and each will give a very specific flavor profile to the final product.
It is interesting to note that the first step of preparation is always made from rice + koji, even if the main ingredient is other than rice.
Then comes the preparation of the moromi, the fermentation stock. This is done by the addition of yeasts to the rice + koji mixture. Once fermentation is started, the main ingredient (sweet potatoes, buckwheat, brown sugar, or others...) is added. Everything will ferment for few weeks in tanks.
The distillation can be simple for shochu with alcohol levels around 25%, or multiple if shochu is decided to be around 35% or more.
This is a common step in the process of making shochu. It allows the product to stabilize and mature. Shochu is kept for a few months in earthen jars or in barrels before being bottled. Shochu is often aged many years (minimum 3 years to be considered as aged shochu).
To start the fermentation, the first ingredient is always rice, then comes the main ingredient that will determine the class and name of the final product.