Shochu (焼酎)

Shochu is a kind of distilled liquor amongst alcoholic drinks.

In Japan, it is classified into continuous distilled shochu (former group 甲 - Ko) and single distilled shochu (former group 乙 - Otshu) according to the standard of Liquor Tax Law (Revised on May 1, 2006 according to the revision of Liquor Tax Law). The liquor tax covering shochu was set low according to the policy at the time. Also shochu has a history of being drunk widely as a popular liquor.

It is brewed mainly in South Kyushu.

Shochu is brewed also on islands like Ikinoshima island in Nagasaki Prefecture, the Izu island chain and others.


According to the Liquor Tax Law, among liquors produced by the distillation of alcohol containing substances, shochu must also have the following conditions:

Not produced from malt cereals.

Not produced by filtering it through white birch charcoal or other substances specified.

Not produced by adding substances other than those mentioned separately during distillation.

It must be less than thirty-six percent volume in case of being distilled by a continuous still and must have an alcoholic strength of 45% vol or less in case distilled by a pot still.


In Japan, it seems that shochu has been produced since the sixteenth century at least, as long as confirmed literature records. For example, in 1546 Jorge Alvares, a merchant from Portugal who landed in Satsuma Province (who introduced Francisco Xavier to Yajiro and encouraged him to go to Japan) recorded that the Japanese at the time used to drink distilled liquor (written as orraqua in the original: a Portuguese word originated from araq in Arabic) made from rice.

Also at Koriyama Hachiman-jinja Shrine in Isa City in Kagoshima Prefecture, there was some graffiti written by a carpenter when it was repaired in 1559 as follows: "Such a stingy client. He's never treated us to shochu." which is the oldest literature about drinking shochu that exists in Japan now.

Later it was classified as a new type, "shochu group Ko" or existing type, "shochu group Otsu" according to the Liquor Tax Law.

Continuous distilled shochu (shochu group Ko)

In general, based on fermentation liquor made from substance like honey, it is distilled by continuous still to produce high-purity ethyl alcohol and water is added.

It must be less than thirty-six percent volume according to the tax law in Japan. Through the production process it is distilled many times and the alcohol purity becomes high, therefore the original taste of ingredients is lost and the taste has some weak characteristics. But some kinds of shochu of group Ko have achieved characteristic tastes in a way by variations of blending, maturing, number of distillation, distillation machine, types of water added, ingredients etc.

Because it is suitable for mass production, it is mass produced by major companies, that occupies a high share in the sales. It is also arranged in chuhai (a shochu-based beverage), a substance of liqueur, an ingredients for a cocktail, and a substitute for jin (distilled liquor) and vodka. White liqueur used to make fruit liquors like plum liqueur is also one of shochu group Ko. Korean shochus with a strong sweetness like Jinro which have been imported actively, are also classified into shochu group Ko according to the tax law in Japan.

It is also allowed to declare it as "white liqueur (1)" instead of "continuous distilled shochu" according to the tax law.

Single distilled shochu (shochu group Otsu)

Based on ingredients like rice and barley, it is distilled in a pot still.

It must have an alcoholic strength of forty-five percent volume or less according to the tax law. Basically it is distilled only once, so the original taste and flavor of the ingredients are characteristically kept. The South Kyushu region is famous for being the main production area.

The production procedure is as follows;

Grow aspergillus on original ingredients (usually rice or barley) to make malted rice.

Ferment the rice malt in tanks and jars to make moromi (unrefined rice wine) (the first fermentation).

Add ingredients to moromi after the first fermentation to be fermented further (the second fermentation). The added ingredients at this stage will be declared as the major ingredients of the shochu. If sweet potatoes are added for the second fermentation, it will be "sweet potato shochu."

Distill the fermentation liquor in which alcohol is generated.

In the production area, the South Kyushu region, people drink it often with hot water. How to make shochu with hot water is; first, pour hot water in a glass, and then gently add shochu, then it is blended naturally by generated convection. Those who are particular about it, leave blended shochu and water for one or a few days until it is blended more and then warm it up in kurorojoka (black pot to make hot shochu) and drink it.

Since the Liquor Tax Law was established in 1940, to maintain the liquor tax and prevent a price war of single distilled shochu (group Otshu), for four major varieties of barley, rice, sweet potato, buckwheat admitting new manufacturing licenses were refused and production couldn't commence for a long time, but in 2005 as a part of structural reform without sanctuaries, the National Tax Agency presented its views on the relaxation of regulations and admitted new licenses from 2006 though it was limited in areas and with conditions.

It is also allowed to declare it as "shochu group Otsu" or "white liqueur (2)" instead of "single distilled shochu" according to the tax law.
As described herein below, to avoid misunderstanding that the quality is lower than shochu group Ko, it is also called "Honkaku (authentic) Shochu"

Shipments without tax payment

In the single distilled shochu industry, there is an often used system, the so-called "buying in barrels" "selling in barrels." It is to use the system that enterprises having the same liquor manufacturing licenses can deal with each other without paying liquor taxes and it is also often done in the rice wine industry. In the single distilled shochu industry, big barley shochu makers in Oita often outsource the production of barley shochu to sweet potato shochu makers in Kagoshima and Miyazaki during their off-season.

Because of this system, seeing the statistics of single distilled shochu makers, production and shipping volumes are sometimes different from the actual sales of the brands of the makers. Because of that, the National Tax Agency maintains its statistics not with data of shipping and production volumes, but only with those shipped with tax, that is to say, taxable shipping volumes. When the mass media mentions "shipping volume," they sometimes report mixing "actual shipping volume" including shipping volume without tax payment with "taxable shipping volume" excluding shipping volume without tax payment, so we have to be careful about that.

Mixed shochu

This is mixed shochu of group Ko and Otsu.
It is called differently depending upon which is mixed in more, Ko or Otsu
Shochu mixed more than fifty percent and less than ninety-five percent of group Otsu is called "Otsu Ko mixed shochu" and more than five percent and less than fifty percent of group Otsu is called "Ko Otsu mixed shochu".

It used to be labeled ambiguously as Honkaku Shochu and did not show any information like the mixed rate, but the industry introduced its own rules of labeling the mixed rate and it has been implemented since January 1, 2005.

Otsu Ko mixed shochu

This is for those who avoid 100% group Otsu shochu because of the strong smell. It is intended to make it easy to drink.

Ko Otsu mixed shochu

Keeping the low costs of group Ko as its advantage, by adding the flavour of group Otsu, inexpensive and flavoured products are realized. It is price-conscious.

Other shochu

Except the shochu above, recently various shochu are produced from various ingredients throughout the country.

Shochu group Ko using major ingredients other than common ingredients like molasses, barley and other cereals

Shochu group Otsu fermented by malted rice or barley and using unique ingredients as major ingredients
Among them, buckwheat shochu is an especially successful example.

Kinds of liqueur such as citrus fruits shochu, shiso (Japanese basil) shochu, sea tangle shochu, tomato shochu etc., in which fruit juice and extracts of unique ingredients are mixed with generally existing group Ko, Otsu or mixed shochu.

Types of group Otsu

Among shochu group Otsu, the mainstream shochu are those produced by distillation of moromi which is made from first and second fermentation and the production of kasutori shochu (shochu made from rice wine lees) is only less than 1000kl.
Some types follow;

Rice shochu

As in the case of rice wine, the major ingredient is rice. It tastes a bit rich.

The major production area is Hitoyoshi Bonchi basin in southern Kumamoto Prefecture (Hitoyoshi/Kuma region) where there is a remarkable number of twenty-eight shochu breweries. Rice shochu produced in the Hitoyoshi Bonchi basin is especially called "Kuma shochu" and its origin is labelled because of the designation as protected production area based upon an Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights of the World Trade Organization. Also in 2006 it was registered as a regional collective trademark. It has a fruity aroma and flavor like rice wine and is acceptable also for beginners due to the widespread use of vacuum distillation.

Except for that area, rice shochu is also produced in the production areas of rice wine such as Akita Prefecture, Niigata Prefecture etc.

Barley shochu

Originally started to be produced in Iki in Nagasaki Prefecture.
"Iki shochu" has been designated as a protected production area based upon an Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights of the World Trade Organization
Iki shochu is produced by mixing barley with malted rice.

Until 1960's barley shochu was not major among various kinds of shochu, but Fujiharu YANAGIDA at Tokyo University of Agriculture developed a technique to apply ion exchange to barley shochu and after Yanagita Shuzo in Miyazaki Prefecture established the actual use of the technique, a lot of barley shochu makers introduced the ion exchange filtration.

After that, since the late 1960's, barley shochu in which barley was mixed into malted barley produced in Oita prefecture, has been getting attention throughout the country and now Oita Prefecture is also one of the major production areas of barley shochu. "Oita Barley Shochu" has been registered as a regional collective trademark.

Sweet potato shochu

This is shochu made from sweet potatoes which are cultivated widely in Southern Kyushu since the Edo period. It is drunk widely throughout Kagoshima Prefecture and southern Miyazaki Prefecture. Because it has quite a rich taste and often unique strong aroma, likes and dislikes of people outside the production area split in two, but in recent years some types with reduced the aroma are also produced. Malted rice is mostly used for the production. 100% sweet potato shochu had never been produced, but since Kokubushuzo released Japan's first 100% potato shochu in 1997, malted sweet potato has been generalized and a lot of makers have released it nowadays.

Major production areas are Kagoshima and southern Miyazaki Prefectures. The other area is Hachijojima island where Shoemon TANSO who was an exile from Satsuma, brought the process to make it.
"Satsuma shochu" produced in Kagoshima, has been designated as a protected production area based upon an Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights of the World Trade Organization

Kokuto shochu

In the Amami island chain, Awamori and Kokutoshu (distilled liquor made from brown sugar) were produced since the Edo period until before World War II. However, from wartime until the period of occupation by the United States, there was a lack of rice, the ingredient for Awamori, while there was a surplus of brown sugar which could not be shipped out to Japan's mainland and therefore people began to produce more kokutoshu.

When the Amami island chain was returned to Japan in 1953 and Japan's tax law was applied, there occurred an argument about to treating kokutoshu as shochu by the people including the islanders, because it was not treated as shochu according to the tax law and therefore the tax rate was high. The Finance Ministry at that time specially admitted the production of shochu made from brown sugar in the jurisdiction of the Oshima tax office of Kumamoto Regional Taxation Bureau on condition of using malted rice as part of its measures to promote the Amami island chain.

Since then, kokuto shochu has become a specialty product produced only in the Amami island chain. It tastes relatively mild. It doesn't taste very sweet as would be imagined from the ingredients.

Awamori is not being produced in the Amami island chain now, but kokutoshu is.

In the Ogasawara island chain, since becoming Japanese territory during the early Meiji period, sugar manufacturing prospered from sugarcane cultivation. With fermenting and distilling the by-products generated in the manufacturing process, liquors called "tochu," "awazake," "mitsuzake," similar to shochu, were produced before the war. It was discontinued because the islanders evacuated during the war, but in 1989 as part of regional promotion, a company was established by the local government, Agricultural Cooperatives and Chamber of Commerce of Ogasawara village to produce it and rum was produced by following the manufacturing process. It is rum (a sort of spirit or liqueur) according to the tax law.

Recently making news is that kokuto shochu including Kibinanban was released in Thailand where it is thought that shochu and awamori have their roots.

Buckwheat shochu

This is shochu made from buckwheat. A new shochu developed by Unkai Shuzo in Gokase-cho, Miyazaki Prefecture using the mountain area's specialty product, buckwheat as the ingredient in 1973. Since then, many shochu makers around the country have produced it including mixed types with rice and barley. It tastes mild and even lighter than barley shochu. It is often seen to provide buckwheat shochu from the hot water from boiling noodles in buckwheat noodle restaurants. People with food allergies have to be careful because it may cause allergy symptoms.


Awamori, distilled liquor, a specialty product of Okinawa Prefecture, is made from rice and categorized into Shochu group Otsu according to the tax law though the manufacturing process is different from standard shochu.

Legislatively, Awanori itself is allowed to be produced throughout the country, but labeling it as "Ryukyu Awamori" is only allowed on products from Okinawa Prefecture based on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights of the World Trade Organization.

Kasutori shochu

With different process from that of moromitori shochu, shochu called "kasutori shochu" is produced by distillation of defined rice wine lees. Kasutori shochu has been developed mainly in northern Kyushu and produced in rice wine breweries throughout the country. Shochu meant Kasutori shochu for people in production area of shochu as it is written that "shochu is produced by the distillation of fresh rice wine lees in a steam basket" in "Honcho Shokkan," a materia medica of the Edo period. There are two methods of distilling: the ginjo kasutori shochu method, which involves distilling newly made rice wine lees without adding anything, and the seicho kasutori shochu method, which involves mixing rice hulls to ensure proper airflow before distilling.

Because people distilled stored rice wine lees and drank it in a festival called Sanaburi held after having finished planting rice, it is also called "Sanaburi Shochu." Rice wine lees were used as fertilizer for rice fields after distilled.

After the Pacific War, because people confused it with kasutori and the unique aroma did not suit the trend of the times, the demand decreased and breweries stopped kasutori shochu production one after another. Also there were a lot of shochu breweries that produced only kasutori shochu mainly in Fukuoka Prefecture before, but such breweries disappeared and they produce rice shochu or other types now. But because of the recent shochu boom, there has been increasing cases where rice wine makers have expanded to kasutori shochu again.

It was also used as a major ingredient of alcohol and mirin (sweet rice wine for seasoning) the basis of plum wine and also often used as "hashira jochu" in the finished processing of rice wine to stop fermentation, preserve rice wine from decay, and make it dry. It was also used as external antiseptic.


Poor-quality shochu is commonly called "Kasutori" and it is completely different from kasutori shochu.

In the chaotic times after World War II poor-quality shochu brewed illegally were on the market because of the lack of rice wine. The ingredients and manufacturers were unknown and watered-down methyl alcohol, toxic to humans, was sold at worst and all the bad products that made people sick, were commonly called "kasutori" and therefore a common image was established that kasutori were bad distilled liquors. For some time it spoiled the image of real kasutori shochu which did not have a bad quality. There was a word "kasutori magazine" derived from that and symbolizing the chaotic times after World War II.

What does Honkaku Shochu mean?

In 1949 after the war, shochus were classified as "group Ko or group Otsu" according to the Liquor Tax Law, but Ko and Otsu were used normally for grading and ranking, therefore it could be misunderstood that "group Otsu" had a lower quality than "group Ko." In 1957 Junkichi ENATSU, the president of Kirishima Shuzo at that time proposed the name "Honkaku Shochu" at Kyushu old style shochu association and on December 10, 1971 it became possible to call and label it "Honkaku Shochu" because of the partial revision of "Act Concerning Liquor Business Associations and Measures for Securing Revenue from Liquor Tax" '(the Finance Ministry Law No. 11 in 1953).
(As of December 2008, shochu in hiragana as "本格しょうちゅう" has only been used in the letter of the law and in Chinese characters as "本格焼酎" has not appeared, but we use the latter in this text as the industry does.)

But it generated a discussion about the standard not being clarified enough to use the name "Honkaku Shochu," as the result, on November 1, 2002 the standard was strengthened by partial revision of the law mentioned above and it became impossible to name it Honkaku Shochu except for shochu produced by distillation of alcohol-containing substances as below:
Ingredients are not restricted when just labeling "shochu group Otsu" or "single distilled shochu."

Liquors produced by fermentation of the following ingredients: cereals or potatoes, malted cereals or potatoes, water.

Liquors produced by fermentation of the following ingredients: malted cereals, water.

Liquors produced by fermentation of the following ingredients: rice wine lees and water, rice wine lees, rice, malted rice and water, or Liquors produced by rice wine lees.

Liquors produced by fermentation of the following ingredients: sugar (only stipulated in government ordinances), malted rice and water (kokuto shochu).

Liquors produced by fermentation of the following ingredients: cereals or potatoes, malted cereals or potatoes, water, substances listed by Director-General of the National Tax Administration Agency (the total weight of substances listed by Director-General of the National Tax Administration Agency must be less than that of cereals, potatoes and malted cereals and potatoes).

Honkaku shochu boom

In Japan there was a "Honkaku Shochu boom" of the shochu group Otsu since about 2003 and the total shipping volume of shochu exceeded that of rice wine for the first time after fifty years in 2003 and the sales amount peaked in 2004. Along with the boom, shochu bars appeared specializing in Honkaku Shochus.

Because of the boom, shochu focusing on ingredients and the manufacturing process were also released more and more. In Kogoshima Prefecture, products costing around 1500 yen are mainly consumed, but higher price and quality conscious taste shochu were released to meet the needs for better taste and from the enthusiasm of makers. There were also considerable harmful effects. At the peak of the boom, it caused a serious lack of sweet potatoes from which sweet potato shochu was made, in the market and also because some brands labeled premium and priced at tens of thousands of yen per bottle, counterfeit Moriizo appeared on the market.

In February 2008, the Kagoshima branch of the Bank of Japan noted that the boom was over and concluded that a time of selecting brands has started in the report of this shochu boom.

[Original Japanese]