Shochu Vs. Sake: How Do The Two Popular Japanese Liquors Differ?

The national drink of Japan and a staple of Japanese cuisine, sake (also called "nihonshu" because the word "sake" can just mean alcohol in general in Japanese) sneaks up on you like perhaps no other adult beverage. It tends to be so smooth and drinkable that you have no idea how much it's affecting you — then you go to stand up, the room starts spinning, and suddenly you're on a stage singing karaoke with no idea how you got there.

If sake gives you a warm, pleasant, coiling feeling, shochu punches you directly in the face and informs you it is here to party. The other main alcoholic beverage of choice in Japan, shochu is between 20% and 35% alcohol by volume — less than whiskey or vodka, but significantly more than sake or wine. Even if it has a lower ABV than some other hard liquors, this is more than made up for by its intense, earthy taste. 

But the differences between the two drinks go even deeper than that.

Shochu and sake have completely different brewing processes

Sake is, perhaps unsurprisingly, made entirely from rice. It's sometimes referred to as "rice wine," but this is a misnomer. The process isn't really like other types of wine production, wherein naturally-present sugars in fruit are fermented to create a beverage. Sake's manufacturing process is actually a lot more similar to beer; the starch in rice gets converted to sugar and fermented. 

Unlike with beer, however, these two processes occur at the same time. The end result is a drink that is sort of but not really similar to wine, with the flavors more like wine than hard liquor but the ABV somewhere in the vicinity of 18-20% before dilution (as compared to wine, which generally sits at 9-16%). Sake can be diluted with water to bring it down a bit, but even then, it generally sits at the higher end of the wine range.

Shochu, meanwhile, can be made with barley, buckwheat, chestnuts, sweet potatoes, carrots, sesame seeds, rye, brown sugar, and more — pretty much whatever is lying around. This makes it more similar to something like vodka. And much like vodka, shochu is distilled rather than brewed, meaning it gets heated into vapor and then cooled back into liquid form. The end result is a product with one heck of a kick — and one that's rapidly gained popularity both within Japan and abroad.

Sake is older than shochu, but both have long been big in Japan

Both sake and shochu have important places in Japanese cultural history. Although sake's origins are somewhat muddled, historians generally pinpoint its invention as some point during the 8th century A.D. It's impossible to overstate the historical and cultural impact of sake to Japan; during the entirety of the samurai era (1185-1868) and beyond, the only two non-water beverages of note were tea and sake. This wasn't just true for samurai, though, as all castes gladly drank sake (although, unsurprisingly, samurai tended to have access to the more top-shelf stuff).

Though sake production has declined in Japan, thanks to the increased popularity and production of beer, it has gained significant popularity internationally. Moreover, though Japanese production has declined, the boom in international markets and technological improvements in production means the quality hasn't fallen.

Shochu, meanwhile, was first referenced in the 16th century, meaning it's probably slightly older than that. Even though it's newer, it's more popular than sake in Japan, outselling the older beverage every year since 2003. On the southern island of Kyushu (Japan consists of four islands, and Kyushu is the second-biggest after Honshu, which is the banana-shaped one), the term "sake" generally just means shochu. Shochu is only seeing broad international exposure more recently, but it seems like a matter of time before its popularity explodes just like sake's once did. If it isn't already, it could soon be available near you.