Meanwhile, sake continues to gain popularity, with U.S. sales increasing annually since the 1990s.
For some consumers, however, questions cloud these categories. What’s the difference between sake and shochu? And how does soju play into things? Here’s a breakdown of all the differences among sake, soju, and shochu.
Soju is a clear spirit that originated in Korea. It was traditionally made with rice but, ever since distilling rice was banned during the Korean War, distillers have used other grains and starches, such as wheat, sweet potatoes, and even tapioca. As a result, sojus vary in aroma and flavor.
Soju is most often drunk straight with food, like wine, but is also used in cocktails, like a spirit. It has a neutral flavor, like vodka, but half the alcohol content — it typically hovers between 20 and 34 percent ABV, compared to vodka’s 40 percent ABV.
Soju is the top-selling liquor by volume in the world, but it’s not legally considered a spirit everywhere. In New York and California, for example, soju no more than 24 percent alcohol by volume can be sold under a beer and wine license, which is cheaper and easier for restaurants to acquire than a liquor license.
Shochu originated in Japan at least 500 years ago. It shares certain characteristics with soju, including a similarly low ABV (between 25 and 30 percent ABV on average) and pronunciation. Shochu is also most commonly made from sweet potato (imo-jochu), barley (mugi-jochu), or rice (kome-jochu).
According to Yukari Sakamoto, sommelier, certified shochu advisor, and author of “Food Sake Tokyo,” shochu flavor and quality can vary greatly. Top-quality shochu, called honkaku shochu, is single-distilled, allowing it to retain the flavors of its base ingredient. As such, a sweet potato shochu will taste very different from a rice shochu.
Shochu is also most often consumed on the rocks, mixed with cold or hot water, or with fresh juice, which lowers the alcohol content even further to about 12 to 15 percent ABV, similar to a glass of wine. It can also be used as a substitute spirit in classic cocktails like the Martini or Negroni.
Let’s get this out of the way: Sake is not rice wine. Nor is it Japanese vodka, or a distilled spirit of any kind. Sake has more in common with beer than any other alcoholic beverage. Like beer, it’s made with steeped grain and is brewed and fermented with yeast. In sake’s case, it is then fermented a second time with koji mold.
Flavor-wise, sake can range from dry to sweet, measured by the Sake Meter Value (SMV), a numerical scale ranging from -15 to +15, with dryness increasing with the number. You’ll often see these numbers on sake menus or on sake bottle labels. It is usually clear and still, but unfiltered sake is milky white, and some sakes are carbonated.
Sake is best-served room temperature. It can also be served cold or warm, though the latter is often reserved for cheaper, less refined sake.
Finally, though Americans are often taught or tempted to pair their sake with sushi — or, shudder, as part of a sake bomb — neither practice is common in Japan. There, it is seen more as a palate cleanser, best enjoyed between meals or on its own.
Sake quality and cost are all about the level of polish or the amount the rice grains have been milled before brewing. All rice grains are polished about 10 percent before they reach a sake brewery. To make premium sake, brewers polish it further, to varying degrees.
In his book The Year of Drinking Adventurously: 52 Ways to Get Out of Your Comfort Zone, Jeff Cioletti breaks it down as follows: Sake brewed with rice polished to 70 percent its original size is generally referred to as either junmai or honjozo. Junmai means “pure,” and the alcohol content of these sakes comes solely from the fermentation of the rice. If alcohol is added to boost ABV, that’s honjozo sake.
Ginjo refers to sake whose rice grains are polished to 60 percent or less; and daiginjo, to 50 percent or less. The more polished the rice, the cleaner and more elegant the flavor, ranging from rich and nutty, to light and fruity. You can learn more about sake styles here.