Christopher Pellegrini explains the difference between honkaku and kourui shochu.
You’ve seen them on the menu at nearly every alcohol-equipped establishment in Japan—mysterious cocktails that end in the word ‘hai’. And those chuhai drinks that seem to be the best bet at the convenience store in terms of easy-to-drink alcoholic content per hundred yen spent–is this shochu or vodka or what?
But what of all these new bars that cater to shochu lovers—what are they drinking? Is it the same fuel that’s powering these diverse parties, or are we talking about entirely different alcoholic permutations?
Quite simply, what we’re dealing with here is two varieties of the same drink that have different distillation processes and drinking purposes. At the risk of oversimplifying things just a bit, shochu, the alcohol distilled from a wide range of flora, can generally be divided into two main camps—kourui and honkaku.
Kourui shochu, for the most part, is what’s providing the kick in most of those restaurant cocktails and canned drinks that shine in supermarket and convenience store coolers. It’s distilled repeatedly so that it loses the majority of its flavor profile. There’s not a whole lot happening on the nose either—this stuff (sometimes compared with vodka) is ideal for cocktails and is generally the ‘chu’ half of a canned ‘chuhai’ (a drink containing shochu, soda, and a sweet or sour mixer of some sort). Chuhai, by the way, is a reduction of ‘shochu highball,’ and the most common mixers are tea (oolong), and grapefruit or lemon juice.
Kourui shochu is also added to some types of nihonshu (sake), such as honjozo, in order to tame some of the robust natural flavors that are produced during the brewing process. The maximum permissible ABV for this type of shochu is 36%. Another popular drink, umeshu, also uses kourui shochu as its base.
Honkaku shochu (aka otsurui), on the other hand, is single-distilled and full of flavor and aroma. Honkaku can be translated as ‘authentic’ or ‘genuine’, and the three most common raw ingredients are sweet potatoes (satsumaimo), barley (mugi) and rice (kome). Honkaku makes up the bulk of what those shochu bars are serving.
Honkaku shochu is typically enjoyed neat, on the rocks, or with either hot or cold water added. It is most frequently bottled at 25% ABV, but legally it can climb above forty percent.
Honkaku shochu, the pride of the prefectures of Kyushu Island, is generally associated with southern parts of the archipelago. That is not to imply that good shochu is not produced up north, but the lion’s share of well-respected brands are from the prefectures of Kagoshima, Miyazaki and Kumamoto, to name a few. Kourui, on the other hand, is distilled all over the country.
Even though it may not be the clearcut winner in terms of production (kiloliters per year), imo-jochu (potato shochu) enjoys the widest exposure in terms of the number of brands on restaurant and bar menus. Mugi, kome and kokuto (brown sugar) are a very distant second in that respect.
However, this does not necessarily mean that imo is better. Imo-jochu (the ‘sh’ in shochu is generally pronounced ‘j’ when it follows the name of the main ingredient) is notable for its pronounced steamed potato aroma and strong flavor while mugi is known for being smoother. The price of a bottle of shochu is similar to that of many whiskies available in supermarkets, so it might be good to grab a bottle of both imo and mugi to figure out which one is more your style.
If you plan to make cocktails with shochu, such as an “oolong hai” (one part shochu and two parts oolong tea on the rocks), then it is recommended that you opt for mugi-jochu. Imo-jochu can easily overpower the other ingredients in a shochu cocktail if not mixed carefully.
Perhaps the easiest way to tell the difference is that honkaku is most often found in 720 ml or larger glass bottles (although it also can be purchased in large cardboard cartons). Kourui is also packaged in large cartons but tends to be much cheaper than boxes of honkaku. And if it’s in a gigantic clear plastic jug, then that’s definitely kourui.
However you choose to drink it, shochu sales are steadily taking charge in the Japanese alcohol industry. As beer and nihonshu sales continue to taper off or even decline, shochu demand has increased enough that distillers have not been able to raise supplies to the point where they would consider serious flirtations with international markets. These days, whether you’re drinking kourui or honkaku shochu, you’re guaranteed to be in good company.