Updated: Apr 1
Sake and shochu are both traditional Japanese alcohols, but they are greatly different in terms of ingredients, producing processes, alcohol contents, ageing and tastes. Despite sake's popularity outside of Japan, shochu is the more consumed beverage in the Land of the Rising Sun.
Sake is made solely from rice while shochu can be produced from not only rice (kome-
jochu), but also some other raw materials such as sweet potatoes (imo-jochu), barley
(mugi-jochu), buckwheat, rye, etc. or their combination.
Sake is made with steeped grain, brewed and fermented twice with yeast & koji mold
while shochu is a liquor which is distilled, causing a difference in alcohol content.
Japanese sake tends to be around 15%-18% whereas shochu is usually at 25%-30%,
or even as high as 42% (multi-distilled / 甲類, kou-rui). Multi-distilled shochu is primarily
used in cocktails (like chu-hai) because of its clear colour and lack of strong
Sake quality and cost are all dependent on the level of polish; the amount of 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
Sake brewed with rice polished to 70% its original size is generally referred to as either
junmai or honjozo. Junmai means "pure rice" and the alcohol content of these sakes
comes solely from the fermentation of the rice with only water, yeast and koji mold.
Honjozo sake has a little bit of brewers alcohol added to boost ABV (alcohol by
volume). Ginjo refers to sake which rice grains are polished to 60% or less; and
daiginjo, to 50% or less.
In a nutshell, the more polished the rice, the higher the classification level. The taste
tends to be cleaner and more elegant, ranging from rich and nutty, to light and fruity.
Types of sake chart by Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association
Sake is made to be drunk within a year once the bottle has been opened, while
shochu's taste can be improved as time passes.
Sake can be served warm, at room temperature or even chilled. One of the most
traditional way is to serve warm - pour it into a small open mouthed carafe (tokkuri),
heat it in a hot water bath over very low heat to approximately 40°C for about 5 minutes.
Never boil sake or heat it with a microwave oven. Fill the cup to around 75% full just
Sake can range from dry to sweet based on the Sake Meter Value (SMV), a numerical
scale ranging from -15 to +15 with dryness increasing with number. You will often see
these numbers on sake menus or on bottle labels. It is usually clear and still, but
unfiltered sake is milky white, and some sakes are carbonated (e.g. sparkling sake).
Sake meter value chart by Ozeki Sake
On the other hand, shochu can be drank straight, on the rocks or with a certain ratio of
cold / warm water. Adding soda water (soda-wari) is also one of the popular ways to
consume this beverage. Find your preferred personal taste by adding ginger ale,
oolong tea, etc. There is no end to it!
Sommelier & certified shochu advisor Sakamoto Yukari san stated that the most
distinctive characteristic of a good quality shochu (本格焼酎 / honkaku shochu) is that it
is single-distilled (乙類 / otsu-rui), so it retains the unique flavours of the base
ingredient. A sweet potato shochu is thus very different as compared to a rice shochu.
What do I look for when buying shochu/sake?
For Japanese sakes, more polished rice doesn't always mean better rice! Sake experts also love the cheaper local stuff, as long as it is made from quality ingredients by good brewers. Ultimately, you should trust your own palate and preferences.
HIS Singapore recommendation: Tateyama honjozo sake. Quality honjozo sake which is crisp and refreshing from Toyama Prefecture.
HIS Singapore recommendation: Taiheizan Tenko junmai daiginjo sake. A well-balanced taste of fruity flavours & aroma such as melon, watermelon, apples & grapes. This sake was the Grand Prize Winner of US National Sake Appraisal held in 2017!
Look for shochu labels which states honkaku shochu (本格焼酎 / top-quality shochu). Try a few different types at a restaurant before pick up a bottle to consume at home.
HIS Singapore recommendation: Miitake Imo Shochu (Honkaku). Brewed using natural water obtained from the famous UNESCO World Heritage site, Yakushima Island, Kagoshima Prefecture.
When is a suitable time to drink sake/shochu?
They are seen more as a palate cleanser, best enjoyed between meals or on its own.
What is sake/shochu's calorie and sugar count?
According to an article by Sake Talk, shochu is lower in calorie count (131 kCal) as compared to a ginjo sake (187 kCal) for the standard drink. The standard drink for sake is around 180ml or 1 tokkuri, while it is around 90ml or 1 glass for shochu.
Alcohol calorie chart by Sake Talk
If you were to also watch our HIS Singapore Itadakimasu series' episode 4 on our Facebook page, Kennard san from the Kagoshima Prefectural Government office also mentioned that shochu contains 0g of sugar per 180ml whereas sake contains 7g of sugar per 180ml.
How to cope with the calories?
For those who are more health conscious (we are too!), you might be wondering how we can enjoy drinking without worrying about the extra few kilos.
Opt for low-calorie food: The sake or shochu might not be the main culprit as the food that you eat along may contain even more calories. Select healthier foods like salads, sashimi, tofu, etc.
Avoid drinking on an empty stomach: Drinking on an empty stomach will make you become drunk more quickly, leading to less rational decisions and vulnerability to eating more.
Opt for hot sake: A cold drink will lower your metabolism, and fat is more likely to be stored in your body. You could drink hot sake to keep your metabolism running.
Try to pick a sake/shochu with the new found knowledge you have gained today! Drink away – but responsibly, of course.