Glass discovers the world of Japanese brewed alcohol, sake and shōchū

YOU may have enjoyed a glass of sake or shōchū in a Japanese restaurant, but there are many reasons why you might want to consider buying a bottle for your house. These brewed alcohols are delicate in flavour and are ideal to drink alongside food, after a meal or on special occasions, and the thirst for them is increasing especially in the European market.

There is a growing sake and shochu community around the world and you might be surprised as to where you might be able to enjoy it. 

Read on to learn more about them and which ones to buy.

A selection of sake

What is sake?

Sake is a Japanese brewed alcohol that is made from two simple key ingredients – fermented rice and water. Despite its humble ingredients, the drink is extremely flavoursome, and it represents Japan in many ways. Sake sits at the very centre of Japan’s cultural scene and is very present in people’s lifestyle, social rites and gastronomical sphere.

In 2019, the value of sake exports was around 23.4 billion yen, about three times more than ten years prior. The unit price of sake exports has also increased. The main exporters are the United States, China and the rest of Asia, followed by Canada, Australia, Vietnam and the United Kingdom.

Initially Sake was only available to the Emperor and the Monks in temples and shrines as an offering to the Gods in the 10th century. 

Sake is not distilled. Sake is a fermented rice beverage with anything from 8% to less than 22% ABV. It is made from steamed rice, water, koji and yeast. Sometimes a little alcohol (jozo alcohol) is added to bring out extra aromas and flavours from otherwise water insoluble esters which are lost during sake pressing.

What is shōchū?

Not to be mistaken  for the Korean drink soju, shōchū is a distilled Japanese brewed alcohol, unique for its Umami flavours. Shōchū literally translates to “distilled alcohol” and it is made from rice, barley, buckwheat, sweet potato, or brown sugar but sometimes also using shiso. 

It can sit between 20% to 43% alcohol depending on the variant, and the Portugese brought the sweet potato to China, which made its way to Japan through Okinawa traders. Whilst sake is more commonly known outside of Japan, you should know that it is actually more popular than sake and is consumed more in Japan.

Unlike sake, shōchū is distilled. Japanese National Alcoholic Beverages must contain an ingredient called Koji to be officially called Japanese, and both sake and shōchū us koji in the fermentation process.

Sake and shōchū can also be used in cocktails

How should I enjoy them?

Both sake and shōchū are very versatile drinks with little acidity, loads of Umami and can be drunk hot or cold.

Sake can enhance the flavour of food and is arguably the best way to enjoy it. There are cultural rituals about the way to pour sake, and this stems from encouraging interaction between individuals. It is served in small cups, and is usually served to you by someone else at the table. Despite the traditional customs that come with drinking sake, one mustn’t be put off by drinking it casually. 

Shōchū can be served neat or diluted with hot or cold water. The diluted method is the most popular way to drink it and the constituency should be 60% shōchū and 40% water.

What can I pair it with?

Traditionally Sake and shōchū were only drunk with Japanese food, but today they can be paired with plenty of different cuisines. Today you can find restaurants offering it paired with fast food, fish and chips and even steak. There are so many variations in flavour, so it really depends on the acidity and lactic style. For example, cheeses go so well with the more lactic style Junmai, and Honjozo would be good with a succulent piece of steak.

Our top sake picks:

Mountain Stream sake

Mountain Stream, Junmai Nama Bodaimoto

Gozenshu, Okayama

Mountain Stream is an unpasteurised sake (namazake) that is famed for its bold and fruity flavours. It is made using the rare, ancient Bodaimoto technique, which involves mixing a small portion of steamed rice with raw rice into water which eventually turns into lactic-acidic water. It is then mixed with koji and yeast to produce a shubo which translates to a yeast starter. This ancient method gives the sake earthy notes with a slightly sour finish. Drink Mountain Stream neat or enjoy with fried foods such as tempura, fish and chips or calamari. 

This sake comes from Okayama, Japan and the brewery was founded in 1804 by the Tsuji family. Their legacy has lived on and their use of Omachi rice (the grandfather of sake making rice) and the ancient Bodaimoto brewing technique producing robust explains why they produce such rustically good sake.

£19 (500ml)

Buy it here

Akashi-Tai Junmai Tokubetsu sake

Akashi-Tai Junmai Tokubetsu 

This award winning sake is made with 100% Yamadanishiki rice. It has a clean, umami filled flavour. It is best served with dishes such as creamy pasta or even a cheese board.


Buy it here

Akashi-Tai Shiraume Umeshu sake

Akashi-Tai Shiraume Umeshu 

This is a liqueur-style dessert sake which is made by steeping Japanese Ume plums in premium Akashi tai ginjo sake. Due to its naturally sweet ingredients it is both delicious on its own or served on ice. If you want to enjoy this sake with food, then simply pour it over some ice cream for an elevated experience.

£21.50 (500ml) 

Buy it here

Red Fuji one cup

Red Fuji, Konishi Shuzo

You might be wondering why this sake comes in a cup. Well, the answer is: it’s convenient. This is a new product from Konishi brewery and it is already the winner of a Platinum Medal at 2020’s Kura Master (a French sake competition, judged by a panel of French sake and wine sommeliers with the mission to find sake which are suitable to be paired with French – and other Western – foods).

This sake is ideal for picnics due to its packaging or even if you want something for the road. Expect aromas of fresh apple, pear, creamy banana, lemon peel with some yeasty background notes. 

The image on the label is from Hoksuai’s famous “36 View of Mt Fuji”.

£7 (180ml)

Buy it here

Genroku Redux, Konishi Shuzo sake

Genroku Redux, Konishi Shuzo

Konishi Shuzo has been making sake for over 460 years, and Genroku Redux is a sake that uses one of their recipes from 1703. It is a Junmai sake with plenty of body, sweetness and umami. You’ll taste notes of nuts, dried fruits, fig, brown sugar, liquorish & soy. Genroku Redux can be enjoyed by itself straight or on the rocks. As for food pairings, it goes well will rich flavours such as chocolate, nuts, mature cheeses & BBQ flavours. It is also the IWC Gold Medal & Kura Master “Prix du Jury” 2020.

£9 (180ml) 

Buy it here.

Tonoike Shuzo Sanran Daiginjo sake

Tonoike Shuzo Sanran Daiginjo 

This has won gold awards at various international competitions and is the crème de la crème of its kind (daiginjo). It is well balanced with a crisp and pronounced, juicy sweet melon flavour. Enjoy this sake chilled in a wine glass, either by itself or with seafood. 

Tonoike Shuzo was founded in 1937 by the second son of a family of sake brewers dating back to the 16th century. Recently appointed Toji Makoto Ono, has 18 years of experience and is one of the few sake brewers to hold both the Nanmbu Toji & the Shimotsuke Toji title. Since Makoto san became master brewer in 2015, Sanran won 11 Gold awards in 2016 and ranked 2nd (out of 328 brands) in the 2017 National Nambu Toji Sake Competition.

£36.25 (300ml) 

Buy it here

Kanpai Sumi sake

Kanpai Sumi, Junmai 

London might be the last place you’d expect to be buying your sake from, but this comes from a great brewery in Peckham, South London. This is a brilliant bottle that is selling very well in the United Kingdom. It is Kanpai’s award winning flagship junmai sake and It is full of Umami. Hopefully it will be the breakthrough sake for the UK’s slow growing sake market. 

£16.00 (380ml) 

Buy it here

Sōtō bottle

Sōtō, Junmai daiginjo

On the nose, this sake is slightly floral with notes of cherry blossom and lemon zest. It is a smooth, clean style sake with crisp dryness. It is definitely something you want to sip and take your time with. As time goes by, it reveals flavours of green apple, cucumber melon and pineapple.

Sōtō translates to “outside” in Japanese, and the brewery currently only has two products. This karakuchi style premium sake is imported to the USA and packaged with the USA and Western market in mind. Admirers of design will be impressed with the bottle’s stylish exterior. Unlike traditional bottles, Sōtō features a slick modern design which offers a suitable shell for a premium sake.

£25 (300ml) 

Buy it here

Akashi-Tai Honjozo Tokubetsu sake bottle

Akashi-Tai Honjozo Tokubetsu 

This is another fantastic sake from Akashi-Tai’s range. A top quality sake and the entry point to Akashi-Tai’s connoisseur range. It is made with Gohyakumangoku rice milled down to just 60% of its original size, which gives it a lovely all round flavour which is easy to pair with any food. Expect creamy, tropical notes when drinking it.  

£10.95 (300ml)

Buy it here

Our top Shōchū picks:

Kuro Kirishima Black shōchū bottle

Kuro Kirishima Black

This is a black koji-based shōchū produced by Kirishima Shuzo’s founder, Kichisuke Enatsu. The black koji creates a mellow, well-rounded sweetness, with a smooth and crisp aftertaste. Enjoy Kuro Kirishima Black on the rocks. It is made from sweet potato and has an ABV of 25%.


Buy it here

Satsuma Shiranami bottle

Satsuma Shiranami

This is one of the most popular shōchū brands in Japan. It is made with high grade Kogane Sengan sweet potato from South Kagoshima. The shōchū is made with 100% natural ingredients and has a full bodied flavour at 25% ABV.


Buy it here

Takara Towari Soba Shōchū

Takara Towari Soba Shochu 

This shōchū is made from buckwheat and soba koji which is uniquely developed by Takara. It’s flavours are light and floral with a touch of smokiness. You can enjoy it with hot water or shape it up in a cocktail. 


Buy it here

Takara Shirashinken Mugi Shochu

Takara Shirashinken Mugi Shochu 

Made from 100% Japanese Nijo barley and black koji, this shōchū is enhanced by a strong wheaty flavour which offers honeyed, malty notes. It pairs well with coffee, chocolate and creamy foods. 


Buy it here

by Katrina Mirpuri

Thanks to Marie Cheong- Thong for information for this article. Marie is a freelance educator, writer and photographer in food, wine, sake and Asian spirits.

She is currently the Executive Director on the Board of the British Sake Association, responsible for their educational and knowledge programmes and events.

She has also been involved in competition judging for the past 15 years across various international competitions.

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