Soju, Shochu, Shaojiu

Soju, Shochu, Shaojiu

  • Soju is the top-selling distilled spirit in the world by both volume and value. Soju has been distilled in Korea for centuries and there are many varieties of it. Soju is the national drink of the Korean workingman and has sometimes struggled with a down-market image, despite the fact that the affordability accounts for its popularity in export markets. This inexpensive soju is made by diluting and flavoring neutral alcohol and accounts for most of the market share. This inexpensive variety is referred to as "diluted soju," and can be no more than 35% ABV.

    "Distilled soju" can be made from rice, sweet potatoes, barley, soba, tapioca or wheat, and is often bottled between 20 – 45% ABV. This type of soju is for the most part distilled in a column still. Distilled soju is pleasantly floral, slightly fruity, but lacking in any real pronounced aroma.

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  • Shochu is made in Japan. There are two types of shochu. The first (sometimes called kouri shochu) is column distilled to high purity and then cut with water. This shochu is inexpensive and tends to be sweet and highly flavored.

    Small-scale artisan producers distill the second type of shochu in pot stills. The pot still and careful techniques used create a spirit with character and a great depth of flavor. There are several sub-categories of distilled shochu, including Honkaku (Otsu-rui) that was developed in the 14th century and is made with only one ingredient and one distillation. This category was until recently referred to as authentic shochu.

    This variety is produced by steeping rice or barley in water to release the starch and then cultivating the koji or mold that will convert the starch to sugar. Water is added to produce a mash, and this mash is fermented. There are three types of koji – white, yellow and black. Yellow koji (also used in making sake) imparts great character, but is sensitive to temperature making it difficult to work with. Black koji is less sensitive and produces a richly flavored result. White koji is the easiest to use and produces the lightest, cleanest flavors.

    In the next step, the main ingredient is steamed and added to the fermented mash. Ingredients include rice, sweet potatoes (imo-shochu), wheat (mugi-shochu), soba, kokutou (sugar cane), kasutori (corn), sesame seeds, squash, or carrots. A second fermentation with this main ingredient is then conducted to produce a sort of "second generation mash" called the moromi. The moromi is then distilled once to produce the shochu. The single distillation used in making this shochu once leads to greater aromatic character.

    Rice shochu is made in sake-producing regions, and Kumamoto prefecture is especially well known for this type. Barley shochu, produced notably in the Nagasaki prefecture, is more neutral in character, although it is often cask-aged to impart more character.

    Sweet potato shochu has a strong flavor. Kagoshima and Mayozaki prefectures are particularly well known for this product, although it is produced all over Japan.

    Awamori from Okinawa is distilled from long grain Thai rice and is not brewed. The second fermentation is not carried out when making this shochu.

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  • Baijiu ("white spirit"), or shaojiu is the Chinese equivalent of soju or shochu - for example Wenjun. It is normally distilled from sorghum with other grains added in. These grains can include rice, wheat, barley and millet. Baijiu is typically distilled to 40–60% ABV, and some of the heads and tails are left in with the heart, giving it an intensely heady, slightly dirty aroma.

    There are different types of baijiu, which are classified by their aromas. "Sauce fragrance" is very aromatic, with notes of fresh fruit and decomposition. "Thick fragrance" is sweeter, and uses a koji-like mold for the fermentation. "Light fragrance" has an aroma vaguely reminiscent of nail polish, while the lighter "rice fragrance" has a more lactic note. "Honey fragrance" is sweet, and "layered fragrance" is roughly a combination of above. There are also flavored or aromatized baijiu, and there is a great deal of regional variation.

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