Hail and well met travelers! Rather than take you on yet another adventure to some rural region, I’ll instead be looking to detail in this piece everything that you need to know to thoroughly enjoy Japanese alcohol. While I do realize that some of you grizzled veterans out there are well aware of Japan’s diverse array of boozy beverages, less seasoned explorers certainly aren’t as knowledgeable as my fellow connoisseurs. To ensure we’re all on the same page, let’s first begin by covering the different types of traditional intoxicants that are made in Japan.
When it comes to alcohol that is produced in Japan, these days Japanese whiskey is all the rage overseas. Alas, as anyone with some sense should already know, this distilled spirit is not native to the Japanese archipelago. The same can be said for other drinks like beer as well. In actuality, the Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association identifies only a handful of alcohols as being kokushu. This term loosely means something like “national alcoholic beverage” or “official alcohol of Japan.” We’ll be using it a lot so be sure to commit it to memory if you can.
Now, at the end of this piece, we’ll talk more about the JSS Mark and how to tell if something is authentic kokushu or not. If you’re pressed for time or not in the mood to read a fully fledged primer of Japanese alcohol, all you really need to know is that if you see the JSS Mark, it means that it’s the real deal. For those of you who are interested in learning more though, allow me to quickly go over the three types of liquids that are classified as kokushu…
Nihonshu (A.K.A. Sake)
Likely you already know this one, even if you think that you don’t. It’s basically what the rest of the world incorrectly refers to as “sake,” a generic term that just means alcohol in Japanese. To avoid confusion, I’ll only be using the term nihonshu from here on out but know that this made-from-rice beverage is an absolute staple of Japanese cuisine and culture.
While nihonshu is brewed and is therefore closer to beer and wine, this alcoholic beverage is distilled from rice, barley, sweet potatoes and other such ingredients. It typically has an alcohol volume of around 25% and can be consumed in a number of different ways.
For simplicity’s sake, you can think of awamori as shochu from Okinawa. I’ll cover exactly what makes it different from other types of shochu in the dedicated description below but for the time being, this description should suffice.
In the upcoming sections, we’ll be doing individual exposés on each of the respective kokushu beverages. That said, if you’re curious and want to do some further digging on your own, I highly suggest that you also check out the Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association’s digital museum after reading this article. The online curation first launched back in 2021 and aims to introduce the historical and cultural aspects of kokushu. It’s a great way to learn about the history of alcohol in Japan from the comfort of your own home.
Note: We’ll be going DEEP into the kokushu weeds from here on out. I'd recommend that you get yourself a cup of tea, coffee or better yet, a slightly chilled glass of nihonshu before continuing on. This will take a few thousand to explain but you'll be able to better appreciate kokushu when we're done...
Nihonshu (A.K.A. “Sake”)
Alright ladies and gentlemen, things are about to get… moldy. What’s that you say? Moldy? What on earth does that have to do with Japanese alcohol? Well, as it turns out — everything. You see, to make nihonshu (and indeed all varieties of kokushu), you’re going to need the help of a filamentous fungus known as koji mold. Native to East Asia, this tiny organism is necessary to saccharify substances such as rice, sweet potatoes, and barley. It plays a critical role in the brewing of nihonshu as well as in the making of miso, soy sauce, and a range of other traditional Japanese foods.
The basic process for turning rice into alcohol is as follows. First, you take a batch of rice that has been specially grown for making nihonshu. These grains have far more starch in them than normal table rice (which tend to contain more fat and protein). The unusual grains of rice are then polished to remove the outer layers where most of the non-starchy matter is located. While this is now done with modern technology, the dehusking of rice was historically done with the help of a watermill.
The next step of the process is a bit tricky. To comprehend it, you first need a rudimentary understanding of how alcohol is produced. Essentially, what we imbibe to get tipsy is the result of yeast fermenting sugars into ethanol. Since the fungi that are responsible for this process can be found floating in the air, substances like grapes are able to eventually ferment on their own with the help of time (this is likely how humans invented wine). In the case of grains though, an additional agent is required to break the stored starches down so that the sugars can then be converted into alcohol via fermentation.
As least insomuch as making nihonshu is concerned, this is where koji mold plays a key role. The fungi can produce enzymes that are able to unlock the sugars contained within grains. Brewers will add the koji mold to steamed rice which provides them with something to feed on. Once koji mold has been added to a steaming heaping of rice it becomes what is known in Japanese as koji. Note here that koji is NOT the mold itself but instead the rice onto the fungus that has been carefully propagated. It’s a minor but critically important distinction to keep in mind.
One of the most intriguing things about nihonshu is that it is the only alcohol in the world where saccharification (the breaking down of starch) happens at the same time as fermentation. As we already noted in the example of wine, sugar is present from the get go meaning that it can ferment by itself over time. Alternatively in the case of beer, the dual processes of saccharification and fermentation actually happen sequentially. Out of all the alcoholic beverages in the world, only nihonshu makes use of a simultaneous type of brewing called multiple parallel fermentation.
When you consider just how complex the biochemical phenomena of saccharification and fermentation seem, it’s incredible to think that Japan has been making nihonshu for at least a millennium now. Honestly speaking though, it’s hard to place exactly when people first started making nihonshu as the early inhabitants of Japan likely stumbled upon some proto form of the beverage first by accident. What we can say is that the practice of combining koji mold, rice and water to make nihonshu dates back AT LEAST 1,000 years or so.
Speaking of water, one of the most important ingredients to making quality nihonshu is fresh H2O. It is critical to every single step of the brewing process. Luckily, Japan is blessed with abundant sources of high quality water. While many of these springs are found out in the countryside, a premium caliber of water is essential to producing high quality nihonshu. This is why you’ll often find the top nihonshu breweries out in rural regions.
Now, I realize that the world of nihonshu can be extremely intimidating for overseas visitors to Japan who aren’t used to the different grades and various flavor profiles. Heck, even I sometimes have a hard time figuring out what sets one brew apart from another. Luckily for you though, the Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association has put together this excellent guide on how to read the labels on nihonshu bottles. Be sure to bookmark and refer to it whenever you’re feeling unsure of what to buy.
Before moving on, note that one general rule of thumb to keep in mind is that nihonshu is usually fairly priced. Assuming that it has the JSS Mark, this means that you can let the cost of a bottle be your guide. If it’s an expensive bottle, you can rest assured that an insane degree of love, care and craftsmanship went into making whatever is inside. While everyone has their own pallet preferferences (for example, I am a “karakuchi” guy), you at least know that whatever is in an expensive bottle is top notch nihonshu.
Honkaku Shochu & Awamori
While these days nearly everyone in the western world is aware of nihonshu (albeit under the name of “sake”), far fewer people know of shochu. Though the spirit has started to see an increase in popularity overseas, it can still be hard to find outside of cities with large Japanese populations. As mentioned in the introductory section, shochu is an alcoholic beverage that can be distilled from rice plus a surprisingly wide variety of ingredients. The most common variants come from substances like barley, sweet potatoes and buckwheat but there’s also rarer shochu made from chestnuts or even carrots.
As with nihonshu, we don’t exactly know when shochu first appeared on the historical timeline. Apparently, the techniques for distillation entered Japan through mainland Asia around the mid-16th century. Thereafter, what we call honkaku (meaning “authentic”) shochu today was born in Kagoshima. While it’s hard to place the exact date, we know that shochu was already being consumed regionally by the time of the missionary Francis Xavier’s arrival in 1549. The oldest reference to shochu in Japan actually dates from graffiti inscribed on the roof of Koriyama Hachimangu Shrine. The etchings tell of a high priest that was stingy with his shochu and never shared with workers.
Following the arrival of distillation technology in Japan during the early Edo period (1603–1868), it was gospel to use only a single round when making shochu. Once Japan began to modernize though, techniques for repeated distillation were imported from Great Britain. These methods allowed for the affordable mass production of highly purified shochu. This is the stuff that you’ll find in canned chuhais and whatnot where as legal term “honkaku shochu” refers only to traditional, single-distillation shochu.
These days, Japanese people will typically enjoy shochu by diluting it with either cold or hot water. This allows the imbiber to control the level of alcohol in their glass without forfeiting taste. Because of this, shochu is actually a great drink to have with a meal. It pairs well with both Japanese cuisine as well as foods from all over the planet. Alternatively, shochu is also a wonderful after hours drink as well and can be enjoyed neat or on the rocks. All things considered, shochu is quite a versatile choice that more people outside of Japan should know about.
Of course, one of the most intriguing things about shochu is the variety of ways to make it. Each of the regions in Japan that produce shochu all have their own favorite local ingredients that can be sourced locally. Kagoshima, for example, is known for its sweet potatoes and therefore makes a lot of shochu made from the tubers. This all said, the one common component to the shochu distillation process is the use of a koji base into which all the other ingredients are then added.
In many ways, the initial steps for making shochu parallels that of nihonshu. Koji mold is used as a key to unlock the stored sugars in the raw materials. After the saccharification process begins though, the means of making the two types of alcohol diverge. In shochu’s case, an initial mash is made with just koji. Thereafter, local flares such as rice, barely or sweet potatoes are added into a secondary mash to give the shochu its defining rich taste and aroma. This final mixture is left to ferment for a number of days after which it is distilled and aged for 1–3 months to further enhance its flavor profile.
While most shochu production is conducted in Kyushu, Okinawa also has its own special variant called awamori. Unlike standard shochu, this type of spirit is made from long-grained Thai rice. Though most awamori are diluted with water to about 30% alcohol by volume, some concoctions can go as high as 45% so be careful. Unlike with shochu from Japan’s main islands, the fermentation process of awamori makes extensive use of a different type of black koji mold. Like with honkaku shochu, authentic awamori only goes through a single distillation.
While shochu and awamori are very similar, their key differences are largely due to the fact that mainland Japan and Okinawa (then called the Ryukyu Kingdom) were historically different but interwoven civilizations. In all likelihood, distillation technology entered Okinawa via a different route than the rest of Japan. Because of varying ways by which the mainland and Okinawa came to understand the process of distillation, there remain defining differences between shochu and awamori. Technically you can make awamori anywhere but to get the JSS Mark, the alcohol needs to hail from Okinawa.
The JSS Unified Mark
By now it should be clear that Japan has an amazing cultural tradition when it comes to making alcohol. It truly warms my heart to see that beverages like nihonshu are becoming more and more popular overseas. While shochu is still steadily gaining recognition, the adoration of Japanese alcohol these days in foreign markets is simply undeniable. Unfortunately though, this rise in reputation means that it’s harder than ever to tell if something is authentically kokushu or not when in the liquor store.
Thankfully, the Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association is going to great lengths to make it easier to tell if something is kokushu or not. They’ve made a series of marks that are collectively referred to as the JSS Marks. These are affixed to the sides of bottles and officiate that the liquid within is kokushu and has been produced to the highest standards. As can be seen below, there is a seperate sticker for nihonshu, shochu and awamori so keep your eyes out for these JSS Marks when shopping for Japanese alcohol.
As savvy readers might have already noticed, there is also a JSS Mark for mirin too. If you haven’t heard of this common ingredient in Japanese cooking before, know that it is similar to nihonshu, but with a lower alcohol content and higher sugar content. Although rarely if ever consumed as a beverage these days, the Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association has gone so far as to create a JSS Mark for mirin too.
Before we end this treatise on all things related to Japanese alcohol, allow me to get up on my soap box one last time. As regular readers are already well aware, one major theme for me this year is to only support “made in Japan.” In fact, I’ve even gone as far as challenging myself to only consume and wear products that are locally sourced. Of course, when it makes logisticial sense, I’d also urge you, the reader, to try to do the same and support the many Japanese businesses that have been impacted by the drop in tourism.
Sadly, these days when shopping for important alcohol overseas, it can be hard to tell if something is authentic or not. This is why the JSS Mark is so important. Without needing to Google Translate the label or look up the maker, you can quickly and easily tell if what you’re considering buying is “sus” or not (as the kids like to say these days). Given how overwhelming the world of Japanese alcohol can sometimes be for a neophyte, the JSS Mark is a huge help.
Next time you’re out and looking to buy a bottle of traditional Japanese alcohol, keep your eyes out for the JSS Mark. It’s honestly a real lifesaver when it comes to ensuring that you’re supporting the hardworking Japanese producers who pour their hearts and souls into making the very best that they’re capable of.
Until next time travelers…