August 24, 2011

Shochu Stop: Shochu vs. Soju

by Washi Washino

When customers visit Ippuku (where I work) and see the shochu collection, they invariably say, “Oh wow, look at the beautiful sake collection!” I’m tired of correcting them, but I have to, and I tell them that those bottles are not sake, they are shochu! And then, they think for a minute and say, “Oh, soju!”.

Ippuku (Berkeley)

It’s so annoying. Ippuku is a Japanese restaurant, why would we have Korean soju? Many American people know Korean soju, but nobody knows about Japanese shochu.

Basically, soju and shochu are the same distilled drinks, but there are a little differences. Let me talk about this today. But actually I don’t know much about Korean soju, so let me check Wiki:

Soju is a distilled beverage native to Korea. Its taste is comparable to vodka, though often slightly sweeter due to sugars added in the manufacturing process, and more commonly consumed neat. Most brands of soju are made in South Korea. Though it is traditionally made from rice, most modern producers of soju use supplements or even replace rice with other starches, such as potatoes, wheat, barley, sweet potatoes, or tapioca. Soju is clear in colour and typically varies in alcohol content from about 18.5% to about 45% alcohol by volume (ABV), with 20% ABV being most common.

Yeah, it’s true–soju is very similar to shochu. Now, let me tell you about shochu in detail. Basically, shochu is divided into two categories as 甲類 (kou-rui) and 乙類 (otsu-rui). Kou-rui is distilled multiple times and often used in cocktails with various mixers such as tea and juice. Due to the less characteristic nature of kou-rui it works well with sugary mixers.

Otsu-rui is a category for single distilled shochus. Within this category is the honkaku sub-category. Honkaku is considered to be premium shochu, mainly because during distillation, nothing can be added besides water and the grain. Absolutely no sugar, unlike soju. In this column, I’ll only be talking about honkaku shochus.

honkaku ikkomon

Why is shochu confused with soju? I think because of the words origin from same Chinese word. I have to quote Wiki again…

The word soju is the Korean rendering of the Chinese 燒酒 (pinyin: shaojiu), which literally means “burned liquor”. (Incidentally, the Dutch-derived English word brandy—literally “burned wine”—uses the same linguistic concept to describe a distilled alcoholic beverage.) The Chinese word shaojiu is rendered in Japanese as shochu, the word that denotes a distilled alcoholic beverage that is the Japanese variant of soju.

And I must confess that Ippuku carry many sojus! Actually, we are selling soju as shochu! But we don’t cheat customers and have some excuse. See Wiki again and again:

The liquor licensing laws in the states of California and New York specifically exempt the sale of soju from regulation relating to the sale of other distilled spirits, allowing businesses with a beer/wine license to sell it without requiring the more expensive license required for other distilled spirits. The only stipulation is that the soju must be clearly labeled as such and contain less than 25% alcohol. Another consequence is that the manufacturers of similar distilled spirits from other parts of Asia, such as Japanese shochu, have begun to relabel their products as soju for sale in those regions.

Most shochus’ ABV is 25%, so Japanese distributors would need a hard liquor license, but if shochu’s ABV is 24% and under, they can export it. That’s why many distillers now decrease the ABV from 25% to 24% and export shochu as “soju” to the U.S.!!!

Look at this photo:

kuro isa soju 2
This is supposed to be  shochu, but it is “SOJU”.

And this too…

ginza soju

It’s shameful. I have lost my Japanese pride.

Shochu is a hard liquor, but soju is not. If you want to sell shochu, hard liquor license is necessary, but soju doesn’t require it. Hard liquor license is expensive, so it’s easy to sell shochu as soju. To make sure, Ippuku has hard liquor license, of course.

OK, let’s compare soju vs. shochu ads. First, most soju ads are like this.

Fresh! Pretty!! Sexy!!! I wanna drink with her so bad. And how about shochu’s?

Cozy!!!

Maybe I’ll start a new column “Soju Stop”, starting next time.

Soju doesn’t cheat you. Soju always stands by you (with pretty girls). Take your soju time.

I wanna take my soju time now…

20 Comments

  • Posted August 24, 2011 at 10:04 pm

    I think you need a Korean blogger at Umamimart. Then you can have sochu vs soju posts, as well as miso vs doenjang, chicken karaage vs tong dak, etc.

  • Posted August 25, 2011 at 6:44 am

    Interesting. I’ve never tried soju, even though I always go to Korean restaurants. Actually this week I had some jasmine shochu and kumquat (kinkan) shochu at this bar called…er, Shochu in London. The jasmine one was really niced and was mixed with cold jasmine tea. The kinkan one was a bit too perfume-y. But I’m more aware of shochu now I’m reading your column!

  • Yamahomo
    Posted August 25, 2011 at 9:49 am

    Damn alcohol license! This country is all about laws and regulations, and many manufactures find loopholes to get away with. Speaking of Korean drinks, I love good Maccoli, which is soo hard to find.

  • Vivian
    Posted August 25, 2011 at 4:48 pm

    @Yamahomo Maccoli! wow I have not heard that from a non-Korean… quite possibly ever!

  • Charmmie
    Posted August 25, 2011 at 4:59 pm

    The reason why soju ads are sexier is because us Koreans can drink more than the Japanese thus leading to more one night stands. We are considered the Irish of the East. Now I’m gonna go put on a mini skirt and hit up all the Korean restaurants on Telegraph Ave..and loiter at Koreana Plaza while I’m at it.

  • Yamahomo
    Posted August 25, 2011 at 5:05 pm

    Vivian, I drank maccoli like juice when I was in Japan last time. There’s one Korean grocery store in Flashing where you can buy it, but other than that location, I’ve never seen it in New York. Maccoli flavors are CRAZY, but I like Nama Maccoli the best.

  • Washi
    Posted August 25, 2011 at 5:46 pm

    Miss H – That’s true. That would be interesting.

    Sakura – I haven’t heard about jasmine shochu and kumquat shochu. Are those cocktails? Or distilled from jasmine and kumquat?

    Yamahomo – I love Maccoli too. It’s too bad you can’t find Maccoli in NYC, and I can’t believe it! Around this area I live, there are some Korean market, so we can get it.

    Charmmie – Wao! Hmmm.

  • susan
    Posted August 27, 2011 at 3:00 am

    i’m suprised you can’t find more maccoli at korean restaurants in NYC. lately it has made a huge splash both in korea and here in LA. koreans have finally figured out how to bottle it and sell it commercially;it’s really more of a drink you made at home… if you were a farmer. the only downside i find is that some brands of maccoli tastes like weird sprite.

  • lakshman
    Posted August 28, 2011 at 3:44 pm

    Very well written! Maybe you should have a soju vs. shochu blind tasting event to show the difference.

  • Washi
    Posted August 28, 2011 at 5:46 pm

    Lakshman- Thanks! That would be fun!

  • Agmy
    Posted August 30, 2011 at 4:00 am

    Is there a very big difference in taste between soju and shochu? I have only had soju and found it very drinkable especially mixed, if lacking in any character between different brands.

    I could drink makgeolli like water!

  • Washi
    Posted August 30, 2011 at 5:03 pm

    Agmy – I think soju is much sweeter than shochu, cuz soju is added sugar, and shochu is not. I have to try soju more though. To be continued: Shochu vs. Soju part 2 soon…

  • Kitol
    Posted January 17, 2012 at 5:47 pm

    During early ancient ages is was common for Korean immigrants to migrate to Kyushu island (or taken as slaves by Japanese pirates).

    It was inevitable that distilling methods were picked up by Japanese of the old days.

    Sochu and Soju are quite similar but have the same origin. In my opinion, Soju is far more drinkable/tasty/sweeter. Sochu on the other is more expensive in the places I have seen it for sale. Flavors are comparable, but I repeat, Soju is far more drinkable. :)

  • Lu
    Posted April 16, 2012 at 5:29 pm

    Soju is not traditionally all that sweet. That is a modern (last 5-10 years) trend, as far as I know. I think sugar is added now more frequently because of changing tastes, and the alcohol content reduced. Before that, it did taste a little sweet to me, but naturally so because of its being distilled from sweet potatoes.

  • awd
    Posted May 12, 2012 at 10:46 am

    Soju Shochu same shit. Japanese and Koreans are so related anyway.

  • Posted July 19, 2012 at 12:02 am

    Wish you guys were in the Portland area because whenever I return home I can never find anything but “soju” in the local state-run liquor stores.

    Personally, I’m a big fan of imo (potato) shôchû, kokutô (sugar cane) shôchû and awamori (Okinawan fire water). Soju, hmm. Can’t say I’ve ever cared much for it. Makgeolli, on the other hand, is quite nice, though somewhat of an acquired taste, particularly if it contains ginseng.

    Regarding the comment about shôchû originating in Korea, I’d like to say that awamori originally came from Thailand hundreds of years ago and is still made with Thai rice today. The brown sugar shôchû made in the Amami archipelago developed out of a shortage of rice/bumper crop in sugar cane in the post war years. Imo shôchû has its roots in China. In Kagoshima dialect the potatoes used in making imo shôchû are called kara-imo, or “Chinese potatoes”. Barley shôchû was, I believe, first distilled on the island of Iki, Nagasaki prefecture. It is this shôchû which is probably most closely related to Korean soju and may have originated in Korea.

    Anyways, you can find more musings on Japanese spirits at my sub-blog: http://www.aonghascrowe.com/kampai/

    Kampai!
    Kampe!
    Cheers!

  • tmon
    Posted August 22, 2012 at 11:10 am

    Japanese shochu is derived from Korean soju. Like many Japanese products, shochu is the result of the importation of a product/concept which was then improved upon. There are differences between soju and shochu. As stated above, shochu has a much higher ABV % and distilled numerous times. But its origins lie in Korea. Although Wikipedia is a great resource and is improving, it still remains an unreliable secondary resource for scholarly research. I bring this up only to address Wikipedia’s claims that shochu was first distilled in Japan in the 16th c. =and introduced by Spanish missionary Francis Xavier. This is a highly controversial argument and one that is most probably incorrect. I would not be surprised to read that kimchi was first fermented in Japan in the 16th century as well as the result of a Portuguese sailor’s influence.

  • simon
    Posted January 17, 2013 at 3:00 am

    Today’s popular Soju is not the real thing.. in the 60s and 70s when things were tough, the Korean gov’t banned brewers from making Soju the traditional way. Why? to save the grain from food..
    The brewers started using cheap alcohol made from tapioca/sweet potato and mix it up with artificial flavorings to create this bastardized version of Soju.
    The bans been lifted and there’s some real Soju’s in the market now.. and the funny thing is, this kind of Soju and the Japanese Shochu tastes pretty much the same.

  • Keith
    Posted September 1, 2013 at 6:55 pm

    The diff between soju and sochu? Nothing, they both taste like crap. Im korean with a japanese wife so I’d like to think im neutral. Scotch brands…now thats something worth debating.

  • Aery
    Posted December 15, 2013 at 2:26 am

    I don’t think Charmmie is a real Korean. Soju ad are sexy because Soju companies aim at young adults both women and men. Back in 70s and 80s, Soju is for men’s alcohol but as more women go to colleges and society as students and workers they started to drink more hard require like Soju. And Soju is very cheap and populace require. Soju ad got sexer and also Soju got weaker in it’s ABV to make it easier to be drunken by women, especially young women who just started to drink and think about diet all the time.

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