Rice and easy: The complete guide to sake and shochu

Location: Japan

From the East they came. Strange. Strong. Threatening. Made of Rice (and some other stuff). Yet were saké and shochu the monsters they first seemed? Clinton Cawood donned his cape and entered their underground lair

More threatening to some than an ill-tempered, multi-tentacled monster, saké and shochu are versatile drinks and are, probably like our cephalopod friend, rather misunderstood. And even if your restaurant or bar isn’t Japanese, it’s worth keeping a few around. The drinks, that is, not the cephalopods.

And yet saké suffers from an unfairly negative reputation outside of Japan. Zacchari Touchane at Bincho Yakitori puts it simply: ‘People in Europe think that saké is strong, that you drink it warm, and that it has a taste that nobody likes. But we’re trying to educate them.’ Even in high-end Japanese restaurants with saké sommeliers, wine sales easily exceed saké sales. There’s clearly work to do.

Things have been turning around in the last few years, though, with increasing interest in the saké category in the UK resulting in greater accessibility and availability. Sayaka Watanabe at London’s top-end Japanese restaurant Zuma confirms that ‘selling saké is not as hard as it was a few years ago’.


While this has undoubtedly been fuelled by the work of a number of restaurants, who have developed extensive lists and employed a number of saké sommeliers, export markets are also a growing priority for producers in Japan, who have seen their domestic sales decline as consumers at home move to the trendier shochu.

This latter, and diverse, category of spirit remains relatively unknown in the UK, mainly consumed by visiting Japanese ‘salarymen’, who start the night with saké and then finish with shochu. And while a number of Japanese bars and restaurants stock this spirit, it remains a niche product.

It’s a category that’s given pride of place at the Shochu Lounge at Roka in London, though, with its wall of bespoke infused shochus and part of a distillery integrated into the bar’s design. ‘The first people I knew who were into shochu were underground fashion designers,’ says bar consultant Tony Conigliaro, who has since exposed the category to a much wider audience through Shochu Lounge.

‘If white and red wine are in

Japanese restaurants, then saké

has the potential to go with

other cuisines’ – Ayako Watanabe

Shochu is taken so seriously at this bar that it has affected the choice of ice there (see the March/April 2009 issue of Imbibe). ‘Shochu’s delicate, so you need hard ice so that it doesn’t dilute,’ explains Conigliaro.

There’s enough potential for variation within the category to allow for a specialisation like Shochu Lounge’s. As Conigliario points out, variations in base material, water, koji and pressure in the still all have an effect, making the possibilities almost endless.

Describing just two extremes, he says: ‘If you use rice, white koji and low pressure in the still, you’d get a light, floral shochu. On the other hand, using sweet potato, black koji and normal pressure would result in a much heavier spirit.’

Conigliaro often introduces consumers to the category using something like a strawberry shochu. For Cocoon’s head sommelier Honami Matsumoto, these fruit shochus, either infused or flavoured, are well suited as aperitifs. Shochu can be served in a number of ways, she explains. ‘It is good straight, on ice, or with mixers, from tea to fruit juices. For me, shochu could be enjoyed like vodka and gin.’

These mixed shochu drinks, known as chuhai, were created as an alternative to a highball, according to Ayako Watanabe of Saki Bar and Food Emporium in London. ‘It started with tonic water, but then it was diversified to include almost anything – fruit juice, ginger ale…’


At Saki, as with most other Japanese venues, saké is more of a priority than shochu. The restaurant makes use of a number of initiatives to encourage consumers to discover the category, such as focusing on a region during one month (most recently the Nagano Prefecture).

‘Some customers don’t have much confidence, and are open to a waiter’s suggestions,’ says Ayako Watanabe. ‘Every week we have something special to recommend, like a tasting set of three sakés, each from a different category.’
Well, if it works with wine, why not saké?

Saké and shochu clearly have a natural place in Japanese restaurants and bars, but there is a case, however far-fetched it may sound at first, for stocking even a limited amount of these products in non-Japanese venues.

The top end has led the charge, with chefs such as Joël Robuchon and Alain Ducasse making use of saké pairing for particular dishes.

‘Rick Stein serves saké at his seafood restaurant,’ adds Wakana Omija from Akashi-Tai saké brewery. ‘Saké and shochu can be great with Mediterranean food, oysters or other types of seafood.’

As for the potential for saké in non-Japanese restaurants, Sayaka Watanabe puts it plainly: ‘If white and red wines are in Japanese restaurants, then saké has the potential to go with other cuisines.’

She reasons: ‘Saké is made from water and rice. Can you think of any food that doesn’t go with rice? It’s even easier to pair with food than wine, which is a lot more challenging.’ Ambitiously, she believes that ‘saké has the potential to become the third table beverage in the world after wine and beer. Saké could be the only potential alternative to fine wine.’

For Hazel Liu at Sapporo Teppanyaki, these products are ‘still limited in availability within the restaurant/bar sector because of people’s knowledge and perception’. There is another obstacle to be overcome. As Touchane puts it: ‘It maybe won’t become like red or white wine because of the cost of export.’ A factor that has only got worse with the yen strong against the pound.


Currency fluctuations aside, there is benefit to be had from stocking saké and shochu, and a large range isn’t necessary. ‘My recommendation is to have at least two types,’ says Omija. ‘One light and crisp saké, a honjozo for example, and one heavier and flavourful saké like a daiginjo. Honjozo is diverse, and can be drunk chilled or heated, while daiginjo is always best served chilled. It is generally floral and fruity, and better accepted by people who have never tried sake before.’

On this point, Ayako Watanabe adds: ‘There are beginner-friendly sakes, and then others that are more for connoisseurs. You wouldn’t give a complete wine beginner a premium fine wine when
you know it’s going to be a waste.’

‘There is a lot of umami in

Italian food – mushrooms, for

example – and shochu goes

phenomenally well’ – Tony Conigliaro

Zuma’s Sayaka Watanabe says: ‘You could just stock two or three sakés in a restaurant or bar. You don’t have to cover all the traditional ranges, as long as what you’re stocking isn’t too crazy or unique. Saké’s palate cleansing and so versatile.’

Xavier Chapelou, of iSake and China Tang, thinks that an initial range shouldn’t exceed five sakés. ‘It would be great if there were more, but at this stage in this country, saké is still mysterious stuff for many people. You could have the different grades, but the important thing is to have very different types of saké and clear descriptions of what they taste like.’

On the shochu front, a small range is also the best way to go, and even having only one may be enough. As Touchane says: ‘If I were only keeping one, it’d be a sweet potato shochu, which you could serve on the rocks, in a tumbler.’

Conigliaro adds: ‘I’d start with the lighter styles.’ He believes that there is potential for pairing other cuisines with shochu as well. ‘It will take a while to catch on, but I’ve tried shochu with other food. There’s lots of umami in Italian food – mushrooms, for example – and it goes phenomenally well.’


Having a range of saké and shochu is only the first step. As those in Japanese restaurants can attest, some effort needs to be made in selling these to consumers. Omija’s advice is to ‘make them available by the glass, or in small bottles, and to use them in cocktails. It’s also important to understand the product and recommend it to customers. Pairing with food is also important – saké always tastes better with food.’

Sayaka Watanabe agrees that different serving sizes are essential. ‘Someone will try a glass first, and the next time they’ll have a carafe,’ she says. At Zuma, saké is listed before wine on the drinks list.

Chapelou’s advice for selling saké is to emphasise ‘explanation of the products, tastings and training. Make it more approachable.’ Matsumoto considers regular saké events an invaluable tool for encouraging consumers to try saké.

Mixing these products greatly increases their approachability. In addition to its various simple serves, shochu makes a good base for cocktails. It’s a lot stronger than saké in terms of alcohol, and is therefore easier to use in cocktails.

An example from Shochu Lounge, and Conigliaro’s favourite, is a Noshino Martini: a 2:1 shochu/saké Martini with a cucumber slice. He says: ‘Shochu cocktails are great for people that don’t like spirits, but don’t want wine. It gives them another option. People can have lighter cocktails, with lower abvs, and you can also explore a wider flavour band.’

Saké, while less versatile in cocktails owing to its less robust flavours, nevertheless has its uses. Omija comments: ‘More and more mixologists are using saké and shochu in their cocktails. Saké is around 15% abv and has a more delicate flavour. Saké mixed with grapefruit and passion fruit juice makes
a very refreshing drink.’

Matsumoto, meanwhile, recommends mixing saké with vodka or shochu to account for its lower abv. ‘You can enhance the fragrance by mixing saké with fruit juice, or use aged saké with its sweeter body to get stronger flavours,’ she says.

So a many-pronged, or tentacled, approach is essential in taking full advantage of the benefits of these Japanese drinks. Whether you’re a bar or a restaurant, it’s undoubtedly worth stocking at least a few – just keep an eye on the yen-pound exchange rate when you’re shopping for them.

saké and lunch

Saké is a great accompaniment for food, but with such a range of grades and styles, it helps to have some direction when putting the two together. Cocoon’s head sommelier Honami Matsumoto provides some pointers…

  • Sakés with relatively high acidity and pronounced, round body – good quality junmai or junmai ginjo with a touch of ageing – pair with a variety of food, ranging from baked fish and deep-fried dishes, to meat like wagyu beef.
  • Saké that has a touch of earthiness, like yamahai, kimoto, or aged saké, goes well with even richer, gamier meat and fatty, sweet fish dishes.
  • These first two styles are accompanied by a high proportion of umami, and pair well with strong flavours, like cheese and miso.
  • Saké which have a natural sweetness can be matched with richer, sweeter and salty dishes.
  • Daiginjo sakés are good as aperitifs, owing to their outstanding fragrance.
  • Some ginjo sakés, with relatively fruity aromas and slim/crisp bodies, match well with spicy dishes with sweet-and-sour flavoured sauce, as the saké helps to soothe the palate.
  • Sakés with light bodies and fresh flavours go well with fresh fish and seafood like sashimi or lightly seasoned vegetable dishes.

Wise old man, he say…

It’s all well and good if a customer is lucky enough to have a saké or schochu sommelier on hand to make recommendations and read the labels for them, but until recently labelling for both was invariably in Japanese, with no translations.

Bincho Yakitori’s Zacchari Touchane says he started out by memorising the symbols for the various styles of saké and shochu, but increasingly companies are lending non-Japanese speakers a hand by writing their story on the back label in English. Nonetheless, it still helps to have a bit of the terminology under your belt.


One of the most critical elements in the production of saké is the degree to which the rice is milled or polished – the more it is milled, the higher the quality. The rice is then cooked, and koji, which converts starch to sugar, is added. Other factors affecting the quality and style include the actual rice used, as well as the water, and temperature at which fermentation occurs. In the final stages, small amounts of alcohol are sometimes added to some styles.

Junmai refers to saké that contains no added alcohol. Until recently, the rice needed to be polished to at least 70% of its original size to qualify as junmai, but this is no longer the case, provided the percentage is stated on the label. This is a heavier style compared to most other sakés. For junmai ginjo, the requirement is 60%, and 50% for junmai daiginjo. These are lighter in style.

Honjozo contains a small amount of added alcohol, as does ginjo and daiginjo (polished, as with junmai ginjo and junmai daiginjo, to 60% and 50%, respectively). There are other requirements for the premium ginjo and daiginjo styles, relating to brewing methods.

Various other grades and styles exist, such as

nigori (cloudy saké), sparkling or aged saké.

The suffix –shu (eg jumai-shu) means ‘saké’.


The Saké Sommelier Association offers three courses in saké, for those looking for further knowledge about the category.

The first is a beginners’ course, which includes a
history of the category, production, and offers a tasting of five products with food. The courses at the next two levels are currently being introduced to Europe, namely the Saké Navigator Course and the Certified Saké Sommelier. For more information, visit


Unlike saké, which is brewed, schochu is distilled, normally to around 25% abv. It can be made from a number of raw materials, with rice, barley, wheat, potato and sweet potato the most common. Koji (white, dark or, less commonly, yellow) is used to turn the starch in these to sugar, a process that takes about two weeks.

After fermentation, pressured stills are used, with very little, if any, cutting of heads and tails.

Plum the depths

If the saké and shochu categories don’t have enough limbs for you already, you’re in luck, as a number of related products have recently been launched in the UK. Akashi-Tai brewery recently introduced a plum-infused saké (a drink known as umeshu). Wakayama plums are infused into ginjo saké for two years, for a drink that can be served on its own, over ice or in cocktails. The drink is sour and sweet, with dried fruit and molasses on the nose, and dried cranberry, sherry-like flavours.

14% abv. RRP £11.99/500ml.
Malcolm Cowen, 020 8965 1937

iSaké also recently launched a plum product into the UK – a twist on umeshu. Prucia, described as an ‘umeshu de France’, is a liqueur made by macerating plums from France in eau-de-vie, after which it is aged in oak barrels. Distinct marzipan aromas, with loads of sour fruit flavour on the palate.

15% abv. RRP £27.99/70cl.
iSaké, 07952 939066

Editorial feature from Imbibe Magazine – May / June 2009

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