Sake vs. Shochu: Everything You Need to Know

In the world of alcoholic beverages, Japanese spirits stand out for their unique offerings. Sake and shochu are two prominent contenders in this category; both are firmly ingrained in Japanese culture and highly regarded by enthusiasts all over the world. However, their similarities end there. These two spirits have very different characteristics, production processes and even cultural significance. In this article, we’ll delve into the intricacies of sake and shochu, exploring their histories, production methods and what set them apart.   

What is Sake? 

Sake, often referred to as “Japanese rice wine,” is a traditional alcoholic beverage that originates from Japan. Just like wine is made from fermented grapes, sake is crafted from rice. It holds a significant place in Japanese culture and is associated with ceremonies, rituals and celebrations. The technique of fermenting rice into an alcoholic drink arrived, and rice cultivation arrived in Japan around 2500 years ago. Since then, the method has consistently been refined to produce sake. 

Ingredients and Production

Sake is made primarily from rice, yeast, water and koji (a type of fungus). The rice used in sake production, sakamai, is specifically suited for brewing as opposed to the regular rice used for eating. The process of sake production begins with polishing the rice to remove the outer layers, exposing the starchy core. This rice is then washed, soaked, and steamed. Koji mold is then added to the rice. This mold is essential for converting the starches in the rice into fermentable sugar. 

When the koji has done its job, yeast is added to the mixture. As a result, the fermentation process begins, which turns the sugars into alcohol. The fermentation process can vary in length and temperature, leading to different flavor profiles. After fermentation, the liquid is separated from the rice solids, and the resulting sake is often filtered, pasteurized, and sometimes aged before bottling. 

Sake typically offers a delicate balance of bitterness, sweetness and umami with floral and fruity notes.

Best Sake Picks 

  • Gekkeikan Sake
  • Gekkeikan Sake
  • Sho Chiku Bai Sake Nigori
  • Sho Chiku Bai Sake Nigori
  • Hana Sake White Peach
  • Hana Sake White Peach
  • TY KU Sake Junmai White
  •  TY KU Sake Junmai White


    What is Shochu? 

    Shochu is a distilled spirit whose origins can be traced to the 16th century when Portuguese traders introduced the distillation process to Japan. Shochu has gradually gained popularity, especially in the southern regions of Japan, where it has become an essential part of local culture. Its range of flavors and adaptability make it a favorite among locals and an intriguing option for those exploring the world of Japanese drinks. 

    Ingredients and Production

    Unlike sake, which is brewed through fermentation, shochu is distilled. The base ingredients used in shochu production can vary widely, including barley, sweet potatoes, buckwheat, rice and more. Each ingredient contributes to the unique flavors of the final product. 

    The production process of shochu involves three key steps:

    • Fermentation – The base ingredient is smashed, and enzymes are added to convert starches to sugars. Yeast is then introduced to ferment the sugars into alcohol.
    • Distillation – The fermented mash is then distilled to extract alcohol. Shochu can be distilled several times or just once, which can affect its alcohol content and flavor. 
    • Maturation (optional) – Some types of Shochu are aged in barrels, similar to whiskey or other spirits. This aging process can enhance the color and flavor complexity of the final product. 

    Best Shochu Picks

    Mizu Green Tea Shochu
    Mizu Saga Barley Shochu
    Mizu Lemongrass Shochu


      Sake vs. Shochu: The Key Differences

      Understanding the main differences between shochu and sake will enrich your appreciation of Japan’s alcohol culture. 

      Production Methods 

      The primary distinction between sake and shochu lies in their production methods. Sake falls in the category of “brewed liquor,” while shochu is included in the category of “distilled liquor.” Wondering what’s the difference between brewed liquor and distilled liquor? Brewed liquor, such as beer and wine, is alcohol made from fermenting fruit, grain and other ingredients. Distilled liquor, like whiskey and vodka, involves heating and concentrating a fermented liquid, resulting in higher alcohol content and more complex flavors. 

      Sake is brewed from rice using a fermentation process, while shochu is made using a variety of base ingredients that are fermented and then distilled. 


      The method of production is merely one aspect of the distinctions between sake and shochu. There are also significant differences in ingredients. Sake is a Japanese rice wine made from four ingredients: rice, yeast, water and koji. The rice used for sake production is specifically cultivated for this purpose and polished to remove the outer layers. 

      Shochu is a distilled spirit made from various base ingredients, including barley, rice, sweet potatoes, buckwheat and more. Each ingredient gives a unique flavor to the final product. 

      Flavor Profiles

      Sake and Shochu Flavor Profiles

      Appreciating sake and shochu involves understanding their unique flavor profiles. Sake typically has a milder and more delicate flavor profile with fruity and floral notes. Its flavors can range from sweet to bitter, with a complex interplay of subtle aromas. 

      On the other hand, shochu’s flavor profile varies greatly depending on the base ingredient used. It can be rich and earthy or light and clean with flavors that reflect the ingredients it’s made from. 

      Alcohol Content and Health Benefits

      Delving deeper into the differences between sake and shochu, it’s definitely worth considering their alcohol content and health benefits. Sake has an alcohol content ranging from 15-20%, similar to many brewed liquors like wine. It’s renowned for its amino acids, which support healthy skin and its absence of sulfites, which in certain people can cause allergies. 

      Shochu has a higher alcohol content, typically ranging from 25-40%, similar to other distilled spirits like vodka. It is praised for having low calories and sugars. As a result, drinkers who are concerned about their health frequently choose it. 

      Serving and Consumption

      Sake is often served either warm or cold, depending on the type. High-quality sake is served chilled to enhance its complex flavors. Warm sake offers a comforting touch, especially in the winter. The choice of temperature can affect the perception of its flavors.

      A tokkuri, which is a ceramic flask, is typically used as the serving vessel for Sake. It plays a crucial role in the overall drinking experience. 

      Shochu can be enjoyed in various ways, including neat, on the rocks, mixed with water or used as a base for cocktails. It’s versatile in terms of serving styles. 

      Cultural Significance

      Both sake and shochu play a vital role in Japanese life and culture. Sake is mostly associated with traditional ceremonies, rituals and festivals. Culturally, sake also served as an essential link between the gods and humans. It was a means of communication used to express gratitude for a plentiful harvest, appease the ancestors’ anger after natural disasters and ask for their protection and blessings. The Japanese thought they might get closer to the gods by consuming the sake offered to them. 

      Shochu has gained popularity as a versatile spirit enjoyed in different settings. In the olden days, shochu was used to build communities with family and friends and welcome important guests. Today, shochu is a popular casual beverage enjoyed throughout Japan and the world at large. 

      In summary, while both sake and shochu are beloved Japanese alcoholic beverages, they have several differences. Sake’s refined brewing process produces a spectrum of delicate to robust flavors intertwined with tradition and ceremonious importance. On the other hand, shochu’s versatility, distilled essence and a variety of base ingredients reflect the evolving nature of modern preferences. 


      Sake and shochu are iconic representations of Japan’s rich cultural heritage and craftsmanship. From the intricate aromas of sake to the diverse flavors of shochu, each beverage offers a unique and sensory experience. So, whether you raise a glass of sake or shochu in celebration, you’re embracing the essence of Japanese heritage in every sip. 


      What Is the Main Difference Between Sake and Shochu? 

      The primary difference lies in their production methods. Sake is brewed from rice using a fermentation process, while shochu is distilled from a variety of base ingredients such as barley, sweet potatoes, rice and even brown sugar. 

      How Do People Drink Sake and Shochu?

      Sake is typically enjoyed on its own or paired with Japanese cuisine. Depending on the type, it can be warmed or served cold in small cups. Shochu, on the other hand, is more versatile. It can be enjoyed neat, on the rocks, diluted with water or mixed into cocktails, depending on personal preference. 

      Which One Has a Longer History, Sake or Shochu? 

      Sake has a longer history, dating back over a thousand years. In historical terms, shochu is a relative newcomer, but it has quickly established itself as a popular spirit in Japan.

      How Are the Flavor Profiles of Sake and Shochu Different? 

      Sake offers a delicate balance of bitterness, sweetness and umami with floral and fruity notes. Shochu, a distilled spirit with a higher alcohol content, has a more robust flavor. The flavors can range from rich and smoky to light and fruity, depending on the base ingredient. 

      Where Can I Buy Sake and Shochu?

      You can purchase sake and shochu from your local liquor stores or even online retailers. One excellent online option to explore is Nestor Liquor, a reputable online liquor store known for its diverse selection of premium alcoholic beverages.

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