sake vs soju vs shochu
Sake 101

Sake vs Soju vs Shochu – Ultimate Guide (Similarities and Differences)

You’ve only just learned what sake is. And just when you were about to buy your first bottle, another term popped up: soju.

As if that were not enough, there’s shochu too. So what’s the difference between the three? 

There’s no shortage of Asian alcoholic beverages in the west. Variety is growing every day, and sake is enjoying increased popularity in recent years as people venture into new flavor territory and try new things.

So, are soju and shochu simply other words for sake?

The answer is NO. They’re all similar in that they’re made from rice, but that’s about where the similarities end.

We’ve discussed what sake is in detail previously, but let’s take a look at sake vs. soju vs. shochu.

SakeSojuShochu
shochu
Base ingredient(s)RiceRice, barley, sweet potato, tapiocaRice, barley, sweet potato, buckwheat
OriginJapanKoreaJapan
ABV %15-20%15-45%25-37%
TasteClean, slightly sweet, dryNeutral, semi-sweetNeutral, slightly nutty or earthy
ServeStraight (chilled or warm)Straight, chilled, or cocktailsStraight, chilled, or cocktails
Quick facts about sake soju and shochu

Sake vs soju vs shochu

difference between soju and sake

We’ve said it many times, but here it is again, for the sake of sake newbies. (Pun intended!)

Sake (pronounced sah-keh) and often referred to as Japanese rice wine, is a brewed alcoholic beverage made by fermenting rice that has been polished to remove the outer portion of the grain. It’s said to have been enjoyed since at least the 8th century CE, but some historians believe the Japanese consumed it even BEFORE that.

It is brewed using sake rice, water, koji, and yeast. Koji is arguably the most important ingredient in sake production, and apart from the semai buai, or rice-milling percentage, it plays the most significant role in the quality of the final product.

Koji, also known as Aspergillus oryzae, is a fungus used in Japan to saccharify rice, sweet potato, and barley to produce drinks like sake and shochu. It’s also used to ferment soybeans for soy sauce and miso.

People call it rice wine, but that couldn’t be further from the truth! 

Contrary to popular belief, sake shares more in common with beer than wine for its brewing process. Although, you could say that its flavor profile is more akin to wine than beer. Fine sakes are aged for a year or more, and most have an alcohol percentage of around 15%, except for Genshu—undiluted sake—which has an ABV of 20%+.

Soju is a distilled spirit from Korea also made from rice, but it’s immediately different from sake in that it’s distilled, not brewed, and obviously, it’s Korean!

Soju is also made from sweet potato, barley, tapioca, or wheat, or any combination of those. The colorless beverage is sometimes referred to as Korean vodka for its neutral flavor. Soju is seeing increased popularity in the west, and interestingly, it’s the most sold liquor in the world.

In some cities, Soju can be sold under a beer and wine license, which is easier to obtain than a liquor license. The neutral color and flavor mean it can be used in a variety of cocktails as well as being enjoyed straight.

There’s your substitute for the good ol’ vodka!

shochu bottles

Shochu, on the other hand, is a low-alcohol distilled spirit from Japan (again!) made from rice, barley, or sweet potato. It originated in Japan at least 500 years ago. 

Shochu is similar to Korea’s soju in that it’s distilled, clear in color, and has a similarly low ABV of between 25% and 30% on average. It’s also fairly neutral tasting, with some sweet notes depending on the starch used, and like soju, can be used in a variety of cocktails and other mixed drinks. In fact, many people choose to mix it with juice.

It shares a similar process to sake in that the beginning of the process starts out like brewing. A mash is made with koji mold which is fermented, often twice, and later distilled. Like sake, the koji in shochu is responsible for a considerable amount of the final flavor and overall quality of the drink.

High-quality shochu, called Honkaku Shochu, is single-distilled, which allows it to retain more flavors of the base ingredient. Hence, a shochu made from sweet potato will taste considerably different from one made from rice.

How does each of them taste?

As you saw above, these three drinks are considerably different in many respects.

The buds on your tongue will ascertain that ALL of them have a clean taste, though.

But the devil is in the detail.

Sake’s flavor is hard to describe since so much depends on the semai buai or rice polishing ratio. You could say that it’s clean-tasting and slightly sweet, with an astringency that complements. Its scent is slightly fruity and nutty and often compared to a milder version of wine’s aroma.

But depending on the style, the notable flavors and aromas can be COMPLETELY different.

On the other hand, the flavor of soju is usually more predictable. It’s clean with a neutral flavor that many people associate with vodka, although most soju is sweeter and less harsh than vodka. You’ll also notice a light astringency that balances the sweetness, which can vary depending on the starch used.

Sweet potato soju is sweeter than soju made from other starches.

Shochu’s flavor profile shouldn’t be confused with sake. It’s usually less fruity, and, like soju, the overall flavor depends heavily on the starch used. You could describe the flavor as nutty or earthy

Shochu, unlike sake, can be made from many kinds of base ingredients such as Japanese sweet potatoes, barley, rice, and buckwheat, so these flavor notes are often present in the drink.

Difference between sake and soju and shochu: how are they made?

bottle of soju

The three drinks share similarities in their processes, especially soju and Shochu, but it’s the nuances that set them apart.

So it’s time to take a look at the manufacturing process for sake, soju, and Shochu.

How to make sake

As we’ve seen, sake’s main differentiator from soju and Shochu is that it’s brewed and not distilled. It has the lengthiest process of the three drinks, and its success relies heavily on the first step of milling.

  1. The rice grains are milled.
  2. Rice is washed to clean the Nuka (white starchy residue).
  3. The grains are soaked in a predetermined quantity of water.
  4. They are steamed in a vat called a Koshiki.
  5. Steamed rice is typically separated—some getting inoculated with Koji mold and some going straight to the fermentation vessel.
  6. Koji Making (Seigiku)—The Koji ferment is monitored for 36 to 45 hours in a room with higher-than-normal humidity and temperature.
  7. Yeast starter (Shubo or Moto)—made by mixing koji and the rice from the above two steps, water, and a concentration of yeast cells.
  8. The mash (Moromi)—After moving to a larger tank, you will add more rice, koji, and water in several stages over four days, roughly doubling the batch’s size each time.
  9. Over the next 18 to 32 days, this mash ferments and its temperature—among other factors—are measured and adjusted according to the desired flavor profile.
  10. Pressing (Joso)—at this stage, the white lees (kasu) and unfermented solids are pressed away, letting clear sake runoff.
  11. Filtration (Roka)—the sake sits for a few more days to allow more solids to settle out before filtering it through charcoal.
  12. Pasteurization—most sake (minus namasake) is then pasteurized once. 
  13. Aging—finally, the sake ages for about six months, helping to round out the flavor before shipping. The aged sake is then cut from 20% to roughly 16% with filtered water.

How to make soju

Soju was traditionally made from rice, but that changed during the Korean War, according to experts. Distilling rice was banned, so Koreans started making soju with alternative starches like wheat, sweet potatoes, and tapioca. Although the ban was lifted in the late 90s, many of the best brands still prefer to use alternative starches.

  1. Grains and/or starches are fermented, usually for 15 days.
  2. The distillation process involves boiling the filtered, mature rice wine in a sot (cauldron) topped with soju gori (two-storied distilling appliance).
  3. The distilled alcohol comes out at 95%+ and continues to fall as the distillation continues. The distiller has the final say as to when they cut the distillation.
  4. The distilled liquor is diluted with filtered water to around 24%
  5. At this point, sometimes the soju is blended with others to create special batches.
  6. The final product is bottled.

How to make shochu

  1. Moromi (mash) – rice koji mixed with yeast and water, fermented 6 to 8 days
  2. Sometimes secondary more with sweet potato—steamed and mashed and added to the first mash
  3. A secondary ferment of 8 to 10 days
  4. Alcohol content now around 15%
  5. Distilled—head about 60 % and tail around 40%
  6. After unprocessed Shochu is matured, it is filtered then bottled as Genshu, or the alcohol level is adjusted by adding water for other Imo Shochu like Shiranami.

How do you drink sake vs. soju vs. shochu?

a couple drinking sake

Sake

Despite what many people think, you shouldn’t shoot sake. It’s made to be sipped on and enjoyed slowly. 

As for whether you serve it hot or cold, a general rule of thumb is that higher-quality sake should be chilled slightly, and you should warm cheaper sake a little. Cooler temperatures of around 45F allow the full flavor profile to shine without masking any nuances. 

Warming a lower-quality sake that may have a sweeter and fruitier body helps make some of the off-flavors less noticeable. In Japanese culture, it’s customary for sake drinkers to serve for one another.

Soju

Soju is often served neat or slightly chilled and sipped from small glasses. 

Similar to Japanese culture, it’s customary in Korea to serve one another, but NEVER oneself. (No solo drinking!)

You’re expected to take the shot without looking at the person who served you, and after the first round, it’s acceptable to sip the soju. 

Also, soju is used in mixed drinks and popular cocktails. High-alcohol soju will stand up better in cocktails as the lower-alcohol varieties may get overshadowed by other ingredients.

Shochu

Shochu is most often consumed on the rocks, mixed with water, or with juice, which lowers the ABV to around 12-15%. 

Like soju, you can use shochu as a substitute spirit in a range of cocktails and mixed drinks. Connoisseurs of shochu will take advantage of the serving temperature to accentuate desired flavors. Because of the relatively neutral flavor, like soju, shochu pairs well with a variety of foods.

Popular brands

bottles of soju in a shop

Sake

Sake is seeing increased popularity in the west over the last few years, thanks to improved marketing efforts and premium offerings from brands like Dassai, which is famous for their Dassai 23—which uses rice polished to 23% of its original size. Some other popular options are:

  • Hakkaisan Tokubetsu Junmai
  • Shichida Junmai
  • Dewazakura Cherry Bouquet Oka Ginjo
  • Dassai 39 Junmai Daiginjo
  • Kurosawa Junmai Kimoto
  • Kikusui Perfect Snow

Soju

Interestingly, the brand Jinro is the top-selling liquor brand in the world. Soju usually outsells all other liquors, and the following are some popular brands:

  • Chamisul
  • Cham “Deep Ocean Water” Island Soju
  • Chum-Churum
  • Hwayo
  • Jinro
  • Moonbaesool
  • Tokki
  • Ty Ku

Shochu

Shochu is also seeing growing popularity in recent years for its versatility. It can be enjoyed either straight or used in a variety of mixed drinks, which means it’s approachable for most people. Here are some popular options worldwide:

  • iichiko—one of the most popular and most international brands of Shochu, iichiko is usually made with whole grains and is distilled at lower temperatures than other brands
  • Satsuma
  • Yosaku 
  • Jinkoo
  • Shiro
  • Ikkomon
  • Torikai

Bottom line

As we’ve seen, sake, soju, and shochu are all great beverages made from rice, with soju and shochu also made from other starches. They all have a rich history and, consequently, different customs for being served and enjoyed in a group. You can use soju and shochu in a range of cocktails, but you should definitely enjoy sake on its own for the best experience.

All three offer a variety of flavors and alcohol percentages which means there’s an option out there for everybody. So, there’s no better time than now to get acquainted with a new drink!

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