Shōchū (焼酎) is a distilled beverage native to Japan. It is most commonly distilled from barley, sweet potatoes, or rice. Typically, it contains 25% alcohol by volume (weaker than whisky or standard-strength vodka but stronger than wine and sake). It is not uncommon for multiply-distilled shōchū, which is more likely to be used in mixed drinks, to contain to 35% alcohol by volume.
Shōchū should not be confused with sake, a brewed rice wine. Its taste is usually far less fruity and depends strongly on the nature of the starch used in the distilling process. Its flavour is often described as "nutty" or "earthy".
Shōchū is drunk in many ways according to season or personal taste:
Shōchū is widely available in supermarkets, liquor stores and convenience stores in Japan, however it is not yet sufficiently well known to be widely available outside of Asia, apart from select regions with large enough Japanese populations. Canned chuhai drinks are also sold in some of Japan's ubiquitous vending machines.
In Kyūshū, the centre of production, shōchū is far more common than sake. Indeed here sake generally means shōchū, and is normally enjoyed mixed with hot water. First hot water is poured into the glass, then shōchū is gently added. The liquids mix naturally and stirring is unnecessary. Typically the amount of shōchū exceeds the amount of hot water, creating a pleasant aroma, and it causes only mild inebriation. To achieve a perhaps more authentic and subtle taste, mix the shōchū and water, leave it to stand for a day, and then gently heat.
Some shōchū makers label their products for US export as soju, the Korean distilled liquor, due to a loophole in liquor licensing laws in New York and California that allows restaurants with a beer & wine license to sell soju. This allows these establishments to sell cocktails based on soju or shochu while avoiding the expense and restrictions of obtaining a full bar license.
Shōchū recently became the focus of a consumer boom, and in 2003 shipments within Japan surpassed those of sake for the first time. Shōchū bars appeared serving shōchū exclusively, and premium brands with a focus on particular ingredients, production methods, or aging techniques entered the market. It has undergone a complete change of image; whilst it used to be seen as an old-man's drink it has now become trendy amongst young women. The boom also had negative effects: It caused a serious shortage of sweet potatoes, a basic ingredient of some popular types of shōchū and, with the emergence of expensive premium brands, pricing scams appeared.
In 2005 a Japanese Television program called Kiken na Aneki illustrated this change in drinking habits. Its plot surrounded the Minagawa family of Miyazaki province, who were brewers of a sweet potato shōchū called imojōchū. The lead character Hiroko (Ito Misaki) spends the majority of the series trying to come up with enough money to save the brewery from loan sharks, but in the process becomes involved with corporate distilleries. The larger companies formulate an advertising campaign that results in the imojōchū becoming a popular drink. In this fictional account the beverage is marketed to young women, when it previously had been mostly consumed by the older male generation.
There are several reasons for shōchū's recent popularity. With increasing health-consciousness, many people see it as more healthy than some alternatives. Shōchū is a low-calorie drink whose few calories are converted to heat by the body and emitted. There have been well-publicized claims of medical benefits, including that it can be effective in preventing thrombosis, heart attacks, and diabetes. It is also a versatile drink that is suited to most styles of cuisine.
Shōchū has become better known as a result of one man who consumed it regularly. Shigechiyo Izumi, a Japanese citizen who up until recently held the world record for longest life span (120 years), made shōchū part of his daily dietary regimen. This fact was mentioned along with his record in the Guinness Book of World Records. Because of his intimate passion for shōchū, many have speculated that shōchū is healthy and can actually promote longevity. This even prompted some local Ryūkyū shōchū brewers to market a special Longevity Liquor shōchū bearing his likeness on the front label. Despite these claims, Izumi's personal physician strongly advised against drinking shōchū, as his kidneys were not strong enough to process shōchū in his advanced age. But Izumi went on to say: "Without shōchū there would be no pleasure in life. I would rather die than give up drinking."
The exact origin of shōchū is unclear. Originally alcohol the strength of shōchū was called araki (arak) or rambiki (alembic) in Japan; arak is a generic term for a variety of distilled alcoholic drinks throughout the Middle East. Shochu was originated in Persia, spreading west to Europe and east to India, Thailand and Okinawa. Around the mid-16th century, the technique arrived in Kagoshima, where shochu was born. The distilled alcoholic beverage in Okinawa is known as Awamori.
As far as can be determined from Japanese historical record, shōchū appears to have been made since at least as far back as the 16th century. For example, when the missionary Francis Xavier visited Kagoshima Prefecture in 1549, he recorded that "the Japanese drink arak made from rice [...] but I have not seen a single drunkard. That is because once inebriated they immediately lie down and go to sleep."
Further, at Kōriyama Hachiman shrine in Ōkuchi, Kagoshima, the oldest existing direct reference to shōchū in Japan can be found. There, two carpenters working on the shrine in 1559 inscribed the following graffiti on a wooden plank in the roof: "The high priest was so stingy he never once gave us shōchū to drink. What a nuisance!"
From these early times through to the Edo period shōchū was produced throughout Japan the traditional kasutori way with a single round of distillation. In the Meiji period machinery for repeated distillation was imported from Great Britain, making cheap mass-production of high-purity shōchū possible during this time of chronic rice shortages. Originally shōchū made the traditional way was called "old-style shōchū" and that produced using the new multiple-distillation machinery "new-style shōchū."
Alcohol distilled more than once with special machinery for that purpose, with alcohol by volume of less than 36%, that meets the following conditions:
Until the 2006 revision the law referred to this category as kōrui shōchū (焼酎甲類 shōchū kōrui ), sometimes abbreviated to "kōshu". Very sweet varieties of shōchū imported from Korea have recently grown in popularity and fall into this category (see soju).
It is generally distilled from a fermented liquid similar to molasses. Repeated distillation forms ethylalcohol of high purity which is typically odourless and has a taste of little distinction. Water is then added, and the precise nature of this water has subtle effects on the taste and palatability of the shōchū.
The specialized distillation equipment, called a patent still lends it to mass production at low cost, so large corporations produce this kind of shōchū in high volume. In Japan it retails in plastic bottle, can, and paper cup form and is consumed as a cheap alcoholic drink. It forms the base of several cocktails and liqueurs such as chūhai and umeshu.
Alcohol distilled using other than multiple-distillation machinery, with alcohol by volume of no more than 45%, from one of the following:
Until the 2006 revision the law referred to this category as otsurui shōchū (焼酎乙類 shōchū otsurui ), sometimes abbreviated to "otsushu".
The equipment used for single distillation is called a pot still. As the shōchū is distilled just once it retains the character of the base ingredient, typically rice, barley or potato, with a strongly individual taste and aroma. Small-to-medium size enterprises make most brands, with the island of Kyūshū famous as the centre of production. Recently however larger corporations have been entering the market.
Until 2006 Japanese postwar tax law classified shōchū into "korui" and "otsurui" types. In Japanese these words mean something akin to "high-grade" and "low-grade" respectively.
Fearing a tendency to believe that otsurui shōchū is somehow inferior to korui shōchū, the Kyūshū Otsurui Shochu Producers' Association lobbied the Finance Ministry, and in 1962 succeeded in having honkaku shōchū (本格焼酎 honkaku shōchū ), or authentic shōchū, recognized as an alternative name. The name is believed to have been coined in 1957 by Enatsu Junkichi, the president of Kirishima Brewery of Miyakonojō, Miyazaki Prefecture. 
However, since the term was not formally defined naming disputes arose. As a result on 1 November 2002 the law was clarified and shōchū satisfying any of conditions 1 to 5 of the above definition of singly-distilled shōchū can be called honkaku shōchū. Those satisfying the final condition are excluded.
Most singly-distilled shōchū is moromitori shōchū. This name derives from its production process: 
Rice shōchū (米焼酎 komejōchū ) shares its base ingredient with sake. It has a fairly thick taste, and appears to have originally developed in regions too warm for sake production. 
Barley shōchū (麦焼酎 mugijōchū ) is generally less distinctive than rice shōchū and easy to drink. However if cask-aged the taste can be quite sharp and strongly reminiscent of single-malt whisky. 
Potato shōchū (芋焼酎 imojōchū ) uses sweet potato, widely cultivated across southern Kyūshū since the Edo period, as its base ingredient. Originally it was almost exclusively produced in Kagoshima and Miyazaki prefectures, but nowadays is made across Japan using locally-grown sweet potatoes.
It tends to have has a strong taste and a distinctive smell, sharply dividing drinkers into those who do and don't like it. More recently producers have made varieties whose aroma is somewhat suppressed.
The 1956 film The Teahouse of the August Moon portrayed an American-occupied Okinawan village rebuilding its economy with potato shōchū.
The taste of potato shōchū is a bit smoky evocative of some whiskeys.
From the Edo Period through to the time of the Pacific War, the Amami Islands produced drinks such as Awamori and a distilled alcohol based on brown sugar. From the middle of the war through to the American occupation, because of a shortage of rice (the base ingredient of Awamori) and an inability to export the sugar-based alcohol to the mainland, a large surplus was produced. In 1953, when the Amami Islands were returned to Japanese sovereignty, the alcohol was not classified as "shōchū" under the 1949 alcohol tax law and therefore would attract a high rate of tax. The Ministry of Finance, taking into account the desire of local residents and as part of a strategy to promote the region, gave special recognition to the local alcohol as brown sugar shōchū (黒糖焼酎 kokutōjōchū ). This recognition was geographically restricted to certain islands of Kagoshima Prefecture and was conditional on the use of rice kōji. This regional restriction remains in place to this day; as can be seen in the legal definition of singly-distilled shōchū above.
Contrary to what might be expected brown sugar shōchū has a mild and not particularly sweet taste. Nowadays it is produced throughout the Amami Islands but Awamori is no longer made.
Before the war another alcoholic drink based on brown sugar was made in the Ogasawara Islands. Its name translates as "sugar alcohol" and could be seen as a form of brown sugar shōchū. Production ceased because of the war, but recently, aiming to revive its popularity, a similar alcohol has been introduced. However as Ogasawara does not qualify for the above special regional exemption this alcohol is instead classified as rum.
Soba, or buckwheat, shōchū (そば焼酎 sobajōchū ) has origins going back to just 1973 when Unkai Brewery Co., of Gokase, Miyazaki Prefecture, developed it using soba from the local mountainous region as its base ingredient. Since then shōchū producers across Japan have produced it, sometimes as part of a shōchū blend.
Taste is milder than barley shōchū.
Okinawa is the home of Awamori (泡盛 awamori ) shōchū, which uses rice as its base ingredient. Prior to April 1983 it was labeled otsurui shōchū, but is now properly called "Authentic Awamori".
Awamori is made from Thai long-grained Indica crushed rice, not the usual short-grained Japonica of standard shōchū. The fermentation process employs black koji mould indigenous to Okinawa rather than the standard white variety, and secondary fermentation is not performed.  Fermentation is done in a way that creates plenty of citric acid, allowing it to be produced all year round despite Okinawa's hot climate. After distillation its strength is reduced with water to about 25% alcohol by volume, although some varieties go as high as 43%.
Japanese law classifies Awamori as singly-distilled honkaku shōchū despite the different production process.
With its method of production Awamori could theoretically be made anywhere in Japan, but Ryūkyū Awamori is a protected geographical indication restricted to Okinawa.
Japanese law admits a very wide range of unusual base ingredients, such as shiso leaf, sesame and chestnut,  and shōchū made from most if not all of these exists. For example, there is a milk shōchū brand called Makiba-no Yume . Others are generic shōchū mixed with a particular fruit juice or extracts.
With its peculiarity, such shōchū is typically intended to catch the eye of visitors to a region and has attracted limited broader appeal. Soba shōchū is perhaps a good example of one that has managed to break out of this mould with more widespread success.
It first became popular in the north of Kyūshū, and then spread to other areas, being manufactured during a period when it was not possible to brew refined sake across Japan. It is also widely used in sake production to stop fermentation before it is complete, which can help prevent degradation or give a dry taste. Shōchū made for this purpose is called hashira shōchū (柱焼酎).
During the Edo Period shōchū lees were used as a fertilizer during the rice-planting season. Many farms therefore installed distillation equipment to distill sake lees to produce shōchū lees. Whilst the lees were used in the fields, the distilled alcohol was drunk, or offered to the gods, at the sanaburi (早苗響) festival held at the end of the rice-planting season to pray for a bountiful harvest. Kasutori shōchū has therefore also come to be known as sanaburi shōchū.
Owing to the recent surge in popularity of shōchū in Japan, an increasing number of manufacturers have been making kasutori shōchū.
Most kasutori shōchū is made in modern ways, shōchū made via older production processes has decreased sharply. People who wish to preserve Japanese culture call shōchū produced the historical way Seichō kasutori shōchū (正調粕取焼酎), such drinks have been revitalized by their activities.
Confusingly kasutori is also a slang term for a separate, inferior form of shōchū. After the Pacific War, in a chaotic society with a shortage of good alcohol, moonshine shōchū began to circulate. Its source and ingredients were not apparent, and in extreme cases contained toxic methyl alcohol diluted with water. Such shōchū with ill side-effects became known as kasutori, and the association with poor shōchū lingered, sometimes even affecting the image of "real" respectable kasutori shōchū.
The expressions kasutori literature and kasutori culture also came to be associated with the upheavals of the postwar period.
Singly-distilled and multiply-distilled shōchū can be mixed to form blended shōchū. Formerly it was often mislabelled honkaku shōchū, or had no indication of mixing or relative volumes. From 2005 the industry regulated itself and created the blended shōchū (混和焼酎 konwashōchū ) mark, with subcategorization based upon the relative volumes used.
Singly-distilled shōchū makes up 50%-95% of the total volume of singly-distilled blended shōchū. This category is targeted at those viewing pure singly-distilled shōchū as having too strong a smell or taste, aiming to be softer and more easily drinkable.
In multiply-distilled blended shōchū singly-distilled shōchū makes up 5%-50% of the total volume. With a focus on price, this tries to combine the cheap mass-production benefits of multiply-distilled shōchū whilst introducing some of the distinctive flavour and aroma of the singly-distilled form.