Along with these new foods comes new customary drinks to enjoy, but they can be confusing to Asian culinary newbies. To help illuminate this unfamiliar world of foreign spirits, here’s a quick-and-easy guide to help you decipher the main characteristics of—and differences between—sake, sochu and soju.
In Japan, sake translates simply to “alcohol” and nihonshu or seishu are the most popular names for the rice wine Americans call “sake.” It’s made by washing and steaming grain before mixing it with yeast and koji (a specific kind of grain cultivated with aspergillus oryzae mold) and allowing the concoction to ferment. The finished product is fragrant with low acidity and an alcohol content of 15-18%.
There are five types of sake you should know: Ultra-premium Daiginjo-shu is traditionally served chilled, has a stronger umami flavor and is less aromatic than others; Ginjo-shu is the broader category of premium sake under which Daiginjo-shu, but non-Daiginjo-shu Ginjo-shu is made with super-clean grain so it’s light and fragrant and also usually chilled.
Honjozo-shu has a smooth taste, is typically lower in alcohol than other sake and most often served warm. Another premium sake, Junmai-shu is high in acidity and body and is served hot. Finally, Namaze is any sake that’s unpasteurized so it’s bold and must be served chilled, most often in the spring after the traditional sake brewing season.
Sochu is distilled Japanese liquor instead of fermented wine and so typically has an alcohol content of 25-30%, though can be just 12 percent or as much as 40 percent alcohol. It’s often then diluted with hot or cold water before serving or enjoyed on the rocks, and is more popular in Japan than sake. Best-quality sochu is known as honkaku sochu as it’s single-distilled and so retains the earthy flavors of its base ingredients.
Like sake, sochu can be made from rice but it’s also often made from sweet potato or barley, which all taste very different from one another (as well as from sake). Imoshochu, made from sweet potatoes, is distinguished by its strong taste and smell that’s a bit smokey; made from barley, mugisochu is cask-aged so it’s golden in color and mild in flavor. Komesochu is typically product of the same prefectures that produce the most sake since it’s also rice and grain-based, which gives it a delicate flavor that’s the closest-tasting to sake of the bunch.
Soju is a clear spirit from Korea and is consistently one of, if not the most-consumed alcohol by volume year after year worldwide, although it’s dwarfed in popularity by Japanese sake and sochu. It typically runs with a 20-34 percent abv. content so is closer to sochu than sake that way. It’s usually enjoyed alone, but can also be mixed into cocktails due to its subtle, delicate taste.
Soju is traditionally drank around the dinner table; the eldest of the group pours a shot for every other member who then turns their head so as not to make eye contact and takes the shot. After the first round, glasses are filled however as needed but always by other members of the group—you never pour your own soju.
For centuries, soju was made from rice. But during the Korean War distilling rice was banned and the base ingredient was switched to sweet potato (like imosochu), wheat or even tapioca. This ban was lifted more than two decades ago but the new traditions stuck