Q : What is the difference between sake and shochu?
A : Sake and shochu, while similar in appearance, are very different types of alcohol. For starters, while sake is produced from rice, shochu can be produced from potato, barley, or rice. Sake goes through a brewing process while shochu is distilled. Shochu has a higher alcoholic content and has a history distinct from sake, being more commonly produced in regions too warm for sake making, notably Kagoshima in Kyushu.
The word sake (酒) in Japanese actually refers to all types of alcohol. The sake most people are familiar with abroad, sometimes called rice wine, is more commonly referred to as Nihon-shu (日本酒 lit. Japanese alcohol), and the brewing process is more similar to that of a beer than a wine. Multiple, simultaneous fermentations of polished rice are followed by milling, after which koji-kin (a type of mold, the enzymes of which act in the same way as malt does in beer production) is added to convert starch to sugar. Lastly, shubo (yeast mash) is added to convert the sugar to alcohol. There are two main distinctions in variety； one which is akin to table wine, and another which follows certain guidelines of quality in terms of how polished the rice is, and whether alcohol or additives were used in production. There are also two styles in which to drink sake； hot, or chilled.
Shochu, on the other hand, is distilled. Potato, barley, or rice (the most common starting ingredients) is steeped in water and steamed. Meanwhile, one of three types of koji-kin (white, yellow, or black) is fermented in water for several weeks, producing unrefined alcohol. A secondary fermentation occurs after adding the steamed starting ingredient to the unrefined alcohol. Finally, the alcohol is distilled for purification. The starting ingredient (which is not limited to potato, barley or rice and can include brown sugar or soba (buckwheat) among other items) and the type of koji-kin used determine the variety of the shochu (imo-jochu (potato shochu), for example, is known for having a very strong, distinct flavor). Another distinction made among shochu is whether it is multiple-distilled (alcohol by volume under 36%) or single-distilled (alcohol by volume under 45%). Popular drinking styles include straight, on the rocks, mizu-wari (diluted with water), oyu-wari (mixed with hot water), mixed with oolong tea, and chu-hai (mixed with soda, ice, and juice such as lemon, grapefruit or ume).
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