Shochu, like other spirits, can be enjoyed a number of ways. It can be fun to experiment with the different options for drinking shochu.
Straight (neat). This is the simplest way to enjoy shochu, but also the most lethal. Neat simply means drinking it straight – adding nothing. This tends to give you the “true” flavor, but because of the higher alcohol content, it hides some of the flavors. Shochu drinkers will most often drink neat shochu at room temperature, but sometimes they’ll chill or heat the shochu before drinking neat. Also, be sure to order this “straight” when in an izakaya. “Neat” will get you a quizzical look.
Roku (on the rocks). This is the way to drink shochu that seems to be most favored among Westerners, so much so that when ordering a bottle of shochu in an izkaya, you’ll usually be brought a bucket of ice along with your tumblers. The ice chills the shochu and as it melts, it releases more subtle flavors, but if you drink to slowly the shochu becomes very watered down, muting those same flavors.
Mizuwari (with cold water). Just as Scotch drinkers will often add a dash of water to their dram, shochu drinkers will sometimes add cold water to their neat pour. Again, just like Scotch, this releases more complex flavors. In Japan the typical ratio is 3:2 (60% shochu), but in some parts it can be as little as 3:7 (30% shochu). You should experiment with this to see how much water you like to add. Also, be careful when ordering “mizuwari” in an izakaya as many servers will assume you mean “on the rocks and cut with water”, which can lead to a very watery drink.
Oyuwari (with hot water). This is where the Japanese move away from western drinking styles to one most uniquely their own. Especially in winter months shochu will be cut with hot water usually in similar ratios to those used in mizuwari drinking. Hot water is warmed in a traditional Japanese tea pot and added to the glass first. Pouring the heavier gravity shochu into the glass will stir the drink naturally. This releases the aromas of the shochu as well as the flavors, making for an intense and warming drink. As you can imagine, getting warm and sleepy on a cold night, this can be a very relaxing experience. Very few U.S. izakayas will actually offer a traditionally prepared oyuwari shochu, which has been mixed the night before and allowed to sit. It is then heated in a clay pot, which is served table side. The oyuwari mellows in the clay pot. This is worth trying if you can find it.
Garnishes. Regardless of which style you prefer, a garnish can be added, though I’ve never seen one used with oyuwari. The two most popular garnishes I’ve seen are lemon andumeboshi (pickled Japanese plum). In Japan cucumbers appear to be used as garnishes, though I’ve not seen that option at any U.S. izakayas.
Chu-hai (cocktails). Any shochu can be mixed into a cocktail, though as you’d expect, the more netural, light flavored shochus are most enjoyable as a cocktail since the distinct flavors of the richer shochus can clash with mixers. This is similar to how you’ll often find bourbon, rye, or sour mash whiskey cocktail recipes, but you’re much less likely to find a Single Malt Scotch cocktail. Besides offending purists who believe the subtle flavors of the spirit should be enjoyed rather than masked, I imagine a Single Malt Scotch cocktail just wouldn’t taste very good.
Chu-hai cocktails are most often made with ice + soda water (seltzer) + a fruit juice such as lime, grapefruit, orange, yuzu (Japanese citrus), apple, grape, kiwi, peach, lychee, or ume (Japanese plum). Also popular is the oolong-hai made with oolong tea. A final version, which has proven very popular among our frinds, is a calpico-hai. Calpico is a yogurt based drink. You can find it either as a carbonated soda or as a concentrate. The concentrate makes for a nice drink mixed simply with shochu on the rocks while the calpico soda will give you a different experience.
But perhaps the most interesting part of making shochu cocktails is coming up with your own unique drinks.
Experiment. See what you enjoy. But always be willing to try a new shochu in several different styles. You’ll soon discover that some shochus are best neat, some are best roku, while others are best mizuwari or oyuwari … and some only belong well hidden in cocktails.