While many people associate shochu with Japan, it is said to originate in Korea, where it is called soju.
The ‘sho’ in shochu and the ‘so’ in soju both mean ‘burn’ or ‘burned’; the ‘chu’ in shochu and the ‘ju’ in soju both mean alcohol.
This ‘burned alcohol’ is a reference to a distillation process that both beverages have in common. This technique was developed in Korea in the 13th century, and it allegedly only emerged in Japan in the 16th century.
While most soju allows the addition of flavouring, sweeteners and MSG, the rules for shochu are much stricter.
Shochu and soju are both made from a base of fermented ingredients, usually grain, such as rice or barley. But they can also be made from buckwheat, sweet potatoes, or, in the case of shochu, even chestnuts, wasabi, shiso or soba.
Drinking it in the correct way differs in Japan and Korea.
Shochu, which tends to be purer and higher in alcohol content, is often consumed on the rocks, as mizuwari (cut with spring water and ice) or oyuwari (cut with warm water), or with Oolong tea or grapefruit as a highball.
Soju, which usually has a light, low-alcohol and an almost sweet character, is often drunk on its own or with beer – even inside beer, in a drink called somaek, which is akin to a “soju bomb”.
Soju is most often drunk straight with food, like wine, but is also used in cocktails, like a spirit.
Soju has a neutral flavour, like vodka, but half the alcohol content — normally between 20% and 34% ABV, compared to vodka’s 40% ABV.
According to experts, shochu has more identity, quality control, variety and versatility.
Soju, however, is recognised as one of the highest consumed alcoholic beverages in the world.