Review: The Shochu Handbook by Christopher Pellegrini

Christopher Pellegrini’s ‘The Shochu Handbook: An Introduction To Japan’s Indigenous Distilled Drink’ is an insightful look into the little-known world of shochu and awamori.

I am not a religious man, but whenever I read detailed descriptions of the wonder that is alcohol production, I think that humanity has been blessed with nothing short of a miracle. Christopher Pellegrini shares this almost religious enthusiasm for one particular drink — shochu — and has shared his evangelising with the world in The Shochu Handbook. 

Japanese alcohol runs the gamut from nihonshu (known as sake overseas) to whiskies and craft beers that have been made with Japanese techniques. But there is an oft-neglected spirit here too. For hundreds of years, shochu (and awamori, its Okinawan cousin) have dwelled at the heart of Japan’s drinking traditions. However, it has largely remained hidden from the rest of the world, despite outselling most other alcoholic beverages in Japan. Shochu sales eclipsed nihonshu‘s during the third ‘shochu boom’ in 2003, and the gap has continued to grow since then.

Thanks to the efforts of people like Pellegrini, the bounties of shochu are being revealed. The Shochu Handbook is the first major reference published on the subject in a language other than Japanese. Pellegrini is one of an elite few non-Japanese to have attained the highly-regarded shochu sommelier’s certificate from the Sake Service Institute. Join him in his quest and you will learn why shochu should be known to both casual tipplers and alcohol specialists.

What is Shochu?

Shochu is a quirky beverage. Its alcohol content is in the middle ground between fermented beverages (e.g. beer, wine, sake) and most distilled drinks (e.g. whisky, vodka, etc.) Unlike sake, shochu is mostly produced in a concentrated region, the southern island of Kyushu while awamori, shochu’s sibling, is produced in Okinawa. However the most exciting fact to drinkers, the thing that makes it tough to pigeonhole shochu, is that it can be made from a wide variety of base ingredients: sweet potato, buckwheat, brown sugar, carrot, kelp, radish, aloe, shisho, chestnut and more. Honkaku (authentic) shochu is single distilled so it retains the characteristics of the base ingredient resulting in strikingly different flavour profiles.

The variety in the drink can be intimidating. Luckily we have Pellegrini to expertly lead us on a journey that reveals shochu’s astonishing diversity. The seemingly infinite array of shochu is what first attracted Pellegrini to the drink, and studying it over the past two decades has only intensified his enthusiasm. His journey began during the second shochu boom in the early 2000s giving Pellegrini many opportunities to sample the drink at bars in Tokyo. The boom brought a renewed taste for honkaku shochu, ‘authentic’ or single distillation shochu, which tends to be more complex than the multiple-distillation version of the drink. Finding little English-language information about the drink back in 2003 (not even an English Wikipedia page), Pellegrini travelled to the Kyushu region of western Japan — the centre of the country’s shochu production — to gain firsthand knowledge, knocking on distillery doors and asking if they would show him how it was made. From there, his passion led to formal qualifications, tasting tours, an export business and more.  

Christopher Pellegrini had big plans when he wrote the Shochu Handbook in 2014, as indicated by the continual references to how “shochu is gearing up for a steady expansion to all corners of the globe, including a bottle shop or restaurant near you.” (p. 9), followed almost immediately by the declaration that “shochu will one day find its way into your local liquor shop on a shelf right beside the whiskey, rum, gin, vodka and tequila” (p.10). For Pellegrini, “the most exciting part of it…is helping to get people outside of Japan in on the ground floor of shochu’s imminent spread across the globe” (p.12). All this is a good indication of Pelligrini’s passionate evangelising. He even includes detailed instructions on how you can join his mission: “If you happen to live or be in a part of the world that doesn’t have a ready supply [of shochu] then either make a phone call or plan a visit to your local bottle shop. They need to be made aware that they can profit from selling shochu” (p. 64).

Kurojoka shochu kettle with cups from the Shochu Handbook
Kurojoka shochu kettle with cups

That mission has heavily influenced the book’s layout. Pellegrini introduces the reader by explaining what shochu is (and what it is not), and what makes it unique. He also addresses common misconceptions between shochu and the Korean drink soju, as well as vodka and rum. He then goes on to cover everything from the history of shochu and how distilled beverages arrived in Japan to a step-by-step overview of the unique distilling process in a simple, accessible style. There are also sections devoted to deciphering the different kinds of shochu, reading bottle labels, judging shochu quality, serving styles, and shochu cocktails. 

Shochu food pairings and useful phrases but definitely no saliva

You may think that the high alcohol content and intense flavour of shochu might make it challenging to match the drink with food but Pellegrini highlights several surprising yet successful pairings, such as pizza and imo-jochu or cheese fondue and kokuto shochu. If you want to keep it traditional, satsuma-age fish cakes from Kagoshima with sweet potato shochu, or basashi (horse sashimi) with rice shochu in Kumamoto also work. You can find a shochu for any part of the meal. Vacuum-distillation techniques create lighter styles that are suitable for aperitifs and a range of cuisines, while barrel ageing produces weightier varieties great for heavier fare or after dinner. Mugi (barley) and kome (rice) varieties are the most accessible in terms of flavour profile and are the easiest to find globally. Shochu is also a healthy alternative to Western spirits.

Especially useful for visitors to Japan are the shochu-related Japanese phrases for shops and izakayas, along with the extensive list of 33 recommended bottles and tasting notes section. The handbook also includes a glossary of terms and Japanese-English language assistance for everything from ordering shochu in a bar to telling the difference between single-distilled and multiple-distilled drinks. It is illustrated with many beautiful photos of bottles, shochu cups and kettles.

The level of detail is outstanding. Pellegrini clearly has an unparalleled knowledge of global alcohol. When comparing other ways of converting starches into fermentable sugars, he touches on Peruvian corn beer chicha and kuchikami sake in his typically lucid prose: “Malted grains aren’t allowed in the production of shochu, and neither is spitting – figurative blood, sweat and tears maybe, but definitely no saliva” (p.27). It’s this kind of attention to detail that makes The Shochu Handbook a joy to dissect and allows the reader to feel Pellegrini’s passions and frustrations about how far shochu has come, and what is stopping it from reaching the next level.

‘The Shochu Handbook’ is packed with helpful information which is to be expected from the ‘handbook’ genre. The added bonus is that it is well-written. In a tone both erudite and conversational, Pellegrini manages to make the complex elements of shochu’s production and service easily understandable. Each section of the book is lively and engaging yet concise and informative, and is a delight to read. Pellegrini never makes the reader feel as if they are out of their depth. He takes you down the rabbit hole a step at a time, revealing more and more details that add to the fascinating shochu tableau.

The book definitely addresses a need in the market. Comparisons with John Gaunter, who has been the western face of sake for two decades, are natural, and the book has a format similar to John Gauntner’s Sake Handbook (Tuttle, 2002). 

‘The Shochu Handbook’ could be a little more reader-friendly – a little more focus on page layout, typesetting and design would allow the reader to more readily digest some of the complex explanations. The glossary could be more comprehensive and would be a good place to include some complimentary detailed information. 

Pellegrini’s passion shines through, and his descriptions of the drinks are so vivid I often felt thirsty while reading it. It’s inspired me to go out and try different types of shochu, and it will do the same for you, giving you the knowledge and confidence to navigate the many options available.

Since the book was written in 2014, some things have changed and Pellegrini has been at the forefront of that. It is now increasingly possible to find shochu in New York City and in other big cities in the USA, and in Europe – the author’s mission mentioned at the start of this review is well underway!

‘The Shochu Handbook’ is a fascinating and informative read for anyone with an interest in drinks or food. It’s about time that shochu received the deep, enthusiastic, serious treatment that wine, beer, sake and whisky have received. This book is useful even for experienced, educated tipplers and is essential for Japanophiles, restaurateurs, distributors, journalists, retailers, beverage professionals, and everyone in between. 

Shochu is a topic that needs a preacher. Christopher Pelligrini is that man, and this book is the bible.

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