Oita is in an ideal location for Japanese alcohol production, with both the southernmost sake manufacturing point in the country and the northern most shōchū manufacturing point. Mugi (wheat/barley) shōchū from Oita is particularly famous throughout Japan.
What is shōchū? Shōchū is a type of distilled Japanese alcohol that originated in Kyushu and it is most often made from rice, barley/wheat, sweet potatoes, buckwheat or brown sugar, although other varieties exist. It can be served in various ways including straight, mixed with water (either hot or cold), mixed with oolong tea or juice and more. People in Oita will often squeeze fresh kabosu (Japanese lime) into shōchū before drinking as well.
Shōchū is sometimes referred to as "Japanese vodka", but this is misleading as the two have multiple differences. Vodka is generally stronger than shōchū, as vodka is usually 35-45% alcohol whereas not only is shōchū 25-30% on average (there are a few that are 35-45%, but these are rare), but is also often enjoyed mixed with either hot or cold water, which further reduces the alcohol percentage to 12-15%, similar to a glass of wine. While vodka is distilled multiple times, the best shōchū is single distilled, which enables it to keep more of the characteristics of the ingredients used to make it, meaning that depending on the base ingredient, shōchū can taste very different.
Oita's shōchū The main company in Oita (and, in fact, Japan) for shōchū is iichiko, a high-grade (honkaku) shōchū made from two-row barley (mugi) and fermented with koji, and water that naturally filters through 1000 feet of volcanic rock, providing a soft, iron-free water to steep the barley with. The name "iichiko" (pronounced "EACH-ko") comes from the Oita regional dialect, and means "it's great". iichiko contains no sweeteners or additives, as this is one of the stipulations that allows it to be classified as high-grade shōchū. iichiko's Saiten shōchū (below, second from left) was awarded a Double Gold medal at the 2020 San Francisco World Spirits Competition, while iichiko's Silhouette shōchū (below, furthest right) was awarded a Gold at the L.A International Spirits Competition and a Silver medal at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition. iichiko's Frasco shōchū was awarded the Chairman’s Trophy at the 2013 Ultimate Spirits Challenge, scoring 94 points, the highest any shōchū has scored, as well as being the first time the trophy has been awarded to a shōchū.
What is sake? Sake is sometimes referred to as rice wine, and is made by fermenting polished rice. While in English it is called a wine, the brewing process is in fact more similar to that of beer – where the starches are converted first to sugar and then to alcohol. Sake can be enjoyed hot or cold, and has an alcohol per volume or 15-18%. Although it is called "sake" in the West, the word "sake" actually refers to alcohol as a whole in Japan, and what we know as "sake" is in reality called "nihonshu" - "Japanese liquor". Although most people think of nihonshu as the national beverage of Japan, Japan has a higher consumption of shochu than it does nihonshu.