Kagoshima Shochu Makers Target Foreign Palates with New Liquors

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Bartenders from the United States taste sweet potato shochu.

KAGOSHIMA — Shochu makers in Kagoshima Prefecture are taking advantage of the relaxation of border control measures to increase shochu fans overseas and explore new demand for the distilled beverage.

In early November in 2022, five bartenders working at bars and restaurants in the United States visited Hamadasyuzou in Ichikikushikino in the prefecture. They saw how shochu is produced and listened to explanations from the brewery’s president Yuichiro Hamada.

While tasting its sweet potato shochu, the bartenders commented that shochu’s floral aroma suits cocktails, and that different alcoholic strengths vary the flavors of the same shochu brand in an interesting way.

Four prefectures in the Kyushu region — Kagoshima, Miyazaki, Kumamoto and Oita — invited the five to deepen their understanding of the liquor’s tradition and appeal, hoping to raise its profile in the U.S. market and eventually expand exports. During their four-day visit, the bartenders toured a brown sugar shochu maker in the Amami Islands and a shochu maker in Miyazaki Prefecture as well.

Chris Bostick, who runs a restaurant in Texas, said he learned about the passion of the shochu makers and the liquor’s history and found that it is a drink with a story. He said he wants to use shochu in the U.S. if it becomes available.

Another chance

The shochu industry in Kagoshima Prefecture has been hit by a COVID-triggered decline in demand from restaurants and the rising cost of raw materials due to an outbreak of sweet potato blight.

In the medium to long term, shipments have continued to decline, and the volume of authentic shochu produced in the prefecture has been below the previous year’s level for nine consecutive years through to the 2021 brewing year of July 2021 to June 2022.

The prefecture’s shochu industry has long sought to expand exports to Western countries to broaden its sales channels, but the pandemic interrupted the opportunity to promote the liquor. The opportunity has resurfaced, however, with the drastic relaxation of COVID-19 border control measures in October last year.

Hamadasyuzou exports strong potato shochu for overseas markets.

“I learned that it’s important to create even a small number of dedicated shochu fans,” Hamada said. “I want to promote shochu more in the U.S.”

The relaxation of restrictions is expected to bring more foreign visitors to Japan. There is a movement to broaden the range of domestic distilled spirits to match the tastes of foreigners.

Since 2020, Satsuma Shuzo Co. in Makura-zaki, Kagoshima Prefecture, has released the Sleepy series, which is made by storing unblended shochu in barrels for a long time. The Sleepy comes in barley, sweet potato and rice shochu.

The brand has an amber color like whisky. While it preserves the flavor of shochu, it also has a fruity, grain-like aroma that is full-bodied.

Naoya Hombo, marketing director of the brewery, said the Sleepy is “distinct from ordinary shochu.”

Under the liquor tax law, the Sleepy is categorized as liquor, but Minori Momota, who was involved in developing the brand, said, “Even though it’s not called shochu, people can enjoy the taste of its unblended shochu.”

The company’s priority is to attract Japanese shochu fans, but Satsuma Shuzo is also targeting foreign visitors, who are expected to increase in number. However, many foreigners think of whiskey when it comes to distilled spirits, and it is thought to be difficult for shochu to penetrate the market.

“I hope the Sleepy series will be picked up by foreign customers who are familiar with whisky,” Hombo said. “We want them to learn about the quality and depth of shochu and eventually increase demand.”