(sake and shochu being promoted during a shochu buying trip to Kumamoto Prefecture)
People often ask why I promote shochu and it’s a fair question. Early on in my shochu exploration, my frustration was that I could only drink it in select bars and restaurants and virtually all of those were Japanese. So my “reason” became, “I want to drink shochu anywhere I go.” That still remains my goal and we’re still a long way from that dream. But I’d love to be able to walk into my local dive bar or go to a ballgame and have a glass of my favorite shochu.
Every bit of the work I do in this area is toward that goal, and fortunately the Japanese government has begun to help. On April 14, 2012 (3 years ago today) they named shochu and nihonshu (what we usually call “sake” – not “saki”) as the national liquors of Japan. Following the press release, the government has begun investing in promotion of sake and shochu around the world. Earlier this year I was fortunate enough to be invited to one of these events being held in Kumamoto Prefecture, home of some amazing rice shochus (and a fair number of sake breweries).
(a mountain stream that feeds into the Kuma River)
The Japanese External Trade Organization (JETRO) invited me to be a guest speaker for a foreign shochu buying trip in Kumamoto City. At the event, held in March 2015, buyers from the US, UK, Israel, China, South Korea, Thailand, and Cambodia met with sake and shochu producers from around Kumamoto. We toured Hitoyoshi, the center of the rice shochu universe. Hitoyoshi is nestled in the valley of the Kuma River, which has been voted the best river in Japan every year for years. The clean water runs fast and deep out of the mountains, resulting a smooth, soft water that’s perfect for shochu production. As a result 28 distilleries dot the river valley in a community of about 35,000 people. In addition, we were able to enjoy local Kumamoto izakaya cuisine with local shochu, adding deeply to the experience.
(international sake buyers surveying the production floor at Takahashi Shuzo, producer of the best selling rice shochu, Hakutake Shiro)
For many of the buyers, even those from dedicated sake importers, this was their first introduction to shochu. They were impressed by the crisp, dry flavors and complex aromas, but many worried that they would have a hard time selling shochu to bars or restaurants that were unfamiliar with how to serve shochu. This certainly remains a challenge, but I was pleased to see at least two deals made with shochu distillers during the trade event. Little by little, shochu continues to grow.
(negotiating table between foreign buyers and a rice shochu maker)
This event was one of many simultaneous efforts to bring shochu to the world. JETRO, the Japanese Sake & Shochu Makers Association, the local shochu guilds, and many other government and private organizations throughout Japan and overseas are beginning to work together to promote shochu globally. I hope that with time we’ll be successful.