National

SWEET POTATO FAMINE

'Shochu' distillers scramble to keep up with boom

Kyodo

The nation’s current “shochu” liquor boom has grown to such proportions that famous brands are in short supply, even in the areas where they are made.

Take, for example, Kagoshima Prefecture, the undisputed home of shochu distilled from sweet potatoes.

The prefecture boasts premium brands such as Mori Izo, Mao and Murao.

Shipments of “honkaku-shochu,” or shochu made from one type of raw material and distilled for only a single round, for the 11 months through May came to 19,000 kiloliters, up 34.1 percent from a year earlier, the prefectural brewers and distillers association said.

Of the figure, shipments within the prefecture rose 21.3 percent, while shochu shipped elsewhere surged 43.9 percent.

“But the Kagoshima shochu market should be saturated, so we suspect that some of the shochu shipped within Kagoshima is also finding its way to other prefectures,” one association official said.

At Yamagataya, a department store in the prefectural capital of Kagoshima, many shelves in the liquor section are bare because many brands are out of stock.

A shop clerk said that, unlike in the past, the store is finding it difficult to purchase as many bottles of some brands as it would like.

The store said it receives about 3,500 applications for its monthly lottery of 86 bottles of Mori Izo.

To meet demand, distiller Hamada Shuzo Co. of the city of Kushikino in the prefecture has built a new factory that will start operations in April.

The distiller hopes to boost sales by 1 billion yen with the additional production capacity.

Company president Yuichiro Hamada said, “Shochu has traditionally been a liquor for the masses, and it’s strange that it should be rare.”

But all is not rosy for the local shochu industry.

The surge in production has exacerbated the already short supply of sweet potatoes, caused by the reluctance of younger people to step in and take over such farms from the aging farmers.

The prefectural government said demand for sweet potatoes for shochu production was 119,000 tons in fiscal 2004, up 50 percent from the previous year.

The prefecture predicts a 52,000-ton shortfall for the current year after factoring in potatoes that serve as raw material for starch.

Sweet potatoes are usually harvested around October and November, and because they are more difficult to store than rice and wheat, shochu distillers concentrate their production during these months.

But due to supply fears, some distillers have harvested the spuds early to secure enough for production, industry insiders said.

The industry association is trying to put a stop to such a practice.

“Good shochu cannot be made from potatoes that are as thin as a rat’s tail and low in starch,” said Kaoru Yoshino, the association’s managing director.

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