Business

Kyushu distillers seek to build overseas fan base for shōchū

Kyodo

Spirits makers in Kyushu are working to attract overseas customers for their flagship product of distilled liquor called shōchū.

Shōchū, typically distilled from barley, sweet potatoes, rice, buckwheat or sugar cane, is very popular in Japan but not nearly as well-known abroad as sake, which is not distilled.

Kirishima Shuzo Co. in Miyakonojo, Miyazaki Prefecture, is one of the shōchū makers working to change that.

It recently launched a website in English as part of its effort to enhance overseas recognition of its signature shōchū made from sweet potatoes. The distiller is also planning to promote its products in Chinese and Korean in the future.

On the website, information about the popular liquor, including its history, is introduced with illustrations.

Discussing the roots of shōchū, the website says the encounter between distilling techniques transmitted to Japan around the mid-14th and 15th centuries, and Japan’s unique kōji (mold), led to the birth of shōchū. Distilled liquors in Western cultures rely on malt for fermentation, not mold, according to the website.

In the “How to Drink” section, three main ways to enjoy the drink — mixed with hot water, straight on the rocks, and mixed with cool water and ice — are listed with step-by-step instructions.

It also explains that shōchū is low in calories in its “Healthy & Beauty” section.

“It is a rare culture in which people enjoy distilled liquor and meals at the same time. We would like to start by letting people know about shōchū first and gain more fans overseas,” said PR officer Masahiro Okubo.

According to the National Tax Agency, sake exports totaled ¥15.5 billion in 2016, compared with ¥1.4 billion for shōchū.

Another distiller in Miyazaki is taking a different approach to selling its products overseas.

Kyoya Distiller & Brewer Co., based in the city of Nichinan, has developed a gin made from sweet potatoes and added local citrus fruit flavors, as gin is a popular choice of drink for many people around the world.

“We placed our focus on gin, an established drink in the worldwide market. By showing high standards of Japan’s distilling techniques, we hope people abroad will be interested in shōchū with its rich taste,” said the company’s president, Shinichiro Watanabe.

A council to promote shōchū exports was launched last month in Los Angeles by the Japan External Trade Organization and others, and around a dozen shōchū makers from Miyazaki and neighboring Kagoshima Prefecture took part in a related event.

“We renewed our confidence in our distillation skills, cultivated over a long period of time, by the development of gin. We are potent enough to compete on the world stage,” Watanabe said, adding that both the gin and shōchū he brought to the event received positive reviews from local participants.