Shochu Q & A with Sato Sensei

Pellegrini trims sweet potatoes at Nakamura Distillery in Kagoshima.

My love of shochu and awamori has turned me into a peripatetic advocate for the category. I’ve begun participating as a judge at international drinks competitions where these spirits are still woefully under represented. I’ve also recently conducted shochu tastings and seminars in San Francisco, China, and even Bordeaux. The reaction to Japan’s indigenous spirits is nearly always one of positivity mixed with bewilderment that the drinks aren’t better known worldwide. I often wonder the same thing.

In order to get a better read on people’s drinking habits and awareness of shochu, I started conducting research into consumer attitudes and knowledge. The results haven’t been pretty. In a recent poll of American adults, less than 11% of respondents said that they had heard of shochu before, and only 6.8% had actually tried it. However, when I probed further with a follow-up question about where they first tried shochu, fully 42% indicated that they drank shochu at a Korean restaurant or bar. At the risk of putting too fine a point on it, I think we can all agree that most of those folks have never tried shochu.

Author Christopher Pellegrini gives a shochu and awamori seminar in Hong Kong.

Conducting an employee tasting workshop at Airbnb’s headquarters in San Francisco.

One thing that I have become certain of is that there needs to be more information about awamori and shochu made available to international consumers, and in a number of languages. This should start with translating individual producers’ websites, and then should continue with providing more robust marketing and point of sale materials to retailers in foreign markets. We’re fighting an uphill battle here because there’s already a typhoon of misinformation out there, mostly on the internet. By my informal count, eight of the top ten articles appearing in a shochu Google search contain misleading or completely false information within the first two paragraphs. Idiotic refrains that commonly appear include referring to shochu and awamori as“Japanese Vodka,”asserting that Japanese shochu and Korean soju are similar, and the tendency to include nihonshu (saké) in the company of the world’s spirits. Sometimes I feel like I should create a private shochu brand called “Facepalm.”

Shochu brands line a shelf at Umami Mart in Oakland, California.

I am working on a few private brands actually. I recently started an awamori and shochu export company with my good friends Stephen Lyman and Brian Dorfman, and we have assembled a stellar portfolio of mostly small batch, craft producers. We have made it our mission to do everything in our power to educate our international clients and give them the tools to tell the stories of these brands, many of them personal friends of ours, in an accurate, compelling, and authentic manner.

But we’re going to need a lot of help. Shochu and awamori producers need to do more, preferably working in unison to pool resources and limit unforced errors. For further insight and expertise on this issue, I turned to government scholar, Nobuyuki Sato, who has several years of international experience and has played a significant part in Japan’s branding and promotional efforts.

Professor Sato and Zipangu Japan editor Christopher Pellegrini sit for an interview at his office in Tokyo.

Q: Do you like shochu, Professor Sato?

A: Yes, I love shochu of all ingredients. I am also a fan of saké, wine, beer, whisky, and other spirits—pretty much all types of alcoholic beverage. Recently we have witnessed energetic movements in saké and Japanese craft beer, which are both tasty and innovative. On the other hand we rarely see news on shochu. I doubt if no news is good news when the Tokyo 2020 Olympics arejust around the cor- ner. Please note that even saké is not in paradise. Saké is thought to be an everyday drink for the Japanese just like beer is for the English and Germans, and wine is for the French. In fact, saké now accounts for less than seven percent of Japan’s total alcoholic consumption. With the population ageing and declining, and the economy suffering years of deflation, beer and beer substitutes are now more popular. Well before the UK faced Brexit, Japan was on the verge of Sakexit. Is it not that shochu producers are asked to do more to move forward?

Q: You have spent a lot of time helping to promote kokushu. Can you tell us more about that?

A: Literally, kokushu means Japanese traditional alcoholic beverages, namely sake, shochu, and awamori. Practically the concept of kokushu is thought to be an effective PR tool for Japan itself. These alcoholic beverages comprising kokushu have several characteristics in common: Japanese ingredients, Japanese craftsmanship, and regional rather than nationwide industries. As a whole, kokushu, possibly accompanied by other Japanese alcoholic beverages like wine, will prove a driving force in the context of the government’s ‘Cool Japan’ Initiative. Merely promoting shochu tells only a part of Japanese strengths and may be prone to purely economic competition with other spirits from all over the world. We should be more strategic in the global context.

Shochu is spreading! The selection of sho- chu at a state liquor store in Burlington, Vermont.

Q: I understand that you have been involved in saké export promotion not only in Japan but also in France and the UK. Please provide us with some examples.

A: Saké producers have been diligently looking for drinkers outside Japan and having contact with wine professionals in London and gastronomic/branding professionals in Paris. Terry Kandylis, head sommelier at 67 Pall Mall, a London wine lovers and professionals’club, said,“People think that saké should be enjoyed only with Japanese food, but that’s wrong. That would be like saying that French wines should be drunk only with French food. Saké works amazingly well with many western ingredients: parmesan, tomatoes, caviar, and chocolate.”The respected wine critic, Jancis Robinson, admitted to being a‘saké ingenue’but after trying 21 premium brews wrote,“I was truly uplifted by the subtle variations in these cool, ineffably pure, limpid ferments, averaging around 16 per cent alcohol.”Hiroshi Sakurai, owner of the rising star brand, Dassai, has set a goal of selling half his output abroad to make up for lost domestic consumers. He has focused the brand promotion in Paris, hoping that the fashion will cross the Atlantic to New York. Saké is inevitably expensive due to its complex manufacturing process, he has said.“Therefore, the top five percent income earners of the world are our target customers. My experience indicates that the tastes of this five percent are the same regardless of country.”He also believes success will come if saké is taxed at the same rate as wine and doubts the value of government subsidies and promotional events.

Q: What is a key to shochu export promotion?

A: Mutual learning among kokushu might be a good starter. Keeping contact with wine professionals in London and gastronomic/branding professionals in Paris is vitally important. With some exceptions, shochu producers have had little efforts in this “strategically-designed” direction. This is partly due to longstanding and somewhat effortless success during“shochu boom”in the domestic market. As I replied earlier, pursuing a“kokushu”concept rather than shochu alone will prove powerful in export promotion. Why not promote shochu jointly with sake? We assume quite rightly that shochu is different from sake. On the contrary, I suspect that Sakurai’s understanding of sake characteristics will apply to shochu though to a smaller extent. More importantly, his remarks appear to contradict the Japanese conventional wisdom, which is to pursue younger consumers including women, and to emphasize US and Asian markets rather than Europe, and to sell the product cheaply. It is worth recalling that, in Japan, wine began as a luxury product, gradually penetrated the market and to a large extent took the place of saké. So maybe it’s time for the Japanese government and shochu industry to stop copying past successes and make a new start.

Shochu and gin tasting by wine professionals in 2017 at London 67 Pall Mall, the world finest wine lovers/professionals club, hosted by Shinichiro Watanabe of Kyoya Distiller and Brewer in Miyazaki Prefecture.

Sato Sensei is absolutely correct. It is past time for the industry to work together and recognize that nothing will happen if they continue to sit on their hands. As is often the case, the smallest producers are not going to have the financial or human resources to participate on a large scale, so we’re mostly looking at medium-sized and large distilleries to do the early heavy lifting.

Many have already begun to do so. The two distilleries featured in this issue have steadily increased their focus on international markets. For example, Hombo Shuzo is a frequent participant in spirits competitions such as IWSC and SFSC. More distilleries need to do the same. I would suggest entering other reputable competitions as well, such as the annual Spirits Selection which will take place in Barranquilla, Colombia next August, or Spain’s March 2020 CINVE competition which is attempting to attract 12 times as many shochu and awamori entries as they judged in the 2019 edition.

CINVE’s competition logo. Producers need to become more avid participants in international tasting competitions.

Tasting competitions are an essential component in Japan’s quest to get the word out about its drinks. Why? The answer is because of the people who serve as judges—drinks experts, journalists, bartenders, and beverage industry movers and shakers. These people are extremely knowledgeable and have the potential to expedite shochu and awamori’s ascent if they feel like they actually know something about the category. And believe me, they will be forced to learn more about the category if they have 200 or more Japanese spirit brands to taste and assess.

Tasting through a flight of shochu at the 2019 Spirits Selection competition.

I recently sat on a tasting panel of six judges while tasting through flights of spirits from all over the world. We contemplated and discussed the relative merits of XO Cognacs, baijiu, whisky, cachaça, and many other styles. Much to my delight, our team was assigned a flight of shochu, and I spent a significant amount of time answering questions from my colleagues who had been flown in from Mauritius, France, China, Italy, and Georgia (the country).

After the tasting was finished, and a couple of medals had been awarded, even more questions came my way. The big one: Why aren’t these drinks better known outside of Japan?

The Japan Pavilion at the 2019 Vinexpo event in Franc.

Pellegrini gives a talk and tasting at Vinexpo.


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