There’s been a lot of coverage about emerging markets of late, including my PourWord from last month detailing a recent trip to an emerging South East Asian market, Vietnam. We traditionally think of the so-called BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) as the four biggest emerging markets on which beverage companies have been lavishing attention, followed by the next wave of burgeoning sites in Asia (like the aforementioned Vietnam), Africa, the Middle East and Latin America.
What really defines an emerging market is the level of untapped opportunity to grow various product categories. So, in that regard, couldn’t just about every country be an emerging market for something? And, yes, that includes even the U.S.
I never in a million years would have considered the U.S. to be emerging in any way, shape or form, since it’s possible to get a drink from just about every category in the States. But then a recent invitation to a press event in New York City reminded me that there are many segments that have yet to max out their market potential in the U.S. The invitation was from the Japanese External Trade Organization (JETRO) and it was for a showcase of shochu, Japan’s national spirit (see some pics in this month’s Liquid Lens).
Shochu had been on my radar for a while. One of my favorite izakayas in Manhattan is a place called Umi No Ie, which specializes in the spirit; shochu varieties outnumber the sakes nearly tenfold. Also, on a trip to Japan a couple of years ago, I had stumbled into a Tokyo bar that served shochu exclusively. But beyond those examples I rarely gave it much thought in my daily life. And that’s kind of a small tragedy because given the extremely niche-level penetration shochu has in the U.S. market, it’s likely that most legal-drinking-age consumers don’t pay it much mind either.
The New York event reminded me that it’s a pretty accessible and versatile spirit. For a clear spirit, it pairs pretty well with a variety of foods without any enhancement. But for cocktail-crazy consumers, its various flavor expressions—depending on whether it’s distilled from sweet potatoes, barley, rice, sugar or buckwheat—make it fairly flexible for drinks both sweet and savory. Renowned mixologist Junior Merino led a guided tasting at the expo to demonstrate just how mixable it is. What’s more, there’s no shortage of romance associated with its history and product methods to satisfy even the most discerning Scotch and bourbon aficionados. Its origins can be traced back to feudal Japan of 500 years ago and is, to this day, distilled using wooden pot stills. Its single distillation ensures that as much of the flavor complexity of its base ingredient is retained.
The U.S. may be one of the most mature spirits—and overall beverage—markets around, but when it comes to segments like shochu, it’s barely a toddler. And that toddler, if nurtured correctly, could have some very fruitful growing-up years ahead of it.