I was walking the floor at the Holiday Buying Show in New York, jotting down notes and sampling a few brands when I was approached by a woman with a clipboard and a handful of Japanese beverage brochures. She must have had a keen eye for media as the word “press” on my attendee badge would have been barely visible from more than a handful of feet. “Would you like to taste Japanese spirits?” she asked me. Of course I would.
I was intrigued and impressed by her assertiveness—I’ve been to literally hundreds of trade shows and beyond a few stray hired hands unenthusiastically handing out postcard-size flyers promoting particular exhibitors, marketers rarely venture out beyond the confines of their booths to proactively increase traffic at their stands. As I learned when I reached the array of saké producers at the Japanese beverage alcohol pavilion, shochu marketers are really determined to broaden awareness of their venerable spirit to U.S. consumers and beyond.
I definitely have had my share of exposure to the drink. A few years ago I spent an evening at a shochu bar in Tokyo, where a local gentleman, who was eager to practice his English explained that younger Japanese (legal drinking age) consumers are moving away from saké—something they view as their parents’ drink—and toward shochu. That’s part of the reason why there’s such an opportunity in the U.S. for sake because it still has relatively low awareness and market penetration here and virtually nowhere left to go on its home islands.
One of the challenges stateside saké marketers have been facing is a lack of distinguishable branding—there’s a great deal of visual homogeneity among many of the brands on my local store’s shelves (not to mention, difficult-to-pronounce names for Westerners), despite the fact that there are amazing variations in flavor. As I mentioned in a previous column, that’s starting to change as marketers bring dynamic design elements and simple, memorable names to their products. There are similar hurdles for shochu marketers. But I do think that will change for shochu too, as importers ramp up their marketing efforts and continue to figure out how to market in the U.S., beyond the specialty shop and Japanese restaurant or izakaya.
Of course, bottles need to contain accessible products and I’m convinced that once more legal-drinking-age consumers sample shochu they’ll be converted. On the rocks most are remarkably drinkable with tremendous flavor complexity. Those made from barley provide a good bridge for whiskey drinkers. Those made from rice are good for those who’ve already discovered sake, as many of the aromatic elements are reminiscent of their rice-based cousin. And then for something truly unique and delightfully complex, there’s shochu distilled from sweet potatoes. Meanwhile, rum drinkers might find brown sugar-based shochu appealing.
I hope to see shochu—and the hotbed for shochu production, the Japanese island of Kyushu—represented at a larger number of industry trade shows with even more foot traffic from curious distributors and retailers. Kanpai!