I recall, a couple of years back, singing the praises of the Japanese spirit shochu and believing that it’s got so much potential here in the states, especially with a dominant consumer base that prides itself on trying new things (yep, it’s those millennials again). I believe that even more now that in just the past nine months I’ve taken two separate trips to Japan with the express purpose of touring shochu distilleries (most recently on a tour organized by the Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association). And I’ve gotten a little more clarity on what sort of messaging importers and distributors of the spirit—which, at this juncture, are relatively few and far between—might be most effective in winning over a market that, for the most part, has never heard of it or, at best, confuses it with the Korean spirit, soju (the myriad reasons the two aren’t the same would be enough to fill a column or article of its own).
For one thing, younger legal drinking age consumers are supposed to like brands with authentic stories. You can’t get much more authentic than 100- or 200-year-old family businesses currently being run by nth generation descendants of the founders. And, for each generation including the current crop of sons and daughters taking the reins, it’s more than a career choice. It’s a sacred duty.
Then, there are those consumers for whom authenticity is more about ingredients than it is about folksy tales. And shochu’s got plenty of that as well, from the rice-based shochu of the Kumamoto Prefecture made from the pristine waters of the Kuma River to the sweet potato-based shochu produced from the starchy staple crop of the Kagoshima Prefecture. And the fact that the distinct flavors of these disparate bases assert themselves through the alcohol directly connects the consumer with varying terroirs of this far-away land.
If those concepts still prove abstract for consumers, there’s one very practical application for shochu brands that’s tangible for even the most pragmatic of drinkers: food. While the marketers of other spirits categories have been promoting culinary pairing for their products, there are very few that actually work with particular dishes (a notable exception, of course, is the match made in heaven that is bourbon and barbeque). More often than not, neat spirits or cocktails precede the first course or follow (or replace) dessert (again, there are exceptions, of course). With shochu, it’s distilled with food pairing in mind. After all, Japanese drinking occasions typically are sit-down affairs involving edibles, be they large mains or small plates. And shochu’s ideal culinary companions aren’t limited to Japanese cuisine.
The gastronomic and authenticity angles are good preliminary approaches to making these spirits accessible to the masses. Importers still need to figure out how to apply meaningful branding that distinguishes one brand from another on the shelf. And they still need to win the hearts and minds of mixologists, chefs and other so-called taste-makers. But, to paraphrase Obi-Wan Kenobi (hey, there’s a new Star Wars movie opening as we speak!), shochu has taken its first steps into a larger world.