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Business trends

Japan's shochu makers take a shot at US spirits market

The drink goes surprisingly well with pizza and tacos, enthusiasts say

Attendees at the Spirit of Japanese Shochu event in San Francisco sample different varieties of the liquor in early September.

PALO ALTO, U.S. -- Japanese spirits makers are working to gain a foothold in the U.S. market with shochu, a distilled liquor made from grain or sweet potatoes.

In early September, the Japan External Trade Organization and members of the industry sponsored the Spirit of Japanese Shochu, a promotional event in San Francisco. Ten shochu distilleries from Japan participated in the two-day event, meeting with importers, restaurateurs and bar owners, as well as members of the public.

Attendees sampled various types of shochu and heard presentations on pairing the spirit with different foods. Sweet potato shochu, for example, goes well with blue cheese pizza, while rice shochu is a good accompaniment to tacos. The drink's medicinal value was also a topic of discussion. Sake and spirits writer Eduardo Dingler said that shochu mixed with hot water is better for a mild cold than anything you can buy at the drugstore. He also said shochu had a good chance to break into the U.S. alcoholic beverage market.

Dingler said mezcal, a Mexican spirit, took off in the U.S. after it became a popular base for cocktails. He said for shochu to do the same, exporters need to promote it to restaurants and bars.

One participant, a well-known caterer, remarked that while he had tried shochu before, he was unaware of the different flavors produced by different ingredients. He also said he wants to add the spirit to his catering menu.

Unlike Japan's sake and whisky makers, which have benefited from the popularity of Japanese cuisine, shochu distilleries have had a hard time expanding sales in the U.S. Japan's sake exports to the U.S. came to 6 billion yen ($53.4 million) in 2017, while its whisky exports were worth 3.7 billion yen. Japanese whisky makers have seen explosive growth, with exports jumping nearly 25 times over the past five years. Japan's shochu exports were a drop in the glass by comparison, at just 390 million yen last year.

"I want to make shochu a major alcoholic beverage, like whisky," said Keiichi Nishimoto, chief executive director at JETRO's Los Angeles office. Although shochu remains little known in the U.S., Nishimoto has high hopes, betting the popularity of spirits will open the door for shochu makers.

According to the Distilled Spirits Council, beer's share of overall U.S. alcohol consumption fell 9 percentage points between 2000 and 2017, while wine's share was basically flat, rising 1 percentage point. Distilled spirits, on the other hand, are taking a larger share of the U.S. palate, jumping 8 percentage points during the period.

Nishimoto expects the U.S. shochu market to expand, given that sake is classified as wine and shochu as spirits.

"Americans like bourbon. We want Americans to enjoy shochu, which is [also] a spirit, with food and as a premium digestif," Nishimoto said.

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