“Everyone at this distillery must learn how koji mold grows on steamed rice before they can do anything else in the company,” said Mr. Omure, Master Brewer-Distiller of Taikai Shuzo. Wiry and affable, the second generation toji spoke fondly of the young workers he supervises on the floor of the Kanoya, Kagoshima-based distillery. He hopes that they will continue the distillery’s culture of innovation while maintaining an unwavering appreciation for the traditions that helped the distillery become successful over the past 44 years. The distillery now has roughly 30 full-time employees and ships its products all over Japan.
Deeply knowledgeable and experienced, Mr. Omure is hesitant to get into specifics about export as he feels like he does not know what type of consumer he’s supposed to focus on when making shochu. From a marketing standpoint, it is wise to avoid chasing new markets without solid research and data to work from. Instead of trying to figure out what people in disparate corners of the globe might enjoy, he says he keeps things simple. “I make the type of shochu that I think is delicious,” he explained.
And consumers are apt to agree with him. The iconic whale art on the front of Taikai’s “Kugilla” brands and the soft blue tint of the “Umi” bottle are some of the most easily recognizable and enjoyable sweet potato shochu in the industry. Unsurprisingly, the two brands also offer a peek at how deftly Mr. Omure and his team can work with different sweet potato cultivars and koji varieties to please a variety of consumers. “Kugilla” (pronounced kujira) is the earthier of the two and exudes a rich aroma when mixed with hot water while “Umi” has a floral bouquet that plays well on the rocks and is an approachable first sweet potato shochu for those that are new to the category.
But Taikai is heading in a very new direction this distilling season, which started on August 27th, 2019. Roughly 25% of the shochu they produced this season was made with organic ingredients. Rather than sit idly while domestic sales continue to face demographic headwinds, Taikai has spent years learning about export markets both in Asia and Europe. According to Naomasa Kono, a managing director of the distillery, the former is a slightly easier proposition while the latter is attractive due to its food traditions. “We think that some parts of Europe will be receptive to a drink that pairs well with food, especially after they learn more about koji,” he said. In its quest to find new ways to embellish the already diverse sweet potato shochu flavor wheel, Taikai has developed a green tea shochu and a rose shochu which are both made with sweet potatoes.
In fact, the distillery has long been putting its money where its mouth is. Taikai has flexed its creativity in the past by serving shochu in champagne flutes at Paris Fashion Week, and they even set up a tasting booth at Vinexpo in Bordeaux this past May. For the uninitiated, Vinexpo is one of the world’s foremost wine showcases with more than 1,800 exhibitors and dozens of master classes given by sommeliers and other professionals from the vast global drinks industry.
“We have a strong desire to talk with consumers face to face and gauge their reactions to our products. Vinexpo was obviously an event focused on wine, but we wanted to engage with industry professionals in a drinks-focused setting,” Mr. Kono commented. Taikai found that shochu is starting to gain some name recognition, a welcome change compared to just a couple of years ago.
The distillery’s habit of picturing some of its farmers on the back labels of its products also wins plaudits with non-Japanese customers. It turns out that many consumers enjoy hearing the stories of the people that are responsible for creating the ingredients that go into making shochu. And if those grains and tubers are sourced locally, even better.
“Local” is a story that Taikai can confidently tell since its sweet potatoes are generally sourced from within about a 20-minute driving radius of the distillery. That means that most of its sweet potatoes are harvested in Kanoya itself, and this allows both easy communication with farmers and constant monitoring of quality. While the distillery and the closely-knit agricultural network that it has developed are wary of the challenge of cultivating organic sweet potatoes, they feel that they can accomplish the task by working closely together. They have history, after all – and some of them are even featured on the bottle labels.
This connection with the local community extends much further, however. By venturing up to the second floor of the distillery, right above where fresh sweet potatoes are cleaned and steamed, you’ll find ‘Izakaya Taikai,’ a relaxing space that serves as the staff break room during the day and a shochu gastropub at night. Visiting the distillery in the late afternoon is a highly advised diversion in Kanoya as you can then cozy up to a table in the izakaya and enjoy some Taikai shochu served to your liking by distillery staff.
This sort of public service is needed now more than ever as younger generations imbibe less than their parents. In January of this year, Taikai started a monthly shochu party for women called ‘Taikai Joshikai’ as a way to keep honkaku shochu on young people’s radar.
“These drinking parties are a powerful method for spreading the word about shochu. And you’d be impressed how much they enjoy drinking shochu – they can really put it away!” quipped Mr.Kono. “We also recently hosted dozens of language teachers that moved to Kagoshima this summer. Along with three other Kagoshima shochu distilleries, we threw a big dinner party for them. And of course, there was plenty of shochu to go around. We’ve been welcoming these young English teachers to Kagoshima for several years now.”
But 2019’s dive into organic rice and sweet potatoes is part of a trajectory that will eventually touch down in markets completely distinct from Kanoya, Kagoshima. Taikai is currently working on a pair of sweet potato shochu expressions that are specifically aimed at the African market. While the brands are still in the design stage, the bottles and approach are completely new, and there’s even talk of creating a shochu from cassava since the tuber is more common in regional cuisine there.
For his part, the master brewer-distiller, Mr. Omure, sees all of these changes as necessary and achievable, especially because everyone has a clear idea of what the goals are and what needs to be done to get there. He mentioned that his biggest concern at this point, at least where this year’s foray into organic shochu is concerned, is whether or not he can be guaranteed enough organic rice and sweet potatoes to make these new brands.
“It seems like there was a good harvest this year, but we won’t know for sure until a bit later in the season,” he said.
“No matter what happens, we’ll just keep making the tastiest shochu that we can. The type of shochu that we’d like to drink.”
**Note: This article is reprinted with permission from Zipangu Magazine. Both the original version and this adaptation were researched, written, and edited by Christopher Pellegrini.