Delicate and Delicious Rice Shochu from the Mountains of Kumamoto
Rice shochu is the oldest of the Japanese spirit’s many styles. Its heart beats relentlessly in the Hitoyoshi Basin amidst the mountains of Southern Kumamoto. Impressively, more than two dozen distilleries are creating and sending the celebrated WTO-protected regional indication, Kuma Shochu, to new dinner tables around the world. Kuma Shochu is made from rice and water drawn from the subterranean wells beneath the Kuma River, one of the three fastest flowing in Japan. The leader of that effort is none other than Takahashi Distillery, maker of the Hakutake Shiro brand and the largest distillery in the valley. Mr. Mitsuhiro Takahashi, the fifth president of the company, sat down with The Kyushu Advantage to share his thinking about the distillery’s future.
Please tell us about Takahashi Distillery’s history and connection to Hitoyoshi.
Our Taragi distillery opened in 1900 and has always made rice shochu, mostly with rice grown by Kumamoto farmers. This region was historically under the control of the Sagara Clan, and it’s incredibly difficult to access because of the surrounding mountains. There are 23 tunnels burrowing through the mountains on the highway coming here, so it’s quite hidden and as a result the local community is tightly knit. Rice shochu has always played a key role in the business and culture of this region. During the first half of the 20th century a lot of the shochu made in this area had a charred character to it, obviously coming from the pot still. But in 1974 we started using a more modern pot still, a reduced pressure still that allows boiling the mash at lower temperatures. The shochu became milder and smoother with a pleasing aroma, and the products made in this area became appealing to a wider audience. As you know, we now have a second distillery closer to the center of Hitoyoshi City, and right next door is the “Hakutake Denshogura,” our Kuma Shochu museum which receives distillery visitors.
Hakutake Shiro is well-known domestically and available in large markets internationally. Can you tell us a bit about your marketing strategies?
Quality ingredients are of the utmost importance. Several excellent rice strains, such as mori no kumasan, are grown in the valleys between these mountains, and it’s impossible to overstate how important this locally grown grain is to the quality and popularity of our products. We are trying to focus more on telling the story of this place and the ingredients we use. In fact, I think that in many cases the shochu industry as a whole is telling the wrong stories. Everyone keeps talking about how healthy shochu is, but I’m not convinced that’s why people choose to drink a specific type of alcohol. As far as I can tell, people drink our shochu because it’s delicious, not because it’s lower calorie than the other spirits of the world.
The Hitoyoshi Region has a head start on branding with its Kuma Shochu appellation. What are your thoughts on regional products and branding in Japan?
Well, I don’t think there’s any doubt that Kuma Shochu is critical to the survival of the Hitoyoshi Basin area, and regional brand construction is occurring all over Japan. The level of success, however, varies impressively. Some areas are missing opportunities to build a brand based on the local culture or products, which in many cases is due to a lack of business experience. And if we look at the entire rice shochu industry, then I think you could say that we’ve missed an opportunity to more effectively brand our products, especially for international markets. Maybe we should be calling ourselves Japanese Rice Sprits since shochu is still a rather unknown concept overseas. In the same vein, maybe the nihonshu (sake) industry would be better off presenting itself as Japanese Rice Brew or something. Again, focusing on the ingredients is crucial.
What are some of the challenges to marketing and selling shochu internationally?
I often think about why shochu isn’t as well known abroad as nihonshu. There are many contributing factors, and it is a constant irritation for me. One big obstacle is that many of the Japanese restaurants and izakaya overseas are not actually run by Japanese expats. The owners seem less interested in further developing their understanding and mastery of Japanese food culture than their bottom line. They will probably eventually catch on to how important shochu is in Japan, but most of them won’t figure it out on their own. This makes it difficult for our products to get their foot in the door in many parts of the world. Not just rice shochu though, this is a challenge that the entire shochu industry faces.
Can you tell us about any new or exciting developments at Takahashi Distillery?
We have our sights set on bars overseas, and to that end we are now marketing some attractive new products. One of them is Hakutake Soden, a 10 year old all-koji rice shochu that is bottled at 40% ABV. At the same time, we’re excited about a new label called Hyaku which is also an all-koji product. Hyaku is special because it uses three types of ginjo yeast during fermentation, and it’s bottled at 23%. We were inspired by UNESCO’s recognition of washoku as an Intangible Cultural Heritage and decided to create a rice shochu that perfectly complements sushi. Rice shochu more easily works as a shokuchu shu (meal accompanying drink) than other categories of shochu, and we feel strongly that there is enormous potential once international consumers learn more about the drink’s centrality to Japanese cuisine.
Reprinted with permission from Zipangu Japan.