“I find it very difficult to choose which traditions to keep and which to drop,” says Shinichiro Watanabe, the President of Miyazaki’s Kyoya Shochu Distillery. This is a thought often at the top of his mind as he attempts to reconcile traditional shochu distillation with the changing tastes of Japan. Watanabe greatest ambition is not just to maintain Kyoya’s reputation for premium-quality, authentic shochu, but to make it a favourite of consumers across the globe.
At a sprightly 67 years of age, Watanabe has spent much of his career at the distillery, dedicating himself to the production of first-class shochu. He is intimately involved in all stages of distillation as well as in overseeing the changes in taste and the direction of the distillery. Premium shochu is the product of centuries of careful fine-tuning, and its taste is susceptible to even the slightest change in brewing methods. “One of the biggest changes we made was to our filtration process. Historically, shochu had a strong smell following distillation, but we started to notice that younger people didn’t enjoy the stronger smelling varieties. So we changed our traditional cotton filtration system to more modern vacuum filtration, which removed some of the smell. Of course, the taste changed and people quickly noticed it.”
Shochu has historically been the drink of Kyushu. The warmer climate allows for a greater variety of crops to be grown, and therefore different alcohols to be distilled. Naturally, much of the Kyoya Distillery’s market is local, but Watanabe hopes to expand his reach into the rest of Japan. “There are 30 to 40 spirits at most bars but only one or two varieties of shochu. Unlike spirits, you can enjoy shochu with food, and I think this gives it an advantage over other alcohols. I’d like to see bars around Japan serve a wider variety of shochu.”
Watanabe’s wish seems increasingly likely to come true, as the popularity of shochu continues to rise. Consumption has been increasing across Japan for the last two decades, and in 2004 shochu sales pipped sake sales for the first time, with shochu outselling sake by more than a million liters. The popularity of premium brands has flourished the fastest, sales growing by 10% each year between 1999 and 2004. This growth hasn’t brought about any respite in Watanabe’s efforts; he has become, if anything, more ambitious as the popularity of shochu has increased.
“I want shochu to be appreciated in New York, London and Paris. Those places are the center of politics, fashion and food,” says Watanabe as he turns his mind to shochu’s international reputation. “At the moment I think New York is the most open to shochu, as there is not the same culture of wine that there is in London and Paris.” Indeed, Watanabe sees the vast majority of Kyoya’s international shipments crossing the pond to the US, where izakaya dining has risen in popularity much faster than in Europe. “In Europe, I don’t think shochu is perceived as being suitable for western dining, where one plate is served after the next. It is still linked to Japanese dining.”
The distillery has, however, had some luck in promoting shochu in Europe: “I ended up doing a sommelier lecture in Paris after a sake brewer pulled out last minute. I presented our shochu and let the tasters taste, and the next day the chairman of the association invited me to his restaurant for a shochu tasting alongside his food. Two months later, he put on a dinner show for the media that was based around shochu and it went down very well. I was glad the whole thing happened so naturally, and I hope we can continue expanding in that way.”
His talk of internationalization is all the more impressive for Watanabe’s firm rooting in the local culture and produce of Miyazaki. His 20-year drive for internationalization has occurred in tandem with a sustained effort to source every ingredient locally. “99% of our main ingredients, such as sweet potatoes, are already grown within Miyazaki Prefecture. The rice is the difficult one, but we get all of that from the rest of Kyushu, so it’s not too far.” Still, Watanabe seems determined to localise that last, irksome 1% of ingredients as soon as possible, “It’s taken 20 years, but I think we can do it.”
The Kyoya Distillery is a place where tradition meets ambition to create one of Kyushu’s finest brands of shochu. But Watanabe’s ambition stretches so much further than his own distillery. “I want to make Kyushu a brand. 98% of premium shochu is made in Kyushu and southern Kyushu is famous for its production. If we can capture this spirit we can promote Kyushu to the world. Kyushu: the Shochu Island.”
This report was written by Nick Szasz, publisher of Fukuoka Now, and Oscar Boyd on behalf of The Kyushu Advantage. Visit their website for more reports on Kyushu in English.