Mugi Shochu – From Fukuoka to the World

A conversation with Motohiko Yoshida, CEO, Nishiyoshida Shuzo Co., Ltd.

How did Nishiyoshida Become a Leading Mugi Shochu Distillery?
Nishiyoshida formally became a distillery back in 1893. Prior to that, alcohol was normally produced by farmers for themselves and others in their villages. It was usually made from rice, which was a very precious commodity, so much so, that rice was actually used as currency. Government reforms brought in many changes including a liquor tax, and so it was around that time that many brewers and distillers, us included, became incorporated.

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Motohiko Yoshida (CEO) and Kyoko Yoshida (Sales Manager) of Nishiyoshida Shuzo.

Fast-forwarding to the post war era, there have been several shochu booms; some say five or six, some say just three. In the sixties, distillers began producing easier to drink, lighter and less aromatic shochu; mugi (barley) shochu sold very well. Then, in the eighties, came the chu-hai and the all-mugi shochu boom. In the late nineties, alcohol taxes were raised again and a new market for premium shochu brands emerged. The demand for even lighter and more refined shochu expanded, and since we had always produced mugi shochu, we used genatsu (reduced pressure distillation) technique to make our now best selling brand, Tsukushi Shiro (White Label), in 1998. We then decided to develop another variation of Tsukushi called Tsukushi Kuro (Black Label). It’s made with a black koji, and instead of genatsu we use a joatsu (normal pressure distillation) technique, resulting in a deeper more flavorful drink. The White became very popular as a drink to enjoy with food, while many customers enjoy Black on its own or with simple snacks.

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Nishiyoshida produces over 10,000 koku (1,800,000 liters) per year.

Marketing of Tsukushi
Looking back, it’s interesting to see how Tsukushi became popular. Fukuoka Prefecture is actually better known for its sake breweries, while other prefectures such as Kagoshima and Miyazaki are famous for shochu; so it was initially hard to sell Tsukushi in Fukuoka, our home prefecture. We soon realised, however, that culture and influence flows from the top down, so we targeted Tokyo. But we didn’t want to just be lost in the crowd at the supermarket, so we sold only through a limited number of selected distributors. Then, fortunately, an influential sommelier used Tsukushi in some classes and word spread. Tsukushi was being enjoyed in influential areas of Tokyo such as Minami-Aoyama and Roppongi. Also, we were the first brand to use black-colored bottles; that helped us stand out. Now, many premium shochu brands use black bottles.

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The barley oil is a beautiful golden color known as kai-ire.

Overseas Marketing
Similarly, when we first considered marketing overseas, we wanted to follow the same principle: top down. Although we had originally targeted Paris, our first opportunity was with a trade mission to New York City in 2006. From then on, we began working with a distributor in America and our shochu can now be enjoyed in Japanese restaurants in New York and along the west coast. But our best sales continue to be in Hong Kong, where, ironically, we haven’t even tried. While China is not a primary target, the people there a have an affinity for shochu and there are many Japanese people living there. We are currently focusing on Singapore and Bangkok, where there are many Japanese overseas workers.

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Deep in the distillery.

Branding
We exclusively produce mugi shochu. Fukuoka Prefecture is the second largest producer of barley in Japan, second only to Saga, our neighboring prefecture. I think there is potential to incorporate the fact that we are from the center of Japan’s barley producing area into our brand’s imagery. It could be an interesting promotional angle for the prefecture too. I hope we can create some kind of cooperation between other mugi shochu makers and the local government to push that idea forward. Then we can differentiate ourselves from other shochu-producing areas.

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White and Black label Tsukushi Shiro (white label) and Tsukushi Kuro (black label).

Another pet project of mine is to create more official recognition for shochu internationally. Recently the IWC (International Wine Challenge) has gained increasing importance. They have, however, never awarded shochu a gold award. Even more problematically, shochu is listed inside the sake category! This is not only unfair but nonsensical. In fact, if and when there is a shochu category, there should be sub categories for imo (potato), kome (rice), mugi (barley), and soba (buckwheat). Japanese whisky is already well established internationally, and I hope this will become the case for shochu.

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Master Distiller, Takaomi Kondo.

Enjoying Tsukushi
There aren’t any rules, really, but we can make suggestions. Different kinds of shochu go better with certain foods, or, for example, I can recommend trying a hot shochu, such as Tsukushi Shiro oyuwari, with a chilled dish, like cold shabu-shabu (a summer favourite). It might seem strange to have a hot drink in summer, but the contrast between the chilled food and warm drink is very pleasurable. You should also give consideration to not only the main ingredients, but also to the seasoning and sauces. So miso clashes with sake, because both are produced by fermentation. Mugi shochu, however, always works very well with miso-based dishes.

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Tsukushi Shiro (white label) compliments so many kinds of food.

What do you like about your job?
Actually, I like the entire process. Just knowing that people will drink what we have produced gives me joy. The taste of shochu matures with time, so I hope that I can see people enjoying our shochu twenty or thirty years from now. Unfortunately, shochu remains relatively unknown overseas, and to change that is one of my biggest goals. Shochu goes very well with food, especially Japanese cuisine, and is healthier than many other alcoholic beverages. It’s truly a superb spirit, with many characteristics to be explored and loved. I really hope it will become better known and more often enjoyed around the world.

This report was written by Nick Szasz, publisher of Fukuoka Now, on behalf of The Kyushu Advantage.

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