Tell us about how Taikai Shuzo came to be.
About forty years ago, the government initiated policies to help small businesses by making it easier for them to join forces, and in the case of distilleries, to operate under one license. It was then that Taikai Shuzo was formed by the merger of nine local distilleries, one of which was my family’s. Taikai Shuzo now employs 33 workers and we produce 7,000 goku, or approximately 1,260,000 L, of shochu per year.
I’ve heard your marketing strategy is unique within the industry…
Up until twenty years ago, all the local distilleries, including us, were only targeting the local market. Price competition becomes intense when local businesses are involved, and the more the prices drop, the less profit there is for everyone. Pressure is also passed onto the farmers to sell their produce to us at lower and lower prices. Everyone becomes drawn into this endless downward spiral. I wanted to get out of that bad business model, so I tried to think of a way to sell our products at list price. Around the same time, I became aware of the increasingly important role that women were playing in Japanese society, particularly outside the home. I thought to myself, they will become the ones to lead and change Japan. So I decided to make shochu for them. At the time, all shochu distilleries, ourselves included, only targeted men.
Did you adjust your products for women?
Yes, in many ways, of course, starting with the main ingredients: water and satsuma imo (sweet potatoes). The water that we chose to use is from a hot spring which has many reputed benefits, such as beautifying the skin and aiding those who suffer from diabetes, atopic dermatitis, and high blood pressure. My company also began to contract directly with satsuma imo (potato) farmers to develop and grow new strains of potatoes especially for our shochu.
Is Umi one of these products which targets women?
Yes. Umi is our best-selling brand, and is made with that special water. There were many reasons as to how and why we came up with the name Umi. It seemed fitting to name the product after the sea because so many cultures associate it with femininity. On a personal level, I’ve always loved the sea; I used to surf, windsurf and other marine sports including yachting. My father, who went to the Imperial Japanese Naval Academy, used to tell me stories of life at sea. Finally, my mother’s maiden name is Umino, which contains the character “umi” too! Fortunately, I was able to trademark the name Umi. In the same year, the Prime Minister of Japan – by sheer coincidence – created a new national holiday called Umi no Hi (Marine Day). “Umi” has been very fortuitous for us indeed!
What has your experience overseas been like?
Eleven years ago we organized a shochu tasting event in New York City as part of a television report. Since shochu was selling very well in Japan at the time, other distilleries were not keen to market overseas; it simply didn’t seem necessary to them. But I pushed for the event to take place, since my goal was not so much to sell shochu abroad, but to introduce shochu to the world. In the end, four distilleries participated and the event was a big success. Yet it occurred to me that, despite New York being such a powerful place, the people there looked to Europe for their cultural cues. So I began to think that we should be setting our sights higher up the chain of influence; that meant Europe, and in particular Paris. But I was unsure how to introduce shochu, which is made in this rural part of Kagoshima, to high society in Europe. Eventually I came up with the idea of bringing shochu to Paris Collection.
So I began to wonder how I could make this dream a reality. I kept telling people about my idea, and one day, at an ordinary meeting, I received an offer from a senior managing director at Kansai Yamamoto’s design office to participate in the 2012 Paris Haute Couture Collection. The opportunity to showcase shochu in Paris, and to do so in collaboration with a talented Japanese designer, was beyond anything I had hoped for. It felt like a real coup to watch the crowd of elite personages sip our shochu in elegant glasses, enjoying the experience as they would champagne.
So was this a good sales opportunity?
I never actually try to sell anything. I focus on global marketing and exposure and then the products sell themselves. At events held at the Japanese Embassy in Paris, for example, I use kurodyoka (traditional black ceramic teapots which originated in Kagoshima) to serve shochu. Foreigners are fascinated by this serving style and become intrigued by the beverage. I entice people to try shochu, rather than pushing for them to buy it.
So creating awareness of shochu is your goal?
Yes it is. Outside of Asia, shochu, unfortunately, is often mistakenly thought to be just a type of sake. I want shochu to be recognized as its own distinct genre. I want it to be enjoyed by Parisian ambassadors, served in Michelin-star restaurants, and, most importantly, appreciated all over the world.
This report was written by Nick Szasz, publisher of Fukuoka Now, on behalf of The Kyushu Advantage.