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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Shochu makers look abroad

Kaori Iida

Sep. 19, 2017

Drinkers worldwide are increasingly familiar with sake, Japan's traditional rice wine. But many remain unaware of the country's other alcoholic drink -- the distilled spirit known as shochu. Some manufacturers are determined to change that.

A group of shochu makers recently held an event in Los Angeles to boost the profile of their product, which is usually made from sweet potato, barley, brown sugar or rice. Nine distilleries from Miyazaki Prefecture in southwestern Japan took part. Hundreds of guests were invited, including film industry figures and restaurant owners.

The head of one distillery, 44-year-old Tadashi Yanagita, has his sights set on the US market. "I realized that people here don't know about shochu. So I explained to them how it's made, what kind of ingredients are in it, that kind of thing," he says.

Yanagita is the 5th generation owner of small, 115-year-old Yanagita Distillery. He spent a lot of time thinking about the best way to pitch shochu to US consumers. Eventually, he decided to use whiskey as a reference point. It's a distilled liquor, like shochu. And Yanagita uses barrels to store his shochu, just as whiskey makers do. His are made with an oak from Hokkaido, northern Japan. "Barrels made with Japanese trees help bring out flavor and taste in a way that barrels from other countries can't," he says.

Yanagita took the advice of a US liquor maker who suggested he upgrade his labels and use corks for a touch of luxury. But more important than the packaging is what's inside. What do Americans think of the taste? "It's very smooth. Shochu on the screen? It's definitely possible," says Warner Bros. Home Entertainment Group Vice President Douglas Montgomery.

Yanagita's shochu seems to have won new fans. Some people were keen to talk business opportunities. "People who tried our shochu said they found the taste unexpectedly mild for a distilled liquor. So I think there's real potential for us. We're going to take things one step at a time," says Yanagita.

It may be one step at a time for now. But that's not stopping Yanagita from dreaming big. One day, he hopes to export a whole range of traditional shochu styles to the world.