In recent years, Japanese shochu has experienced an unprecedented boom in popularity--not only in its safe haven of Kyushu, but all across Japan. To some, this is quite astonishing, since this distilled spirit had always had such a negative image throughout northern and eastern Japan. Shochu is truly an exceptional beverage in many ways: the countless number of brands, its method of production, the raw materials used, and its history.
What makes the history of shochu so fascinating is its lack thereof. Like other distilled beverages around the world, shochu was primarily used for medicinal purposes. Distilled spirits have been used as medical remedies since the 9th century all over the world, and after shochu was first introduced in Japan, it was used in the same way. The actual origin of shochu remains a mystery to this day. Many experts and historians have hypothesized that shochu production methods were introduced by Thailand.
It is believed that the distillation and production processes of shochu were introduced to Japan by Thailand through commerce. According to legend, it was first introduced in the islands of what is now known as Okinawa sometime around the 14th or 15th centuries. Following this, the production of Awamori and its distillation method spread throughout the islands of Okinawa. Soon after, shochu production was found in the island of Amami Ooshima, the southern most island of mainland Japan, leading to production in Kagoshima, and eventually to the rest of Japan.
According to the National Tax Agency of Japan, the consumption of alcohol has remained fairly steady over the last 10 years. However, there have been some significant shifts in consumption trends, especially in the beer and sake categories. Based on data presented in the annual Liquor Tax Report, between the years of 1996 and 2003 the consumption of beer declined by approximately 68% and the consumption of sake declined by approximately 56%. On the other hand, shochu consumption actually increased by 42% during that time.
With such a boom in popularity, many conventional bars were unable to maintain a selection of shochu that was satisfactory for shochu connoisseurs; thus the shochu bar was born. Shochu bars are comparable to whiskey bars, except they exclusively serve shochu. Many of these shochu bars boast selections of as many as 100 different kinds of shochu.
In addition to recently established shochu bars, a number of shochu specialty stores have popped up throughout Japan. One store, simply known as “Shochu Authority,” has six locations across Japan; some stores offer as many as 3,200 different varieties of shochu from all over the country. In more local areas, it is quite common to find alcohol distributors setting up additional shops just to keep up with the growing demand of shochu.
In the United States, distributors of shochu have also experienced a surge in sales throughout the shochu boom in Japan. Though the rise wasn't quite as dramatic as it has been in Japan, some feel that it is a healthy indication of things to come. Despite a growing demand overseas, many shochu producers don’t believe there is any need to further expand into international markets because they are satisfied competing within the national market of Japan. Furthermore, some producers are already operating at maximum capacity just to meet demand in Japan.
Shochu is a beverage that has been enjoyed by the Japanese and Ryukyuan people for centuries, and will continue to be enjoyed for many centuries to come. Contrary to the mysterious history behind shochu, the reason why shochu has become increasingly popular is no mystery at all: it’s an amazing spirit that goes beyond just being a beverage. It is something that gives identity and hope to small communities and farmers. It is something that knows no social standing. It is something for any day or occasion.