Shochu, the wildly popular Japanese spirit, has become more widely available in New York thanks to a new law

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You may not have heard of shochu, the main traditional Japanese spirit. Or you may have tasted it but never realized you were doing it – lately bartenders started using this versatile drink in various cocktails such as highballs, martinis and Negronis in the US

In Japan, shochu is more popular than sake. In 2020, shochu accounted for 15.4% of total alcoholic beverage consumption by value versus sake for 4%.

However, when it comes to exports, the numbers reverse. Sake is gaining popularity worldwide and 2021 was a record year for exports, totaling $295 million. But shochu exports were $13 million, just 4% sake.

Why is the export of shochu lagging behind sake so much?

One major reason is New York State law, which is the main potential market for shochu.

To sell alcohol in New York, you need either a soft drink license (for lower alcohol products like wine, beer, and sake) or a hard liquor license (for higher alcohol products like gin and vodka). The liquor license is two to three times more expensive than a soft liquor license and can be much more difficult to obtain.

Until now, shochu was only sold under a liquor license, which inevitably limits the availability of shochu in the state.

But here’s the good news: New York Governor Kathy Hochul signed the new law on July 1 that allows shochu to be sold under a soft drink license as long as its alcohol content is 24% or lower. Now, unlicensed bars, restaurants and shopkeepers can carry shochu.

As a result, not only can consumers enjoy greatly expanded shochu options, but bars and restaurants can also offer enhanced cocktail menus featuring shochu if they wish. Until now, unlicensed restaurants would offer cocktails by replacing spirits with other products such as wine, sherry and beer, but their alcohol content is only 15% or so. Shochu’s 24% strength and versatile nature can come in handy for these establishments.

Kenta Goto, the owner of BAR GOTO and BAR GOTO NIBAN in New York, often uses shochu in his cocktails. “The new law is great. It allows a much wider audience to experience and enjoy shochu. Those who have never had shochu can try it for the first time,” he says. “Most of the shochu I go to drink or use in cocktails is 25% alcohol or higher. But it is still very nice that beer and wine bars can serve shochu just like other aperitifs on the menu.”

No more confusion with Korean Soju

In addition to New York State law, there is another reason why shochu is poorly known in the US. People often confuse shochu and Korean soju. Shochu and soju sound the same, but their ingredients, production methods, and cultural contexts are vastly different.

But the confusion was partly caused by the shochu makers themselves.

In 1998, Korean lobbyists successfully negotiated with the state of California to obtain its exempt status for the sale of soju under a soft drink license. They argued that in Korean culture, soju was a part of regular dinners and should not be regulated by the liquor law. Since California law somehow considers soju and shochu to be essentially the same products, shochu can also legally enjoy special status.

What would you do if you’re a shochu maker and the huge California market is readily available as far as putting “soju” on the label?

Many shochu makers chose to do this and you can find many shochu referred to as soju in California.

As you can imagine, it is very demeaning to call shochu “soju” to proud Japanese shochu distillers who have been in the business for generations and strive to preserve the unique tradition.

“Calling Shochu soju is like calling Japanese ramen Italian pasta,” said John McCarthy, legal and regulatory adviser to the New York Japanese Restaurant Association (NYJRA) and the former chef/owner of the popular Japanese restaurant OKA in Manhattan.

Under the new law, unlike in California, shochu makers can label shochu as shochu under a soft drink license, which could increase recognition of shochu in New York and potentially beyond.

According to the Los Angeles Times article in 2002, Jinro America Inc., the largest manufacturer of soju, saw a 35% to 40% increase in the first year since the law was passed. Shochu may experience a comparable sales increase in New York in the coming months.

The Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association (JSS) has been working on changing New York law for years. In 2019, in collaboration with the Japanese government, they actually started taking measures to adjust the existing regulations. In 2021, JSS joined forces with NYJRA and the new law finally became a fact this month.

JSS has many plans to promote the new status of shochu in New York, including holding seminars and tastings for senators, diplomats, distributors and retailers, as well as hosting a shochu week in well-known bars.

Shuso Imada, General Manager of the JSS Information Center, says: “Currently, 80% of shochu in the domestic market contains the standard 25% alcohol. We expect many distillers to reduce the alcohol content of their products for export by 1% to take advantage of the new exemption status.”

JSS is also preparing negotiations to change California law to be able to call shochu shochu, not soju, under the state’s soft drink license.

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