Sanwa Shurui Distillery

Sanwa Shurui Distillery: Putting Barley Shochu on the World Map

The first honkaku shochu boom took place in the late 1970s, and some of the best-selling and most influential brands during that time came from Oita Prefecture. These mild and smooth barley products helped alert the rest of the country that honkaku shochu is a delicious, sessionable spirit, and Sanwa Shurui has been carrying the Oita Barley Shochu banner from the start. Mr. Masahiko Shimoda, Executive Senior Vice President of Sanwa Shurui, sat down with The Kyushu Advantage and answered several questions about how Sanwa Shurui became a market leader.

Please tell us about Sanwa Shurui’s background and history.
Sanwa Shurui was started in 1958 when three companies merged. A fourth company joined the group the following year, and this effectively brought four fermentation-related licenses under one roof. The licenses were for making seishu (sake), wine, shochu, and moromi. The first three licenses are employed by our company to this day. Our best-selling barley shochu, iichiko, debuted in 1979 and can claim partial credit for the first honkaku shochu boom in the late 1970s. While shochu is the core of our business, Sanwa Shurui has also made sake and wine for decades. Today Sanwa Shurui is one of the biggest honkaku shochu producers in Japan, and we have a diverse catalogue of barley shochu which now includes several cask-aged products.

Can you share some insights into Sanwa Shurui’s marketing strategy?
We take a lighter approach to marketing, and one campaign in particular has caught the public’s attention and created new fans of our barley shochu, iichiko. Art Director Hideya Kawakita, who until last year was a professor at Tokyo University of the Arts, has been responsible for our “iichiko design” project which publishes 13 iichiko posters every year. That’s one for each month and an extra one at Christmas. They’re simple images that display a bottle of iichiko in a natural, everyday scene somewhere in the world. There is a clear seasonality to the posters, and the hope is that the scenes will make the viewer want to drink iichiko. We have found that people really look forward to the poster each month, and Mr. Kawakita continues to surprise us with his ability to find stunning locations and create his own visual world. We run TV commercials around the country as well, but in general there’s a soft touch to our advertising.

How about your approach to foreign markets?
Our products are available in a number of large international markets, and we also have a strong presence in Hawaii and some parts of Southeast Asia. In terms of sales and marketing overseas, we try to appeal to people through food pairings and developing new products that can be easily used in a bar context such as our liqueurs. We have also found that our barrel-aged shochu is enthusiastically received overseas. This year our iichiko SPECIAL won two awards at the International Wine and Spirit Competition, and iichiko FRASCO is popular at fine dining establishments in major cities worldwide. We try to teach customers about koji because it’s so central to Japanese food culture in general and shochu in particular. One of our newer products, from a category that we call Wapirits and goes by the name of “Tumugi,” actually has the word koji prominently printed on the front label in English. We hope that this new drink will help alert people around the world to the fact that delicious drinks, and especially shochu, are made with koji.

What does “Wapirits” mean, and can you tell us more about Tumugi?
Wapirits is a combination of the word ‘Wa’ (和), which means Japanese, and the word ‘sprits,’ something that we came up with to help clearly identify Tumugi as a distinctly Japanese take on cocktail bases. Tumugi is a 40% ABV spirit made with koji and distilled just once in a pot still to help maintain the flavors and aromas from the mash—just like when making honkaku shochu. Japanese botanicals are added to create a balanced and flavorful spirit, the likes of which have never been created before. If you’re ever in Tokyo, you can see Tumugi in action at “Ginza Hibiya Bar WAPIRITS” where it’s used as the base in several delicious cocktails.

Sanwa Shurui also has an impressive laboratory for research and development. What research are you working on right now?
I started working at Sanwa Shurui in 1984, five years after iichiko started its nearly non-stop ascent which is now three and a half decades in the making. It was around that time that the company started to focus resources on analyzing the fermentation and distillation processes more closely while also conducting research and developing better techniques for making delicious shochu. For example, the yeast strains used to make our various shochu brands were developed in-house, and their effectiveness and consistency are constantly monitored in the lab. Our state-of-the-art facilities have produced a lot of valuable research related to our products, but we are currently focused on learning more about what can be done with the thousands of tons of barley lees left over from the shochu production process. This is not just a practical concern for the distillery, it is also an environmental issue, and we are conducting research that is beginning to reveal alternative uses for these by-products. Our primary concern, of course, has always been reducing our company’s impact on the environment and giving back in any way that we can, but some of our discoveries are related to healthcare-related uses for barley lees. Naturally, we are excited to see where the research takes us.

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In a cave behind the Usa factory, a pool of spring water reminds visitors how fresh Sanwa Shurui’s ingredients are.

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The corridor outside the company cafeteria hosts a revolving showcase of “iichiko design posters.”

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The distillery floor crew poses next to a vat of fermenting mash.

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Large blades plow through a bed of steamed rice while making koji.

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A closeup of the fermenting mash.

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Vacuum pressure stills produce a mild distillate that is softly sweet.

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231-1, Yamamoto, Usa-shi, Oita