Local Family Distills the Spirit of Japanese Shochu

TAKA AMANO and Kathie Callahan Brady

Taka Amano logged enough trips between his native Japan and the US, his adopted homeland, to circle the globe more than 50 times. He’s not a pilot, just a self-described “science nerd” who spun an Interdisciplinary Studies degree into a successful consulting firm, helping companies in both countries navigate intricate cross-cultural business relationships. Through years of corporate events, business dinners and hosting VIPs, Amano developed a respect for Japan’s classic liquor, shochu, and the associated spirit of relaxed camaraderie.

Across an ocean and a continent, Amano’s Maryland neighbors never heard of the stuff. “Everybody knows sake,” says Amano, of the delicate rice wine usually served in doll-sized cups. “Nobody here knows shochu. Nobody even makes it. If you can find it, it’s imported,” with a correspondingly heftier price tag. The realization sparked Amano’s interest in combining his business experience and love of science to establish one of this country’s first shochu distilleries. He enlisted his wife, Lynn, a biologist from North Carolina, then threw himself into research and recipe testing. He brought a finished sample to the Brewing Society of Japan for approval. Their response was, “Amano-san, you have shochu!”

“My mission always is to bridge the two cultures and I see this as the penultimate opportunity,” says Amano. He notes the popularity of Japanese whiskey on the global market. “That industry was founded in the early 20th century by Masataka Taketsuru, known as the Father of Japanese whiskey. He famously traveled to Scotland to learn the craft and brought back that knowledge, and a Scottish wife, Rita. Together they made ‘real’ whiskey for the first time in Japan.” The Jim Beam brand is now part of the company Taketsuru helped found.

Amano considers Taketsuru something of a spiritual predecessor. “Lynn and I are repeating that pattern in reverse. I came to America and found love. Now we are making traditional Japanese shochu here.”

Amano’s American Shochu Company operates out of the Frederick Innovative Technology Center, Inc. (FITCI) on Metropolitan Court in Frederick County, MD. The couple uses water filtered by reverse osmosis, organic barley, yeast and koji (Aspergillus luchuensis, a unique strain similar to that used in making miso, soy sauce and sake) to distill nano-batches of shochu. They plan to quadruple production in the coming year, possibly with a farm in Thurmont, Maryland, supplying the barley.

Shochu is often compared to vodka for its clear finish and mixability, but has lower alcohol volume, typically 24% versus 40%. Amano says the spirit outsells sake in Japan because “it’s a nice alternative to light beer, hard cider or wine spritzers. It’s especially popular with young people who use it for cocktails, known as ‘chuhai.’” He chuckles knowingly, “It goes well in a mojito.”

Kathie Callahan-Brady, CEO of FITCI and one of Amano’s advisors,
is excited by the progress. She says, ” The craft brewing and distilling market is booming now, but this locally produced shochu is an entirely new category of spirits in America. The company is forging pathways on so many levels of industry, government regulation and taste, and its all happening right here.”

Amano recently distributed the first commercially available bottles from his American Shochu Company’s limited production line, UMAI!, to local restaurants in Frederick County. Guests can try the clear spirit in Volt’s Shochu Fizz. Amano has plans to introduce several different styles of shochu to America over the next few years.Get more information at w NewAmericanSpirits.com or fitci.org.