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Rural Renaissance

A New Drink Brings

Big Dreams to a Small Town

Tracing the tracks of Kiyosato’s potato shochu from hard-fought beginnings to its modern-day boom.

Tokyo. Osaka. Kobe. With their cultural attractions, sophisticated nightlife and frenetic pace, it’s easy to see why they draw crowds. But small towns have a lot going for them as well, and they’re playing up their strengths to bring in city dwellers.

For Kiyosato, a small, remote town in Hokkaido Prefecture nestled between Akan National Park and Shiretoko National Park (the latter a UNESCO World Heritage Site), that strength lies in its harvest— particularly its potato harvest.

Home to nearly a quarter of Japan’s arable land, agriculture is king in the nation’s northernmost prefecture. The wide-open vistas spread among forests and mountains are checkerboards of expansive fields. In these respects, Kiyosato is your average Hokkaido town. What makes it exceptional rises up amid the fields along a country road not far from downtown: the only government-run shochu distillery in Japan.

“What else can we do with our potatoes?” was the question town officials asked themselves in 1975. Keen to find another use for Kiyosato’s high-starch tubers, destined for starch processing and nothing else, they were stumped—until, as Satoru Matsuura, chief examiner of Kiyosato’s distillery explains, talk turned to a town about a hundred kilometers from Kiyosato that made industrial alcohol from potatoes. It was the answer they were looking for.

The world is familiar with sake, a fermented drink sometimes referred to as rice wine. It’s less acquainted with shochu, a distilled liquor also made from rice. However, shochu can be made not only from rice, but also from sweet potatoes, brown sugar, barley and other ingredients. In Japanese, both potato (jagaimo) and sweet potato (satsumaimo) end in ‘imo.’ So officials at the time thought, “Since they’re both forms of ‘imo,’ why not make shochu with potatoes?”

Initially, the officials envisioned a potato shochu souvenir to represent the town. Souvenirs are big business in Japan—they get the word out about regional specialties, and fit into Japanese gift-giving culture. And travelers load up on them—especially the consumable kind—to take home to friends, family and colleagues. A potato-flavored shochu seemed ideal for getting people talking about Kiyosato. The result was the creation of Japan’s first potato shochu, as well as the establishment of the nation’s only municipally operated shochu distillery.

Going on sale in 1979, the first batches were more distinctive than delicious—something people would drink a glass of, chuckle over the unique taste, and never sample again. However, Kiyosato officials wanted a delicious shochu that could build a loyal following. And first and foremost, they wanted it to appeal to local palates.

“Hokkaido folk aren’t big fans of strongly flavored shochu,” explains Matsuura. “Yet the first batch had a very strong flavor.” So the new goal was to maintain a certain level of potato flavor, while creating a shochu that people from Hokkaido could enjoy.

Toward this end, the flavor has been mellowed into something smooth, soft and sweet, and the beverage has gone from a regional curiosity to the perfect way to start a love affair with shochu, whether the drinker is a local or a visitor.

The shochu itself having been updated over the years, it was time for its image to get a makeover as well. Beginning in 2013, a team of six designers, photographers and copywriters led by Professor Terutaka Suzuki of Tokyo’s Edogawa University went to work revamping the town’s brand.

Gone are the unremarkable bottles—sleek and modern is the new shape. So are the labels bearing the image of Mount Shari, the town’s 1,547-meter peak, replaced with the chic, minimalist town emblem of three potatoes symbolizing nature, agriculture and people. The result, unveiled in the fall of 2014, is the sort of high-end product fit for display anywhere but the back of the liquor cabinet, and prompted a significant increase in sales.

The polished and professional PR material is anything but typical of the literature usually associated with a small town brand. Engaging stories paint a picture of the stunning natural beauty of the area along with an informative backstory for this original brand of shochu.
To go to such great lengths to create a unique product, pushing on to success with unwavering determination, is extraordinary. It showcases the incredible fighting spirit that small towns have, where a true sense of community pride can drive incredible innovation. Now who wouldn’t want to be a part of that?

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