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Spirit of innovation: Family brings shochu tradition to Frederick

Taka Amano is trying to introduce part of Japanese culture to Maryland.

Amano is among the first in the country distilling an alcoholic beverage called shochu. It’s a Japanese, vodka-like alcohol almost unknown in the United States. Amano hopes a bill being considered in the Maryland Senate will help get his locally made shochu into more restaurants and stores.

“People who have tasted it have really liked it,” Amano said. “I would like to make it available at sushi and Japanese food restaurants.”

Amano and his wife, Lynn, founded the American Shochu Company. They live in Silver Spring, but work out of a lab at the Frederick Innovation Technology Center, a business incubator funded through a public-private partnership.

The Amanos have a small operation, where they spend about three weeks on each single-distilled batch of shochu.

Shochu is often distilled from rice, barley, sweet potatoes, buckwheat, or brown sugar and may additionally contain chestnuts, sesame seeds, carrots or other foods. The Amanos use barley.

In Japan, shochu is more widely consumed than sake. People drink it straight like wine or diluted with water. But it also mixes well with sodas and teas, Amano said. It’s popular among young Japanese adults as an alternative to common light lager beers and sake.

But in the United States, shochu is largely unknown. The Amanos’ distillery is one of just a handful in the U.S., and it is the only one distilling shochu with barley.

The Maryland Senate is considering a bill that would define the little-known but internationally popular alcoholic beverage as wine so it could be sold in wine stores.

Senate Bill 218, co-sponsored by Sen. Ron Young (D-District 3), would amend the state’s wine license to include the Japanese-style drink shochu and Korean-style soju.

Young’s bill aims to raise the alcohol-by-volume level that licensees are allowed to sell to 24 percent, which would include shochu and soju — a similar Korean beverage often distilled from rice, wheat, barley, potatoes, sweet potatoes, or tapioca.

Many counties limit the alcohol content of beverages sold under a beer and wine license to no more than 22 percent. So, a retailer would need a full liquor license to sell varieties of shochu and soju that are stronger.

“Japanese restaurants here don’t carry shochu if they only have a beer and wine license,” Amano said. The bill would help promote his product, he said.

Young and Taka Amano spoke in support of the bill in front of the House Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs on Feb. 23. Kevin Atticks, of the Maryland Distillers Guild, also voiced support for the measure.

Young said that shochu and soju are generally consumed like wine at meals, so his bill aimed to have the beverages be treated like a wine under the law.

The American Shochu Company is looking to expand. The Amanos are raising funds to buy larger equipment and hire several employees. Amano imagines local sushi restaurants offering shochu like restaurants in Japan, he said, and potential collaborations with other local distillers and brewers.

Amano has a check on the distillery wall from his first client: Frederick’s own Bryan Voltaggio. The executive chef and owner of Volt restaurant tasted shochu and had cocktails developed using the Amanos’ product.

Bartenders at Volt have been preparing classic American cocktails, such as gin rickeys and gin fizzes, by replacing the liquor with shochu.

“The feedback has been fairly good. People are always excited to try new things, especially something that is local,” Voltaggio said. “We’re fortunate to have someone forward-thinking to bring something like to Frederick.”

Staff writer Kelsi Loos contributed to this report.

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