In episode 40 of the Japan Distilled podcast, your hosts Christopher Pellegrini and Stephen Lyman tackle the scintillating topic of absolutely absurd liquor laws in the United States. While this episode is very US-focused, we promise the episode will be entertaining for listeners worldwide who may enjoy listening to a couple of Yanks poke fun at their countrymen.
Theme Song: Begin Anywhere by Tomoko Miyata (http://tomokomiyata.net/)
Mixing and Editing: Rich Pav (https://www.uncannyrobotpodcast.com/)
CHRISTOPHER PELLEGRINI Vermont born and bred, long-time Tokyo resident and author of The Shochu Handbook, Christopher learned about delicious fermentations as a beer brewer at Otter Creek (Middlebury, VT). He now spends most of his waking hours convincing strangers that shochu and awamori are unlike anything they’ve ever tried before.
STEPHEN LYMAN discovered Japan’s indigenous spirits at an izakaya in New York City. He was so enthralled that he now lives in Japan and works in a tiny craft shochu distillery every autumn. His first book, The Complete Guide to Japanese Drinks, was nominated for a 2020 James Beard Award.
Stephen and Christopher have been battling these silly rules for years.
If you have any comments or questions about this episode, please reach out to Stephen or Christopher via Twitter. We would love to hear from you.
The OG Silly Liquor Law: Prohibition
The 18th amendment to the US constitution made the distribution and sale of alcohol illegal in the US as of January 17, 1920. As you all well know, this led to bootlegging, illicit distillation, speakeasys, and all sorts of roaring twenties shenanigans. Fortunately, the 21st Amendment repealed prohibition in 1933, but the damage was done. What was left in its wake was a regulatory morass as the country made booze legal again.
The TTB is the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. Established in 2003, they are responsible for all regulatory issues surrounding federal import and distribution of beverage alcohol. They are authorized to classify alcohol to such a degree that there are over 40 different recognized categories of whisky, a dozen or more brandy categories, and dozens of other recognized spirits categories.
Unrecognized? Any Asian Spirits whatsoever. No shochu, no awamori, no soju, no baijiu. Very European focused. Silly liquor law? We think so.
They are also authorized to add new categories, but have added precisely 1 near category (Brazilian cachaça) in nearly two decades of operation. And cachaça only got recognition since the US wanted Brazil to recognize Tennessee Sour Mash and Kentucky Bourbon as uniquely American spirits traditions. Clearly a lot of work to do to catch up with reality. TTB, c’mon guys, you can do it!
California Soju Law
In 1998, Korean American restaurant industry lobbyists, no doubt backed by “Big Soju” lobbied successfully to allow California beer and wine soft liquor license holders to sell soju if it was imported and bottled at 24% ABV or less. This intentionally blocked domestic releases of Japanese shochu, which is almost always bottled at 25%, but that didn’t stop some Japanese makers from taking advantage of the loophole.
The rule only said the product needed to be imported, so Japanese suppliers began labeling 24% ABV versions of their domestic products as soju to gain access to the enormous California marketplace. Rational to a degree, but created enormous consumer confusion and still does to this day.
Silly liquor law? We know so.
New York Soju Law
Inspired no doubt by California, New York based lobbyists quickly followed suit and got soju approved for soft license sale at 24% ABV or less so long as it was made in Korea. The law was passed in 2002 and ever since Korean soju has been available on soft license while 24% ABV shochu bottled for California has been restricted to hard license shops statewide.
Fortunately, that law was revised in July 2022 (the inspiration for this episode).
Specifically, the legislation reads:
Such license shall in form and in substance be a license to the person specifically licensed to sell wine at retail, to be consumed upon the premises. Such license shall also be deemed to include a license to sell beer [and], soju AND SHOCHU at retail to be consumed under the same terms and conditions without the payment of any additional fee. For the purposes of this subdivision:
(B) “SHOCHU” SHALL MEAN AN IMPORTED JAPANESE ALCOHOLIC BEVERAGE THAT CONTAINS NOT MORE THAN TWENTY-FOUR PER CENTUM ALCOHOL, BY VOLUME, AND IS DERIVED FROM AGRICULTURAL PRODUCTS.
Finally, New York diners and drinkers can enjoy shochu at fine Japanese restaurants throughout the state who do not have hard liquor licenses.
Their silly liquor law just became a bit less silly.
Much More to Explore
Of course, we dive into several other silly laws and give plenty of commentary on these and other rules. Please have a listen and let us know what you think.
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