We had the good fortune of connecting with Paul and Mai Nakayama and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Paul and Mai, can you walk us through the thought-process of starting your business?
My wife Mai and I discovered an amazing shochu (Japanese craft spirit) while honeymooning in her hometown of Amami, Japan. It was the cleanest spirit we’d ever had and were intrigued. We took a 12-hour boat ride to the distillery and tried everything in their lineup, learning about their unique ingredients and process along the way. On the flight home, we couldn’t stop thinking about it and how it was something we would truly miss. It became clear that importing it ourselves would be the only way we would be able to share it with friends, maybe even it could even become a side hustle.
Our first sample shipment arrived October of 2017. The tastings we organized for friends and industry members made it obvious that our passion for the product was not misplaced. After some debate, we threw our life savings into the project and launched Nankai Shochu officially in January of 2018.
What should our readers know about your business?
Our company imports and wholesales shochu, a traditional craft spirit that is incredibly popular in Japan. But shochu is not yet well known in the U.S. and is often mistaken for sake, soju, or vodka. As a result, much of our company’s challenges can be found in trying to educate the public on the differences and why shochu is the next big discovery. For example, many are delighted to discover that shochu is lower in calories per serving than pretty much everything and is sugar/carb/gluten-free.
Nankai Shochu is different from most other shochu in that it is made by a modern technique called vacuum-distillation using an expensive, artisanal ingredient known as kokuto sugar. The result is an incredibly smooth and clean alcohol that is delicious on its own or in cocktails, which has become our forte. Our products have won many gold medals in top competitions, with our barrel-aged Nankai Gold recently taking home the The Spirits Business Master.
Our journey has certainly not been an easy one. From learning how alcohol regulations work to competing against major alcohol giants, our tiny family start-up hustles to increase our outreach to at least one new person every day. We were quite naive when we started, not realizing how much money and time is required to be able to compete in the industry, but we’re confident that people can feel our passion for our products in everything we do.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
I’ve lived here my whole life and I still haven’t experienced everything LA has to offer. But one of the best things about where we live is the full multicultural spectrum of food. From street food to Michelin-level fare, LA has it all. But for an itinerary maybe pair an activity with food or drinks. For something wholly unique and Californian, I’d tour some of the farmer’s markets and then book a private farm-to-table cocktail tasting with Matthew Biancaniello in his Playa Vista home. Or maybe peruse art at Giant Robot on Sawtelle and then grab some ramen or sushi at Tsujita. Or hit the South Bay beaches then grab chicken skewers and Nankai highballs at Torihei. Or hiking and then grabbing lunch by our friends at the Window @ Seoul Sausage.
Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
There are so many who have helped us along the way, because we honestly needed it. A shoutout to our friends for their many introductions to partners and customers, for letting us stay in their homes during our business trips, and for buying products in stores to keep the momentum alive. Another shoutout goes to our distributors and customers for carrying our shochu in their restaurants, bars and retail shops, even during these difficult times. And finally a big shoutout to all those who have given Nankai Shochu and Nankai Gold a chance– every single cocktail and bottle purchased gives us another day to do something we love.
Photos by Mai Nakayama