Page 1

September 2016

Kyushu Shochu Issue

Shochu: my journey with Japan’s spirit Christopher Pellegrini

The Kyushu Advantage: Shochu Education for the World

Kyushu University professor plans global shochu education

The start to a mild, fragrant night

Winner of the first place“Trophy”award (shochu category) at the world’ s most prestigious alcoholic beverage competition held in London each year, the IWSC. 【 Judges Tasting Notes 】

Complex, broad and savory on the nose with a balanced oak presence bringing a spicy vanilla note that complements rather than masks the base spirit. Subtle and smooth on the palate, with an amazing roundness that reveals chocolatey toasty

30% Alcohol by Volume

Ingredients: Barley Koji (Malt), Barley

Sanwa Shurui Co., Ltd. 2231-1 Yamamoto, Usa City, Oita

Alcohol is for after you come of age. Please drink responsibility. Pregnant and nursing mothers should avoid alcohol because of the risk of birth defects. Do not drink and drive.

ZIPANGU Kyushu Shochu Issue I love shochu, and it has been my go-to drink for a long time now. However, I first began to learn about the beverage in 2013 from the website The Kyushu Advantage, which introduces craftsmanship from Kyushu Prefecture. What initially surprised me was that Kyushu, the southernmost of the four main islands that make up Japan, is home to approximately 300 shochu distilleries. The diversity of shochu also surprised me. Despite Kyushu’s small geographic area, shochu is being made using a variety of base

Shingo Yoshino, Producer and Christopher Pellegrini, Editor

ingredients. Barley, rice and sweet potatoes are typical ingredients, and, although the final products are all shochu, different ingredients can create an entirely new drinking experience. Shochu’s appeal is in its fragrance. To further enjoy this fragrance, Japanese people often dilute their shochu with hot water in a process called oyuwari. Shochu is also drunk with meals, a rarity for distilled liquors. It makes an excellent pairing with Japanese local dishes. Shochu is not typically aged like whiskey is, so the year’s new brew can be enjoyed alongside Kyushu Shochu Issue September 2016

seasonal delicacies. I believe that sharing shochu with the peoples of the world can help bring further richness to their lives.

Editor: Christopher Pellegrini Writer: Christopher Pellegrini Sakae Murakami Art Director: Emiko Iijima Web Director: Takeshi Watanabe

I give my heartfelt gratitude to all those that have supported the continued publication of this shochu magazine. Shingo Yoshino Producer, ZIPANGU magazine President, Zipangu Japan

Published by ZIPANGU JAPAN Co., Ltd. 11-1 Kitakashiwadai, Kashiwa City, Chiba Japan Masaharu Shirasugi Kurane Akira Masanori Takiguchi Masahiro Yamazaki Etsuko Mizusawa President & Producer: Shingo Yoshino Inquiries & Subscription Service e-mail: info@zipangu-japan.jp

The front cover is the logo that Seigo Hiramatsu created for the Kyushu Shochu Project. He is a prominent Fukuoka art designer / graphic artist / design calligrapher, who researches “design calligraphy,” applying a Japanese sensibility to the world of design, and is contributing to the activities of local communities and businesses in Fukuoka.




September 2016

Feature 03 Shochu: my journey with Japan’s spirit

Christopher Pellegrini


Takahashi Distillery:

Delicate and Delicious Rice Shochu from the Mountains of Kumamoto


Okuchi Distillery:


Kirishima Distillery:

A Kagoshima Favorite from the Isa Basin Bringing Kuro Koji Shochu to the Masses

Sanwa Shurui Distillery: 22 Putting Barley Shochu on the World Map Feature 25 The Kyushu Advantage: Shochu Education for the World Kyoya Distillery: 28 Drinking the New with the Old



Kyushu University professor plans global shochu education

Hombo Tsunuki Distillery: 34 Kishogura

The Kyushu Advantage is an online showcase for everything that's great about Kyushu. We profile the companies, organizations, people and places that make Kyushu special. Discover a new face of Japan. http://www.thekyushuadvantage.jp/shochumap/


Stirring the mash at a distillery in Kagoshima Prefecture.

Christopher Pellegrini is a dual-certified shochu expert residing in Tokyo, Japan. He is the author of “The Shochu Handbook” and a contributor to the forthcoming “Oxford Companion to Spirits and Cocktails.” In addition to consulting restaurants and bars on incorporating shochu and awamori in their beverage programs, Christopher also conducts tastings and seminars both in Japan and abroad. Here he describes how he started as a teenage brewing apprentice and ended becoming one of the foremost experts on Japan’s national spirit.

Shochu: my journey with Japan’s spirit

Shochu: my journey with Japan’s spirit

Making koji by hand.


Enjoying a detailed distillery tour in Oita Prefecture.

Sampling some new shochu in Miyazaki Prefecture.

“You can do that?!” when he came

deavored to make quality, small-batch

longer than 12 months. To be perfectly

home early from church and caught me


honest, moving to Japan wasn’t even

boiling wort in the kitchen. Needless to

my idea. I followed my partner here

say, he immediately shuttered my bed-

to open a brewpub at some point in

for a one year reprieve from the grind

room closet operation. Def lated but not

my life, but when I first met shochu in

of her daily work life, hoping to learn

deterred, I applied for an apprentice-

early 2003, I realized that I was dealing

something new about the world and

ship at Otter Creek Brewing, a small

with something extremely well made

myself in the process.

outfit in Middlebury, Vermont, and

and largely unknown. Small batch

worked there off and on for four years.

shochu production reminded so much

A little less than halfway through my

of the work that I did at Otter Creek,

I never intended to be in Japan for

Fast forward 15 years, and we’re still here.

There’s still a part of me that wants

time there a crazy thing happened. Our

that I immediately connected with

now choose to call Japan home, and

first brewer suffered a bad back injury

the people making it. Even though I

it won’t shock anyone that one of the

and was out of commission for a couple

couldn’t read Japanese kanji, I bought

main draws is shochu. It still makes me

of months, and around the same time

every book about honkaku shochu that

chuckle when I think how oblivious I

our second brewer left the state to join

I could find. A fter years of learning

was to this spirit before I moved here.

the circus. I’m not joking.

about the hundreds of distilleries that

There are many reasons why I

Like most people outside Japan today,

In a pinch, the company’s founder

make shochu in Kyushu, I began to

I’d not heard of it. Little did I know that

surveyed the rest of the team and

understand that the island is synony-

it would wind up being the meeting

asked if anyone had brewing experi-

mous with the ubiquitous drink. This

point for three of my greatest passions:

ence. I raised my hand even though I

Shochu Island is now my home away

craft brew, education, and theater.

was the only one in the brewery that

from Tokyo.

was too young to drink, and soon I was working the night brewing shift five

From homebrewer to shochu nerd

days a week. While I didn’t care much for being the only person in a hulking, creaking, and mostly dark brewery

Birth of a shochu educator

I started home brewing in high

during the wee hours of the morning,

school, much to everyone’s confusion.

I developed an intense respect for the

my two other passions started to find

I still remember my father’s befuddled

brewing process and anyone who en-

their way into the mix. I started writing

Years of Kyushu pilgrimages later,



Shochu: my journey with Japan’s spirit

Behind the bar at a shochu tasting in Tokyo, Japan.


about shochu and awamori and found a

cally sourced f lora to make shochu

Kumamoto Prefecture. Finally, Satsu-

receptive audience for the information.

all across Japan. And that’s one of my

ma Shochu is the sweet potato shochu

This educational role eventually led to

favorite things about shochu, the sheer

made in Kagoshima Prefecture with

seminars and tastings both in Japan

variety of f lavors and aromas. Every-

locally harvested spuds.

and overseas, and I published “ The

where you travel in Japan has a region-

Shochu Handbook” somewhere in be-

al specialty, but the seven prefectures

region of Japan can have three inter-

tween. Honestly, I have never felt more

of Kyushu Island are the drink’s undis-

nationally protected brands and yet

at home or effective than when I am in

putable homeland.

the world knows so little about them.

It still boggles the mind that one

front of a group talking about Japan’s

(Four, actually, if you include Oki-

indigenous spirit. Interacting with an

nawa’s Ryukyu Awamori tradition as

audience, feeding off their energy and curiosity, that is my little slice of theatrical heaven. I now feel that the most

Variety and quality Here’s what each prefecture does

some do.) Kyushu is less than half the size of Kentucky, yet it has more active distilleries than Jim Beam’s home

worthwhile thing I can do with my life

best. Fukuoka Prefecture in the north

state, Tennessee, and Scotland com-

is to bring shochu to an international

makes a lot of kasutori (sake lees) and

bined. The breadth of the industry in


barley shochu. Oita and Nagasaki Pre-

Kyushu means that there is consider-

fectures are known for barley shochu

able tank space available for capturing

you like shochu so much?” It’s actually

while Saga and Kumamoto are famous

a 1-2% slice of the North American or

a difficult question to answer simply

for shochu made from rice. Miyazaki

European spirits market.

because Japanese Shochu as an alco-

Prefecture excels at both sweet potato

holic beverage category is perhaps one

and soba (buckwheat) product. Ka-

of the most diverse on the planet. The

goshima Prefecture is perhaps best

variety of ingredients allowed in the

known for sweet potato product but

creation of honkaku (premium) shochu

also gets to claim brown sugar shochu

is nearly as diverse as beer, and the re-

because the Amami Islands are under

sulting spectrum of aromas and f lavors

the prefecture’s administration.

Which begs the question, “Why do

is arguably as vast. Depending on how

Another thing that I love is the

How the world misinterprets and underestimates shochu Unfortunately, international knowledge about what shochu is and how to

you count, there are 53 approved starch

level of craftsmanship that has been

enjoy it is scant and often false. One of

sources for making honkaku shochu,

developed over generations. Some

the preferred ways to generalize sho-

and they run the gamut from sweet

of Kyushu’s distilling traditions are

chu in English is to label it “Japanese

potatoes to chestnuts to tea.

hundreds of years old and have been

vodka,” a reduction that I encourage

I still fondly remember my early

granted W TO appellation of origin pro-

people to avoid at all costs. First of

trips around Kyushu with my infan-

tection just like Champagne or Camem-

all, honkaku shochu is always single

tile Japanese ability, making friends

bert cheese. The first is Iki Shochu, a

distilled while mass-produced vodka is

over cups of oyuwari, all the while

traditional barley shochu made by just

not. The point of single distillation is to

fascinated by how all these regional

seven distilleries on Nagasaki Pre-

capture many of the f lavor and aroma

drinks could be called the same thing.

fecture’s diminutive Iki Island. Kuma

compounds in the mash and transport

And that’s how the shochu industry

Shochu is the rice product made by

them to the finished product. In con-

largely works. It’s hundreds of mostly

the more than two dozen distilleries

trast, spirits like vodka and Korean

family-owned distilleries using lo-

hugging the Kuma River in Hitoyoshi,

Soju are multiply-distilled, a process



Shochu: my journey with Japan’s spirit

Conducting a shochu tasting and seminar at an inn near Mt. Fuji.

that intentionally strips away esters

and the last decade has seen the num-

and creates a neutral spirit with as high

ber of quality labels reaching the mar-

Authenticity in this case would

an alcohol content as possible (usually

ket skyrocket. Once people learn more

be adding bottles of sweet potato and

around 96% A BV ). While there are doz-

about shochu’s diversity and quality,

barley shochu to the menu, as is the

ens of low pressure distilled barley and

I’m confident that these hasty general-

norm in most bars and restaurants in

rice shochu brands that are incredibly

izations will start to disappear.

Japan. But that transformation is going

offering something more authentic.

mild and easy to drink, most honkaku

to take time. Indeed, while doing tast-

shochu has far more character than

ings and seminars in large cities like

what we have come to expect from vodka. Plus, honkaku shochu is generally bottled at 25% A BV, compared to vodka’s 40%.

Prospects for international expansion While shochu’s international

Vancouver and Los Angeles over the past few years, several bar managers at “Japanese” restaurants had never heard of shochu before. Or if they had,

potential is palpable, so too are the

then they assumed I was somehow

ber of honkaku shochu brands at over

obstacles. The recent f lourish of iza-

mispronouncing “soju.”

5,000, which further calls the “Japa-

kaya-esque gastropubs in metro areas

nese vodka” simplification into ques-

worldwide are nothing like their sushi

tion. There’s no way that 5,000 brands

bar forebears of the 1970s and 80s. The

of neutral spirit could survive at the

big difference is that the owners and

same time without a heretofore unseen

managers of many of the newer estab-

marketing effort. Naturally, I make sev-

lishments are either not Japanese or

industry is that they don’t have the

eral new discoveries every time I travel

have never traveled to Japan. In other

automatic point of sale network that

around Kyushu Island, and that’s why

words, they usually fill their bever-

Japanese-owned sushi bars offered the

I’m averaging about four f lights there

age menus with kneejerk choices like

nihonshu industry 30 to 40 years ago.

per year. Innovation is on everyone’s

Asahi Super Dry and Hakkaisan nihon-

The shochu industry needs to pool its

mind right now as distilleries try to

shu. I’m not in any way implying that

resources, target large metro markets

add value and fight for tightening shelf

they can’t make great food or create a

in concert, and start telling the story

space nationwide. There is now more

memorable experience for their cus-

of how honkaku shochu is made by

experimentation with ingredients, cask

tomers, but I’m comfortable alleging

craft distilleries using locally-sourced

aging, and blending than ever before,

that they have limited bandwidth for

ingredients in Kyushu. Tune those

Many estimates put the total num-


Kyushu’s gift to the world What that means for the shochu

Before a tasting at a bar in New York City.

anecdotes to effectively hit targeted market segments, and international recognition and appreciation of shochu will improve dramatically ahead of the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. That’s where I fit in, obviously, and I have my work cut out for me. To wit, few people in Japan are aware that shochu has outsold nihonshu domestically every year since 2003; the drink’s place at the dinner table and contribution to tax revenues is largely taken for granted. At the same time, it’s important to recognize that Kyushu is integral to Japan’s future, especially where exports are concerned. Shochu is still Japan’s best-kept culinary secret, but I’m looking forward to the day when vodka distilleries steal a page out of Kyushu’s playbook, producing vodka with more character, and displaying “singledistilled” prominently on the label. To that end, it is my mission to help show the world that Kyushu, Japan’s Shochu Island, is the Scotland of Japan.



Takahashi Distillery:

Delicate and Delicious Rice Shochu from the Mountains of Kumamoto Rice shochu is the oldest of the Japanese spirit’s many styles. Its heart beats relentlessly in the Hitoyoshi Basin amidst the mountains of Southern Kumamoto. Impressively, more than two dozen distilleries are creating and sending the celebrated WTO-protected regional indication, Kuma Shochu, to new dinner tables around the world. Kuma Shochu is made from rice and water drawn from the subterranean wells beneath the Kuma River, one of the three fastest flowing in Japan. The leader of that effort is none other than Takahashi Distillery, maker of the Hakutake Shiro brand and the largest distillery in the valley. Mr. Mitsuhiro Takahashi, the fifth president of the company, sat down with The Kyushu Advantage to share his thinking about the distillery’s future.

Please tell us about Takahashi Distillery’s history and connection to Hitoyoshi. Our Taragi distillery opened in 1900 and has always made rice shochu, mostly with rice grown by Kumamoto farmers. This region was historically under the control of the Sagara Clan, and it’s incredibly difficult to access because of the surrounding mountains. There are 23 tunnels burrowing through the mountains on the highway coming here, so it’s quite hidden and as a result the local community is tightly knit. Rice shochu has always played a key role in the business and culture of this region. During the first half of the 20th century a lot of the shochu made in this area had a charred character to it, obviously coming from the pot still. But in 1974 we started using a more modern pot still, a reduced pressure still that allows boiling the mash at lower temperatures. The shochu became milder and smoother with a pleasing aroma, and the products made in this area became appealing to a wider audience. As you know, we now have a second distillery closer

Mitsuhiro Takahashi is the fifth generation leader of Takahashi Distillery.


The distillery in Taragi, like most of the Hitoyoshi Basin, is surrounded by rice paddies. Polished rice waits to be turned into koji.

to the center of Hitoyoshi City, and right

and the ingredients we use. In fact, I

doubt that Kuma Shochu is critical to

next door is the “Hakutake Denshogura,”

think that in many cases the shochu

the sur vival of the Hitoyoshi Basin

our Kuma Shochu museum which re-

industry as a whole is telling the wrong

area, and regional brand construction

ceives distillery visitors.

stories. Everyone keeps talking about

is occurring all over Japan. The level

how healthy shochu is, but I’m not

of success, however, varies impres-

convinced that’s why people choose to

sively. Some areas are missing op -

drink a specific type of alcohol. As far

portunities to build a brand based on

as I can tell, people drink our shochu

the local culture or products, which in

because it’s delicious, not because it’s

many cases is due to a lack of business

lower calorie than the other spirits of

experience. A nd if we look at the en-

the world.

tire rice shochu industr y, then I think

Hakutake Shiro is wellknown domestically and available in large markets internationally. Can you tell us a bit about your marketing strategies? Quality ingredients are of the utmost importance. Several excellent rice strains, such as mori no kumasan, are grown in the valleys between these mountains, and it’s impossible to overstate how important this locally grown grain is to the quality and popularity

you could say that we’ve missed an

The Hitoyoshi Region has a head start on branding with its Kuma Shochu appellation. What are your thoughts on regional products and branding in Japan?

our products, especially for international markets. Maybe we should be calling ourselves Japanese R ice Sprits since shochu is still a rather unknown concept overseas. In the same vein, maybe the nihonshu (sake) industr y would be better off presenting itself as Japanese R ice Brew or something. Again, focusing on the ingredients is

of our products. We are trying to focus more on telling the story of this place

opportunity to more effectively brand

Well, I don’t think there’s any

crucial. 2016


Takahashi Distillery: Delicate and Delicious Rice Shochu from the Mountains of Kumamoto

Shochu rests in oak casks.

Master distiller, Koji Fuchita, uses these pot stills to make rice shochu.

What are some of the challenges to marketing and selling shochu internationally?

Hiroe Takahashi explains the unique characteristics of the company’s new all-koji offerings.

kaya overseas are not actually run by

overseas, and to that end we are now

Japanese expats. The owners seem less

marketing some attractive new prod-

interested in further developing their

ucts. One of them is Hakutake Soden,

understanding and mastery of Japanese

a 10 year old all-koji rice shochu that is

food culture than their bottom line.

bottled at 40% ABV. At the same time,

They will probably eventually catch on

we’re excited about a new label called

isn’t as well known abroad as nihon-

to how important shochu is in Japan,

Hyaku which is also an all-koji product.

shu. There are many contributing

but most of them won’t figure it out on

Hyaku is special because it uses three

factors, and it is a constant irritation

their own. This makes it difficult for our

types of ginjo yeast during fermenta-

for me. One big obstacle is that many

products to get their foot in the door in

tion, and it’s bottled at 23%. We were

of the Japanese restaurants and iza-

many parts of the world. Not just rice

inspired by UNESCO’s recognition of

shochu though, this is a challenge that

washoku as an Intangible Cultural Heri-

the entire shochu industry faces.

tage and decided to create a rice shochu

I often think about why shochu

that perfectly complements sushi. Rice

Can you tell us about any new or exciting developments at Takahashi Distillery?

shochu more easily works as a shokuchu shu (meal accompanying drink) than other categories of shochu, and we feel strongly that there is enormous potential once international consumers learn more about the drink’s centrality

We have our sights set on bars Takahashi Distillery also makes umeshu, which is seen here macerating in a large tank.


to Japanese cuisine.

The earliest known written reference to shochu was discovered at Kōriyama Hachiman Shrine in the small valley city of Isa, Kagoshima. Dating from 1559, the reference is actually graffiti, a protest by the carpenters who hid their complaint within the roof ’s rafters. They were upset that they were not given any shochu while working on the shrine, a considerable slight since the area already had strong ties to what would one day become the national spirit. Nearly five centuries later, Okuchi Distillery has consolidated and carried the Isa Basin’s resources and vigor, and helped create a prefectural mainstay in the process. The distillery’s flagship shochu, Kuro Isanishiki, is the best-selling shochu in the capital, Kagoshima City. The affable and energetic General Manager of Okuchi Distillery, Koichi Yamada, sat down with The Kyushu Advantage to tell us what makes the company unique.

Okuchi Distillery CEO Koichi Yamada, stands in front of a conditioning tank at the main factory.


Okuchi Distillery:

were mostly unable to ship to Osaka

A Kagoshima Favorite from the Isa Basin

and Tokyo even though the phone was

Please tell us about Okuchi Distillery’s background and history.

licenses until 1906, so it is impossible

Isanishiki is now the number one selling

to know which of the 11 is the oldest. I

shochu in Kagoshima City.

make honkaku potato shochu at Okuchi, the fields surrounding the distillery are mostly rice paddies. This basin is surprisingly cold, the mornings can be just

have the stock to enter those huge markets. It would have meant cutting off our customers here at home, and that was something that Okuchi Distillery couldn’t stomach. Instead, we redoubled our efforts locally and put more energy into making our Isanishiki line available in Kagoshima City. Our customer appreciated our dedication, and they have remained loyal. Consequently, Kuro

joined the company in 1985, two years before the debut of Kuro Isanishiki, our flagship premium shochu.

This valley has long had a strong connection to shochu. Even though we

ringing off the hook. We just didn’t

Can you tell us a little about what makes Okuchi Distillery unique?

A decade after the boom, Kuro Isanishiki is beecoming a bit easier to find in Tokyo. As a next step, what are your thoughts on international markets?

shocking when you remember that Isa is part of Kagoshima and not even on top

Okuchi Distillery only makes sweet

Our shochu is currently available

of a mountain. The climate is sometimes

potato shochu, a fact we’re quite proud

in Los Angeles and New York, but on

compared to Niigata Prefecture far to

of. Like all Satsuma Shochu produc-

a somewhat limited basis. Our biggest

the north, which means sweet potatoes

ers, we source our sweet potatoes from

market outside of Japan is undoubt-

do not easily grow here. But the water

farmers in Kagoshima and focus on

edly China because so many Japanese

is excellent for making shochu, and that

providing great shochu to our custom-

business people live there. Some major

is why we are still here. And of course

ers here in this prefecture. During

Japanese companies such as car manu-

we use locally cultivated rice in our

the recent honkaku shochu boom we

facturers are starting to move plants

starter mashes. In 1970, 11 Isa distillers merged and formed this distillery, Okuchi. The government did not have a system for issuing shochu distilling

A replica of the graffiti that is the first known written reference to shochu. It was hidden within the rafters of a nearby shrine.

Koriyama Hachiman in Isa City is where the earliest written reference to shochu was discovered. The graffiti dates from 1559. 2016


Okuchi Distillery: A Kagoshima Favorite from the Isa Basin

Distillery workers inspect the fresh sweet potatoes, carving out bruises and discarding spuds that might add off-flavors to the mash.

Sweet potato shochu trickles out of a row of pot stills.

and employees to Indonesia, Thailand,

Kuro Isanishiki. Our younger custom-

Isa Komachi has become quite popular

and Vietnam, so we’re seeing growth in

ers are a bit more likely to drink it mizu-

with female customers, and we even

those countries as well. But it’s not easy

wari or even mixed with a sparkling wa-

have a contingent of employees that

to move into a market where few people

ter. And that is one of the great things

have formed a “Shochu Girls” group to

have ever heard the word “shochu”

about shochu in general, everyone can

help promote this new product. By the

before. There are many places that we

find their own favorite way to enjoy it.

way, nearly 20% of Okuchi’s salaried

would love to be able to target, like London and Paris, but knowledge of how to serve and enjoy shochu is lacking in those regions. But we won’t let that stop us. I’m working hard to make sure that shochu booms overseas, and I hope that

staff is female, a surprisingly large

Are there any new or exciting things that Okuchi Distillery is currently working on?

Kuro Isanishiki will become the Nissan

As you can probably imagine, oyuwari is most common when it comes to

excited about is a joint project that will create a shochu tasting facility in Kagoshima City in the near future. It will

Our new Isa Komachi shochu is

possible to try a wide variety of shochu

being bottled at both 13 and 25% ABV. It

from different producers very afford-

has a beautiful, almost tropical bouquet,

ably. It’s based on the coin system that

and is made with hamakomachi sweet

is sometimes found at large ski resorts

potatoes and locally grown rice. These

in Japan, and it should be a great way

sweet potatoes are orange in color, and

to attract tourists or other people who

the resulting shochu is great on the

are new to shochu. If we give people 100

rocks or mizuwari. It goes well with a

different options, then they will be more

variety of snacks, such as dried fruit,

likely to discover shochu’s quality and

and can even be poured over ice cream!

find a brand that they enjoy.

Tall earthenware pots are used to age sweet potato shochu.


Another thing that we’re quite

operate on a coin system and make it

GT-R “GODZILL A” of Shochu!

How do people at home in Kagoshima Prefecture enjoy your shochu?

number for this industry.

Okuchi’s “Shochu Girls” team discusses plans for promoting a new sweet potato shochu, Isa Komachi.

Kirishima Distillery:

Bringing Kuro Koji Shochu to the Masses Miyakonojo, an expansive city in Miyazaki Prefecture, rests right on the border with Kagoshima Prefecture. Kagoshima was long the undisputed production leader of premium sweet potato shochu, but the relentlessly growing Kirishima Distillery has recently helped Miyazaki Prefecture take the overall lead. Back in 2003, the company was eighth in overall sales of honkaku shochu, but only 10 years later Kirishima was leading the industry and had more than quadrupled its annual shipments in the interim. We sat down with Mr. Naoyuki Kuroki, Adviser of the Management Planning Division, to learn a bit more about what has made it the top-selling honkaku shochu producer in Japan.

Please tell us about Kirishima Distillery’s background and history. 2016 is actually the company’s 100th anniversary. The second distillery head, Junkichi Enatsu, was responsible for much of the company’s modernization immediately after W WII, conducting rigorous research and innovation to improve every aspect of shochu production. In fact, some machines that were named after him are still commonly in use today. Furthermore, he is credited with finding the distillery’s current water source, Kirishima Rekkasui, and

Distillery President, Yoriyuki Enatsu, displays a bottle of Kuro Kirishima in front of the Miyakonojo Distillery.


Steamed kogane sengan sweet potatoes give off a delicate aroma.

in 1957 he also spearheaded efforts to

time that the third so-called “honkaku

start calling single-distilled shochu

shochu boom” took place a little over

“honkaku shochu” in addition to “otsu-

a decade ago. Kuro sesame and kuro

rui shochu.” Current president, Yori-

vinegar were highly sought after at that

yuki Enatsu, has led the company since

time, mainly because they were seen

1996, two years before our best-selling

as being healthy products. Kuro koji

Kuro Kirishima label was released in

shochu came along and fit well with

Miyazaki Prefecture. In May of 1999 it

this narrative because honkaku shochu

was made available nationwide, and our

is low in calories and relatively hang-

Kirishima Distillery has enjoyed steady

over-resistant. It is probably fair to say

growth ever since.

Kuro Kirishima benefitted from this

Indeed, back in 2001 Kuro Kirishima was only available in a few prefectures outside of Kyushu. Now it is widely available across the country. Is Kirishima Distillery working on developing new markets overseas?

trend in the beginning, but we think

What factors led to the national success of Kuro Kirishima?

that the drink’s balanced aromas and

That’s very true. It is available nearly

f lavors have helped sustain its growth

everywhere one travels in Japan. And


I think that a stabilizing factor is the

Our distillery has always had a strong connection with the local culture and community, and that has consistently been a contributing factor to the company’s growth. Kuro Kirishima was fortunate to debut at a time when the domestic market was literally thirsty for high-quality regional products. The entire K irishima line is made with excellent local ingredients; everything from the water to the sweet potatoes are sourced nearby. The mineral water that we use, K irishima Rekkasui, is drawn from the vast Miyakonojo Basin reservoir 100 meters underground, and it is highly regarded across the country. We use the best locally-produced sweet potatoes, and we meet regularly with farmers to improve communication and keep tabs on how the year’s harvest is going. Kuro Kirishima uses kogane sengan sweet potatoes because of their delicious sweetness and high starch content. And of course, the kuro (black) koji is a key factor because it helps add complexity and umami to the finished product. Importantly, Japanese consumers were interested in all sorts of kuro products around the same

Large conditioning tanks hint at the size of Kirishima’s annual output. 2016


Kirishima Distillery: Bringing Kuro Koji Shochu to the Masses

synergy between Kuro Kirishima and

for instance, is available in many iza-

of the market by reducing the tax rate on

the other shochu in the line. Aka (red)

kaya in the United States, especially

shochu bottled at 20%. Many distillers

Kirishima became popular quite quickly

in big cities such as New York and Los

across Kyushu did just that, but years

after its release in October of 2003, and

Angeles. However, I think it is still fair

later when the tax rate was amended

last year Shiro (white) Kirishima was

to say that we are mostly focused on the

again, most premium shochu makers

brought to market. These three premi-

domestic market here in Japan. Our dis-

resumed bottling at the standard 25%.

um shochu have worked well together to

tillery is constantly striving to maintain

Many places in Miyazaki, however, still

build brand recognition across the coun-

the balanced flavors and aromas that

bottle some of their product at 20%.

try. And to answer your question about

consumers have come to expect from

Kuro Kirishima and Shiro Kirishima,

international markets, yes, Kirishima

Kirishima honkaku shochu.

for example, come in 20 and 25% ver-

Distillery is constantly exploring new

sions. Many folks drink shochu oyuwari

opportunities abroad. Kuro Kirishima,

(mixed with warm water), which is per-

How do people in your home market, Miyazaki Prefecture, enjoy Kirishima honkaku shochu? One interesting thing about honkaku

A vintage Kirishima advertising panel hangs in the corridor.

haps the more traditional style. Younger generations, on the other hand, might be more likely to drink their shochu mizuwari (mixed with cool water) or on the rocks. As you know, sweet potato shochu can be paired with dishes from a diverse background of culinary traditions. The

shochu culture in Miyazaki Prefecture

line of Kirishima Distillery’s shochu is

is that 20% ABV product is quite com-

no exception, and it is our sincere hope

mon. After W WII, there was a lot of

that people around the world will begin

bootlegging going on, and the govern-

to enjoy shochu in their daily lives as is

ment wanted to price illegal alcohol out

common here in Japan.

A distillery worker checks the fermenting mash’s aroma.

From the Kirishima shochu line: (left to right) Kuro Kirishima, Aka Kirishima.


Pot stills waft vaporized alcohol into waiting condenser columns.

Sanwa Shurui Distillery:

Putting Barley Shochu on the World Map The first honkaku shochu boom took place in the late 1970s, and some of the best-selling and most influential brands during that time came from Oita Prefecture. These mild and smooth barley products helped alert the rest of the country that honkaku shochu is a delicious, sessionable spirit, and Sanwa Shurui has been carrying the Oita Barley Shochu banner from the start. Mr. Masahiko Shimoda, Executive Senior Vice President of Sanwa Shurui, sat down with The Kyushu Advantage and answered several questions about how Sanwa Shurui became a market leader.

In a cave behind the Usa factory, a pool of spring water reminds visitors how fresh Sanwa Shurui’s ingredients are.

Please tell us about Sanwa Shurui’s background and history. Sanwa Shurui was started in 1958 when three companies merged. A fourth company joined the group the following year, and this effectively brought four fermentation-related licenses under one roof. The licenses were for making sei-

The corridor outside the company cafeteria hosts a revolving showcase of “iichiko design posters.”

shu (sake), wine, shochu, and moromi.

How about your approach to foreign markets?

The first three licenses are employed by

of iichiko in a natural, everyday scene

our company to this day. Our best-sell-

somewhere in the world. There is a

ing barley shochu, iichiko, debuted in

clear seasonality to the posters, and the

1979 and can claim partial credit for the

hope is that the scenes will make the

first honkaku shochu boom in the late

viewer want to drink iichiko. We have

Our products are available in a

1970s. While shochu is the core of our

found that people really look forward

number of large international markets,

business, Sanwa Shurui has also made

to the poster each month, and Mr.

and we also have a strong presence in

sake and wine for decades. Today Sanwa

Kawakita continues to surprise us with

Hawaii and some parts of Southeast

Shurui is one of the biggest honkaku

his ability to find stunning locations

Asia. In terms of sales and marketing

shochu producers in Japan, and we have

and create his own visual world. We run

overseas, we try to appeal to people

a diverse catalogue of barley shochu

TV commercials around the country as

through food pairings and developing

which now includes several cask-aged

well, but in general there’s a soft touch

new products that can be easily used in


to our advertising.

a bar context such as our liqueurs. We have also found that our barrel-aged shochu is enthusiastically received

Can you share some insights into Sanwa Shurui’s marketing strategy?

overseas. This year our iichiko SPECIAL won two awards at the International Wine and Spirit Competition, and iichiko FR ASCO is popular at fine dining establishments in major

We take a lighter approach to

cities worldwide. We try to teach

marketing, and one campaign in

customers about koji because it’s so

particular has caught the public’s at-

central to Japanese food culture in

tention and created new fans of our

general and shochu in particular. One

barley shochu, iichiko. Art Director

of our newer products, from a cat-

Hideya Kawakita, who until last year

egory that we call Wapirits and goes

was a professor at Tokyo University

by the name of “Tumugi,” actually

of the Arts, has been responsible for

has the word koji prominently printed

our “iichiko design” project which

on the front label in English. We hope

publishes 13 iichiko posters every

that this new drink will help alert

year. That’s one for each month and

people around the world to the fact

an extra one at Christmas. They’re

that delicious drinks, and especially

simple images that display a bottle

shochu, are made with koji. Masahiko Shimoda, Ph.D., has overseen large advances in laboratory analytics at Sanwa Shurui. 2016


Sanwa Shurui Distillery: Putting Barley Shochu on the World Map

Large blades plow through a bed of steamed rice while making koji.

The distillery floor crew poses next to a vat of fermenting mash.

A closeup of the fermenting mash.

What does “Wapirits” mean, and can you tell us more about Tumugi? Wapirits is a combination of the word ‘Wa’ (和), which means Japanese, and the word ‘sprits,’ something that we came up with to help clearly identify

Vacuum pressure stills produce a mild distillate that is softly sweet.

Sanwa Shurui also has an impressive laboratory for research and development. What research are you working on right now? I started working at Sanwa Shurui

consistency are constantly monitored in the lab. Our state-of-the-art facilities have produced a lot of valuable research related to our products, but we are currently focused on learning more about what can be done with the thousands of tons of barley lees left over from the shochu production

Tumugi as a distinctly Japanese take on

in 1984, five years after iichiko started

process. This is not just a practical

cocktail bases. Tumugi is a 40% ABV

its nearly non-stop ascent which is

concern for the distiller y, it is also

spirit made with koji and distilled just

now three and a half decades in the

an environmental issue, and we are

once in a pot still to help maintain the

making. It was around that time that

conducting research that is beginning

flavors and aromas from the mash—just

the company started to focus resourc-

to reveal alternative uses for these

like when making honkaku shochu.

es on analyzing the fermentation and

by-products. Our primar y concern, of

Japanese botanicals are added to cre-

distillation processes more closely

course, has always been reducing our

ate a balanced and flavorful spirit, the

while also conducting research and

company’s impact on the environment

likes of which have never been created

developing better techniques for mak-

and giving back in any way that we

before. If you’re ever in Tokyo, you can

ing delicious shochu. For example,

can, but some of our discoveries are

see Tumugi in action at “Ginza Hibiya

the yeast strains used to make our

related to healthcare-related uses for

Bar WAPIRITS” where it’s used as the

various shochu brands were developed

barley lees. Naturally, we are excited

base in several delicious cocktails.

in-house, and their effectiveness and

to see where the research takes us.


The Kyushu Advantage:

Shochu Education for the World If something is big in Japan, then it’s bound to catch on overseas. Japan’s national cuisine, Washoku, and sushi are regaled internationally, and nihonshu is a given at Japanese restaurants and bars worldwide. Likewise, artists and designers of varied stripes regularly check in on the creativity and quality that is native to Japan. But one major part of life in Japan has thus far managed to stay put. We’re talking about none other than Kyushu Island’s gift to Japanese culinary culture, honkaku shochu. Shochu is ubiquitous in Japan, outselling nihonshu every

year since 2003, yet this 500-year-old traditional spirit is still largely an unknown quantity elsewhere. Enter “The Kyushu Advantage,” an outfit with designs on telling the world about Japan’s national liquor. Through a series of publications and tastings, including a kickoff event featuring 12 Kyushu shochu distilleries at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan on September 23rd, 2016, “The Kyushu Advantage” plans to create opportunities for global enjoyment, knowledge, and appreciation of Japan’s indigenous spirit.

Nagasaki Prefecture

Saga Prefecture

Omoya Distillery

Munemasa Distillery

One of only seven distilleries that makes the WTO-protected geographical indication, Iki Shochu, Omoya Distillery makes barley shochu using the traditional mash ratio of one part rice koji to two parts barley. Located on tiny Iki Island, this distillery brings us a taste of old school distilling.

Munemasa is a relatively new distillery working closely with local farmers in Arita, Saga Prefecture to create delicious and unique products. In addition to its own delicious rice and barley beverages, Munemasa makes “Mizunomai,” a 35% ABV barley shochu that is currently only available in Canada and the United States.



Fukuoka Prefecture

Fukuoka Prefecture

Beniotome Distillery

Nishiyoshida Distillery

Beniotome Distillery is best known for its sesame shochu and the company has been around in one form or another since 1699. Their shochu distilling operations were formalized in 1978, and the namesake sesame product, “Beniotome,” is a flavorful spirit that strikes a memorable figure in its square green bottle.

Established in 1893, Nishiyoshida Distillery has been making barley shochu for generations. Their famous “Tsukushi” line of shochu has devoted fans all over the world thanks to the smooth and balanced flavors enabled by careful blending of five year aged distillate. Enjoy them on the rocks or mixed with soda water.





Oita Prefecture

Kumamoto Prefecture

Sanwa Shurui Distillery

Takahashi Distillery

The most successful barley shochu maker in Oita Prefecture, Sanwa Shurui has been producing the best-selling “iichiko” line of Oita Barley Shochu for nearly 40 years. If you’re looking for a mild and refreshing shochu, look no further than Sanwa Shurui. The company also makes a variety of tasty nihonshu and wine at their various breweries.

Takahashi produces the Hakutake line, including the ubiquitous and easy-sipping “Shiro,” all made with the water from the pure subterranean pools beneath the fast-flowing Kuma River in Hitoyoshi City, Kumamoto Prefecture. The company also makes a couple of different liqueur labels (umeshu) that are lovely on the rocks.



Miyazaki Prefecture

Miyazaki Prefecture

Kirishima Distillery

Kyoya Distillery

“Kuro Kirishima” is currently the best-selling shochu brand in the world, and it’s made in Miyazaki Prefecture by Kirishima Distillery. The Kirishima line of sweet potato shochu has taken the honkaku market by storm over the past decade and now includes other favorites such as “Aka,” “Akane,” and “Shiro Kirishima.”

In business since 1834, Kyoya features a lot of beni potatoes in their shochu and focuses on sourcing the best ingredients possible. Kyoya grows many of its own spuds and works closely with the farmers that supply the rest. It has its eyes firmly fixed on the North American market and presented at “Tales of the Cocktail” this July.



Kagoshima Prefecture

Kagoshima Prefecture

Hombo Tsunuki Distillery

Okuchi Distillery

Nestled in the mountains of sweet potato country, Hombo makes several award-winning shochu brands. The special thing about the Tsunuki Distillery is that they also make whiskey (and soon gin, too). Dating from the late 1870s, Hombo makes a variety of smooth and expressive alcoholic beverages that are available all across the country.

Situated just a stone’s throw from Kōriyama Hachiman Shrine, home of the earliest known written reference to “shochu,” Okuchi maintains the sweet potato tradition created by the 11 small distilleries that merged in 1970. Its flagship shochu, “Kuro Isanishiki,” is the best-selling sweet potato shochu in Kagoshima City.



Kagoshima Prefecture

Kagoshima Prefecture

Taikai Distillery

Tensei Distillery

The product of nine distilleries which merged in the 1970s, Taikai’s easy-sipping “Umi” has helped attract many new people to the sweet potato category. Taikai has focused its product creation and marketing efforts on women for more than a decade, and in 2012 the distillery’s shochu was served alongside the Paris Haute Couture Collection in France.

This small but prolific distillery in eastern Kagoshima Prefecture loves to chart new territory when creating its brands. Tensei isn’t afraid to experiment with unorthodox mash practices or limit how much of the “hearts” of the distillation run they use in their final product, as in their wonderfully balanced “Hayatare.”






Kyoya Distillery:

Drinking the New with the Old

Kyoya Distillery President Shinichiro Watanabe proudly displays one of his company’s labels.


Tradition meets ambition in one of Kyushu's oldest shochu distilleries. “I find it ver y difficult to choose which traditions to keep and which to drop,” says Shinichiro Watanabe, the President of Miyazaki’s Kyoya Shochu Distiller y. This is a thought often at the top of his mind as he attempts to reconcile traditional shochu distillation with the changing tastes of Japan. Watanabe greatest ambition is not just to maintain Kyoya’s reputation for premium-quality,

Outside the tasting room, a traditional aging pot and Kame Shizuku banner hint at what lies within.

authentic shochu, but to make it a favourite of consumers across the globe. At a sprightly 68years of age, Watanabe has spent much of his career at the distiller y, dedicating himself to the production of first-class shochu. He is intimately involved in all stages of distillation as well as in overseeing the changes in taste and the direction of the distiller y. Premium shochu is the product of centuries of careful fine-tuning, and its taste is susceptible to even the slightest change in brewing methods. “One of the biggest changes we made was to our filtration process. Historically, shochu

The boiler inside the distillery looks a lot like a steam engine.

had a strong smell following distillation,

to be distilled. Naturally, much of the

sales pipped sake sales for the first time,

but we started to notice that younger

Kyoya Distiller y’s market is local, but

with shochu outselling sake by more

people didn’t enjoy the stronger smelling

Watanabe hopes to expand his reach into

than a million liters. The popularity of

varieties. So we changed our traditional

the rest of Japan. “There are 30 to 40

premium brands has flourished the fast-

cotton filtration system to more modern

spirits at most bars but only one or two

est, sales growing by 10% each year be-

vacuum filtration, which removed some

varieties of shochu. Unlike spirits, you

tween 1999 and 2004. This growth hasn’t

of the smell. Of course, the taste changed

can enjoy shochu with food, and I think

brought about any respite in Watanabe’s

and people quickly noticed it.”

this gives it an advantage over other al-

efforts; he has become, if anything, more

cohols. I’d like to see bars around Japan

ambitious as the popularity of shochu has

ser ve a wider variety of shochu.”


Domestic Popularity

Watanabe’s wish seems increasingly Shochu has historically been the

likely to come true, as the popularity of

drink of Kyushu. The warmer climate

shochu continues to rise. Consumption

allows for a greater variety of crops to be

has been increasing across Japan for the

grown, and therefore different alcohols

last two decades, and in 2004 shochu

International Appeal “I want shochu to be appreciated in New York, London and Paris. Those



Kyoya Distillery: Drinking the New with the Old

Shochu ferments in large earthenware pots sunk up to their necks in the distillery floor.

Kyoya Distillery makes a wide variety of shochu and liqueurs.

This tall brick chimney pokes through the trees behind the distillery.

places are the center of politics, fashion

me to his restaurant for a shochu tasting

of ingredients as soon as possible, “It’s

and food,” says Watanabe as he turns his

alongside his food. Two months later, he

taken 20 years, but I think we can do it.”

mind to shochu’s international reputa-

put on a dinner show for the media that

tion. “At the moment I think New York

was based around shochu and it went

is the most open to shochu, as there is

down ver y well. I was glad the whole

tradition meets ambition to create one

not the same culture of wine that there

thing happened so naturally, and I hope

of Kyushu’s finest brands of shochu. But

is in London and Paris.” Indeed, Wata-

we can continue expanding in that way.”

Watanabe’s ambition stretches so much

The Kyoya Distiller y is a place where

nabe sees the vast majority of Kyoya’s

further than his own distiller y. “I want to

international shipments crossing the

make Kyushu a brand. 98% of premium

pond to the US, where izakaya dining has risen in popularity much faster than in


shochu is made in Kyushu and southern Kyushu is famous for its production. If

Europe. “In Europe, I don’t think shochu

All his talk of internationalization is

is perceived as being suitable for western

all the more impressive for Watanabe’s

we can capture this spirit we can promote Kyushu to the world. Kyushu: the Sho-

dining, where one plate is ser ved after

firm rooting in the local culture and

chu Island.”

the next. It is still linked to Japanese

produce of Miyazaki. His 20-year drive


for internationalization has occurred in tandem with a sustained effort to source

The distiller y has, however, had

ever y ingredient locally. “99% of our main

some luck in promoting shochu in Eu-

ingredients, such as sweet potatoes, are

rope: “I ended up doing a sommelier lec-

already grown within Miyazaki Prefec-

ture in Paris after a sake brewer pulled

ture. The rice is the difficult one, but we

out last minute. I presented our shochu

get all of that from the rest of Kyushu, so

and let the tasters taste, and the next day

it’s not too far.” Still, Watanabe seems de-

the chairman of the association invited

termined to localise that last, irksome 1% Yeast cultures are prepared in a sealed room within the distillery.


Kyushu University professor plans global shochu education Promoting Kyushu Island as an integral part of Japanese culture and the economy overall has become more urgent as preparations for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics ramp up with each passing month. But one academic from Fukuoka has been involved in promoting the island’s products and services for several years now, and his guidance is invaluable to “The Kyushu Advantage.” 2016


Koichi Sakaguchi, graduate school professor at Kyushu University

Kushida Shrine, Fukuoka City

shrine in Fukuoka City. Locals refer to

motto. Of course the shochu project

it by the nickname Okushida-sama, the

began from this.” Prof. Sakaguchi took

god of business success and immortal-

up his position as a professor at Kyushu

ity. Professor Koichi Sakaguchi, a grad-

University in 1996, but he previously

uate professor at Kyushu University,

engaged in investigation services

appeared in front of us fully dressed in

related to the industry and economy of

kimono after praying to the Kushida

the Kyushu, Okinawa, and Yamaguchi

Shrine for the world debut of shochu.

regions at a private research agency. His sense of “for Kyushu” is particu-

Koichi Sakaguchi, graduate school professor at Kyushu University We were incredibly fortunate to

Giving back to Kyushu In the lobby of a hotel close to

larly strong thanks to this aspect of his professional career. Professor Sakaguchi was keen to stress Kyushu’s potential in terms of

the shrine, Prof. Sakaguchi began

telling the rest of Japan and the world

the conversation by talking about the

about its cultural and economic con-

have the opportunity to interview an

inspiration for participation in several

tributions to the country. He reported

elite university professor involved with

Kyushu-related promotional endeav-

that “close to 93% of all shochu is pro-

this unique project. It is rare to meet

ors. “I want to do something new and

duced in Kyushu. Furthermore, shochu

a person who has so much knowledge

unprecedented for Kyushu. That is my

has a number of qualities that make it

and passion about Kyushu’s culture and industry, and he has managed to single-handedly double the momentum that “ The Kyushu Advantage” has been building. Adding to the excitement of the interview was the fact that the meeting place was to be at Kushida Shrine. This shrine has long attracted the faithful as the tutelary deity of Hakata and is the most important 32

attractive: an identity as a local liquor

end, the “Sho-Chu project” has already

representatives of the world’s distill-

from Kyushu; variety in the form of a

hosted numerous events in Fukuoka

ing traditions, many of which have

large number of distilleries; the many

City which bring shochu experts, mak-

been distributed globally for centu-

ways to drink it that provide a sense of

ers, fans, and the media together.

ries. Spirits such as whiskey, brandy,

openness; and the fact that it is healthy.

This “Sho-Chu project” is also cur-

vodka, and gin have become house -

In a way, it is a treasure that Kyushu

rently involved with realizing the “2020

hold names, and Prof. Sakaguchi’s

can proudly present to the world.”

World Spirits Olympics in Kyushu.”

grand plan is to create an event where

“ There is already a large framework

Kyushu’s honkaku shochu can stand

for getting the world to know about

shoulder to shoulder with them. In

shochu, and it has to do with the fact

addition to giving the world a closer

Shochu on the world stage

that it is a distilled liquor. I am work-

look at the pride of Kyushu Island,

Based on this, Prof. Sakaguchi

ing hard to create the opportunity for

the event should also provide makers

started the “Sho-Chu project” in June

people from around the world who are

an opportunity to exchange ideas and

2013 in order to introduce shochu to

involved with distilled beverages to

production techniques. With Prof.

the world. Unfortunately, honkaku sho-

come together and meet in Kyushu at

Sakaguchi’s assistance, there is little

chu is frequently confused with Korean

the same time as the 2020 Tokyo Olym-

doubt that entities like the “Sho- Chu

Soju, nihonshu, or even vodka, so much

pics,” explains Prof. Sakaguchi.

project ” and “ The Kyushu Advantage” will succeed in creating greater inter-

needs to be done to get the word out about Japan’s national spirit. To that

The plan is to bring together

national awareness of shochu.



Hombo Tsunuki Distillery:

Kishogura There are few family businesses as developed as the Hombo portfolio. Hombo Shuzo Co. Ltd. boasts shochu distilleries, whiskey distilleries, wineries, real estate, and an array of other affiliates related to everything from bottling to convenience stores. But it is still a family business with indelible ties to the communities of southern Kagoshima Prefecture. Its history there is embodied in the ancient stills still perched on concrete pedestals in a disused but pristine building at the Tsunuki Distillery. Company President, Mr. Kazuto Hombo, was kind enough to take us on a detailed tour of the distillery and storage facilities.

Kazuto Hombo poses in front of photos of the family members who preceded him as company president.


Sweet potato shochu ages in giant earthenware vessels.

Please tell us more about your facilities here at the Tsunuki Distillery. Matsuzaemon Hombo started a cotton processing operation at this site in 1872, which later became a sales company, and single-distilled shochu production officially began in 1909. This distillery started making multipledistilled shochu quite quickly after the patent still became more widely available in Japan, and Tsunuki was later granted a license for making whiskey. Even though Hombo’s various factories have licenses to produce many different alcoholic beverages, we have carefully nurtured our shochu business using the delicious sweet potatoes that are famously cultivated in the southern part of the prefecture. Honkaku shochu continues to be the largest part of Hombo Distillery’s business, representing roughly 70% of our sales annually. Pot stills create shochu with an ABV just shy of 40%.

Hombo Distillery’s shochu is well-known and regarded all over Japan. Can you tell us the secret to the company’s success?

Over a period of decades, Hombo

master distiller there makes shochu

Distillery has used the natural resourc-

that is not made at any of our other

es of Southern Kyushu to create a line of


balanced and delicious drinks. On top of that, I think it’s worth mentioning that we have a track record of being early adopters of new technology and quick movers into new markets. For example, we established offices in Fukuoka and Tokyo earlier than most other shochu

Can you share some of your thoughts on marketing with us, especially internationally?

makers, and that gave us a significant head start. I think that our diverse of-

Well, as I just mentioned, it’s im-

fering of beverages also promotes brand

portant to tell stories about where our

awareness and allows us to tell a variety

drinks are made. In Tsunuki’s case that

of connected stories about where and

means talking about the small commu-

how our drinks are made. As you know,

nity that has hosted our family business

we also have a shochu distillery on

for generations. We really enjoy telling

beautiful Yakushima off the southern

that story to audiences overseas, but

coast of Kagoshima Prefecture. The

one thing that is holding everyone back

Hombo’s brand new Italian hybrid still will be used to make some of the new drinks being planned, such as gin. 2016


Hombo Tsunuki Distillery: Kishogura

is the fact that shochu companies seem

people drink our shochu oyuwari, but

received our brand new Italian-made hy-

to be pursuing different markets. It

these days an increasing number of

brid still that will be used to make gin.

would be far more effective if we worked

customers are drinking it mizuwari or

With regard to foreign sales and market-

together to enter new international

mixed with soda, and this is especially

ing, we have had some recent successes

markets at the same time. Actually, 95%

true for younger generations. Our sho-

at international competitions. At the

of Hombo’s international sales are whis-

chu goes well with all types of food, but

2016 San Francisco World Sprits Com-

key, and our global shochu sales effort

I really like pairing it with oily dishes.

petition (SFWSC), our Kishogura and

is really just getting started. China and

Tonkotsu and tonsoku are excellent

Yakushima Daishizenrin Imo brands

some Southeast Asian countries are our

pairings, too. I’m pretty confident about

both won gold medals. We also had two

biggest customers at the moment.

pairing sweet potato shochu with any-

winners at the 2016 International Spirits

thing that’s oily or a little bit sweet. For

Challenge (ISC) in London, England.

instance, chicken sashimi with sweet

Arawaza Sakurajima and Kuradashi

soy sauce and a glass of potato shochu

Ko’on Decanter both took home gold, a

is a delicious combination.

first for honkaku shochu at this compe-

How do people in this part of Kagoshima, Minami Satsuma, enjoy Hombo’s sweet potato shochu? When I was a child, I remember that

tition. The latter is a smooth 40% ABV

Is there anything new and exciting that you can share with us?

with a cask-aged rice shochu that is actually matured in an old stone building at the Tsunuki Distillery. Other changes involve the remodeling of the old house

people would visit each other’s homes, sit at a table together, and pour each

drink that marries sweet potato shochu

Yes, there are several things actu-

across the street which is being turned

other small cups of shochu using tokuri

ally. As you can see, the distillery is

into an educational and tasting facil-

and choko, much like people do when

undergoing extensive renovations, and

ity for visitors. There will also be a

drinking nihonshu. Of course, many

we are looking forward to ramping up

space for buying the drinks that are

our whiskey production

made here. It will have an outdoor deck

here. We’re aiming to pro-

where people can sip the drinks made

duce about 72 kiloliters of

at this distillery while looking over the

whiskey during our first year

Japanese-style garden and stream. I was

of operation, and we have a

actually born in that house, so I’m ex-

couple new pot stills arriving

cited that it will be used to bring shochu

in September. Also, we just

and whiskey to a wider audience.

There are many beautiful stone buildings at the Tsunuki Distillery. This one is used for aging spirits.

A crowd of oak barrels waiting to be filled.


Master distiller, Ryuji Hombo, stands guard in front of a warehouse filled with shochu maturing in giant earthenware pots.

Kappa no Sasoimizu Export

Sora to Kaze to Daichi to Genshu

Heihachiro Export

∼Authentic Shochu∼ It is said the Kyoya Distillery was founded in1834, the fifth year of the Tenpo era. We have been using large ceramic pots in shochu production. The use of pots and small batches (about 800 liters per pot) induces natural fermentation that requires neither artificial heating nor cooling. Kyoya's company policy is to make shochu that is friendly to nature and the environment. Kyoya's subsidiary, the Agri Company, grows sweet potatoes using natural compost. Additionally, the company grows rice by taking advantage of the behavior of Aigamo (mixed-breed) ducks. These ducks eat weeds, plow the field with their movements and leave droppings, making the rice fields fertile and healthy without using agricultural chemicals. Some of the products use those kinds of sweet potatoes and rice as a part of its raw material. In spite of Kyoya's glorious tradition as one of the oldest distilleries in Miyazaki, Mr.Watanabe insists, "we will always pursue new dimensions of shochu without being contented".

Kyoya Distiller & Brewer Co., Ltd. 2-3-2, Aburatsu, Nichinan-shi, Miyazaki 887-0001, JAPAN Phone:0987-22-2002  Fax:0987-23-2314  Mail:info@kyo-ya.com  URL:http://www.kyo-ya.com

Profile for The Kyushu Advanatage

ZIPANGU Kyushu Shochu Issue, September 2016  

I love shochu, and it has been my go-to drink for a long time now. What initially surprised me was that Kyushu, the southernmost of the fou...

ZIPANGU Kyushu Shochu Issue, September 2016  

I love shochu, and it has been my go-to drink for a long time now. What initially surprised me was that Kyushu, the southernmost of the fou...