Zipangu 2018 Kyushu Shochu Issue

Page 1

October 2018

Kyushu Shochu Issue

Shochu: The Best Medicine

Kuma Shochu (Hitoyoshi)

Shochu Experts around the World

ZIPANGU Kyushu Shochu Issue In Japan, during the economic boom, one phrase seemed to crop up in all the popular songs: “Work was rough today. The only thing left to do is down some shochu.” It has already been a half-century since such times, when, based on the three pillars of the economy (hitomonokane: manpower, goods, capital), Japanese workers were striving every day toward their

Christopher Pellegrini, Editor and Shingo Yoshino, Producer

dreams of a prosperous future. At the time, the Japanese were sometimes derided by other countries as “economic animals” (workaholics). In reality, however, they loved to relax after long days at work with a glass of shochu. For this reason, this was the time when shochu spread from Kyushu to the rest of Japan. Today, Japan’s birthrate is declining and its population is aging. The older generation, which accounts for the majority of shochu enthusiasts, takes a dim view of the current generation’s obsession with the virtual world. Such differences, of course, are not unique to Japan. I, for one, strongly believe in the benefits of drinking shochu. As the common expression from Kagoshima, dareyame (or daiyame), implies, drinking shochu in moderation can contribute to health and wellbeing around the world in places with aging populations. Also, as they see older people gather Kyushu Shochu Issue October 2018

and enjoy themselves drinking shochu, perhaps the younger generation will take a step back from the virtual world and come join in the fun. I strongly believe that shochu, a cornerstone of Japanese culture, will

Editor: Christopher Pellegrini Writer: Christopher Pellegrini Art Director: Emiko Iijima Web Director: Takeshi Watanabe Ryushin Yamada Published by ZIPANGU JAPAN Co., Ltd.

continue to make its mark on history. Of course, though, it must not be enjoyed to excess. Shingo Yoshino Producer, ZIPANGU magazine President, Zipangu Japan

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:

Photographer Yu Wakamiya: specializing in advertisements and magazines, both local Kyushu and Tokyo publications. Based in Kitakyushu. Photo Studio: Reflect Art (opened in Kitakyushu, 2015). URL:










October 2018

Feature 03 Shochu: The Best Medicine


Toyonaga Distillery


Rokuchoshi Distillery


Takahashi Distillery


Okuchi Distillery


Hombo Shuzo: Chiran Distillery


Hamada Distillery

Feature 26 Shochu Experts around the World



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.


Shochu: The Best Medicine One of the most cheerful and kind people you could ever meet, Dr. Takamine is one of the leading academics in the field of shochu research. An increasing amount of data shows that as far as alcohol is concerned, it's difficult to find a drink that has as many benefits as shochu.

Applying Science to Shochu

(Japanese brown sugar) shochu from the Amami Islands south of mainland Kagoshima Prefecture. He has also supervised studies of fermented food

I recently had the opportunity to

production and the various organic com-

listen to a talk given by Dr. Kazunori

pounds created during fermentation. But

Takamine, an engineering professor at

more recently he has begun conducting

the Shochu Fermentation Research and

joint research into the effects of shochu

Education Center at Kagoshima National

on human health with Professors Akio

University. The center was founded in

Inui and Akihiro Asakawa of Kagoshima

2006, originating from the creation of

National University’s Department of

an endowed professorship for the study


of shochu, and it was constructed as an affiliated institution with Kagoshima National University’s Department of Agriculture. The center currently

The J-Curve

employs full time faculty conducting research into various aspects of shochu, with particular energy focused on the fields of production and the study of the

Dr. Takamine said: “First of all, I’d like to introduce a

microorganisms that cause fermentation.

study from the Health and Medicine of

The center is also home to a considerable

Alcohol Association. In investigating the

number of international students.

relationship between mortality and alco-

Dr. Takamine is one of the leading

hol intake, we produced a graph wherein

faculty members at the center, and his

the x-axis indicates daily alcohol intake,

research has targeted several areas

while the y-axis represents the mortality

related to the further development and

rate. According to this information, we

refinement of honkaku (authentic or

can see that for both men and women,

traditional) shochu products. The well-

the overall mortality rate for people who

equipped laboratory a few steps from his

drink a reasonable amount of alcohol

office at Kagoshima National University

daily is lower than those who do not. Of

houses technology for identifying and

course, consumption of large amounts of

analyzing the effects of the many esters

alcohol causes the mortality rate to shoot

and aromatics present in shochu. These

up, but this graph indicates the existence

machines have been used to evaluate

of a “J-Curve.”

the manufacturing process of kokuto


At the beginning of his presentation,

He followed with more detail about



the findings of the team’s early research,

Dr. Takamine tells me, “To make the

so for anyone who enjoys a good drink, it

shochu milder, we put in four parts hot

was an extremely interesting talk. One of

water, then three parts cooler water for

the key details that he shared soon after

the perfect temperature. The hot water

was that he had found an amount of daily

draws out and elevates the natural aro-

alcohol intake that was associated with

matherapy effects of the drink. That’s the

the lowest mortality rate. According to

soul of dareyame shochu.”

Dr. Takamine’s numbers, the ideal daily amount is 20 grams of alcohol. Calculating how much drinking that equates to depends on your beverage of choice. Since shochu is our focus here, let’s imagine that you get a typical “city” pour of around 50 ml. This is far less shochu than is typically served in izakaya in Kagoshima Prefecture and the rest of Kyushu Island, but it’s not an uncommon volume for metropolitan areas such as Tokyo and Yokohama. Consumed straight, a 50 ml pour of 25% alcohol shochu will logically contain 12.5 grams of alcohol. However, it is far more common in Japan to mix shochu with cool or hot water. Sweet potato shochu from Kagoshima is often mixed roku-yon (6:4 shochu to water) which drops the ABV to 15%, but other ratios are certainly possible and you should find one that suits your particular tastes.

Dissolving Blood Clots There is also some research indicating that honkaku shochu has the effect of dissolving blood clots. Data from a study published in 1988 by Dr. Hiroyuki Sumi outlined the thrombolytic activity present in the bloodstream after drinking shochu. Currently a professor at Kurashiki University of Science and the Arts, Dr. Sumi found that shochu stimulates thrombolytic activity on a level comparable with red wine. Not only does this improve blood flow, it also means that Japanese honkaku shochu is somewhat hangover resistant since it is a pure spirit and additives or sweeteners cannot be added before bottling.

In summary, it’s probably safe to say that about two “city” pours of shochu are in line with Dr. Takamine’s 20 g guideline. No matter your ratio, what’s most

Doctor’s Orders

important is that everyone, from the


strongest drinkers to near teetotalers, is

Shochu is also commonly recom-

able to drink together at the same table.

mended by physicians in Japan for people



suffering from gout. “If you like to

does not contain any residual sugars, and

drink,” they say, “then drink shochu be-

the team’s research found that shochu is

cause it won’t cause flare-ups like other

more effective than water at regulating

alcoholic beverages.” Also, as shochu

blood sugar levels.

is a distilled drink, it doesn’t contain

The study involved three men and

gluten. This is certainly welcome news

three women who each drank either a

for those with Celiac Disease. For those

glass of sweet potato shochu, sake, beer,

looking to keep their weight in check,

or water with an evening meal every night

the lack of carbohydrates and residual

for one week. They also recorded their

sugars have also been reason enough

blood sugar levels both before the meal

for many consumers to trade out high

and one, two, and 12 hours afterwards.

calorie brewed drinks and sugar bomb

According to the results, beer raised

cocktails in favor of the minimal caloric

blood sugar levels the most. Sake and

payloads found in shochu. It’s difficult to

water were next in line, but shochu was

find another drink with a similar number

associated with a minimal blood sugar

of flavor profiles that can be enjoyed so

rise. It is hoped that additional research

many different ways.

will shed light on how shochu’s regulation of blood sugar concentrations might be applied to health issues stemming from diabetes and obesity. In the meantime,

“Dareyame” Culinary Culture

additional testing is being planned to try to corroborate the team’s findings with a larger cross-section of society. It goes without saying that dareyame

Dareyame refers to a nighttime drink

Kagoshima and much of Japan. There are

In Kagoshima Prefecture, where sho-

few things more relaxing than ending a

chu is usually enjoyed alongside milder

work day with some delicious food and

foods, people have begun to pay greater

drink. It’s like hitting the reset button,

attention to rising blood sugar levels.

and the science is starting to show that

Last year, a joint team of researchers in

the residents of Kyushu have long been

Kagoshima National University’s Agricul-

onto something.

tural Department and School of Medicine


is a time-honored and tested tradition in

paired with a meal or small dishes of food.

I’m sure that Dr. Takamine would

announced that shochu has the effect

agree with me when I say that you should

of suppressing the rise of postprandial

gather with some friends or family and

blood glucose levels. Crucially, shochu

enjoy a couple glasses of shochu tonight.

Kuma Shochu (Hitoyoshi) Kuma Shochu, the traditional rice shochu made in the Hitoyoshi and Kumagun region of southern Kumamoto Prefecture for the past 500 years, is said to be the oldest shochu tradition there is. Using only domestically cultivated rice and water from the subterranean wells of the Kuma River, one of the three fastest flowing in all of Japan, this ancient distilling tradition is proudly maintained today by 28 rice shochu distilleries. The Hitoyoshi Basin is fertile ground for cultivation, and rice paddies blanket the river valley all the way to the mountains on either side. Kuma Shochu was granted Geographical Indication status by the WTO in June, 1995, a clear acknowledgement of the long history of quality and consistency in the category. Today, both atmospheric and vacuum pressure distillation are used to create a wide array of aroma and flavor. 2018


Toyonaga Distillery


hen you

edge of it. The basin lies almost equidis-

strains means that every step of the

think of top

tant from both Mt. Aso to the north and

process requires intense precision. Mr.

quality rice

Sakurajima to the south, two of Japan’s

Toyonaga stresses that the steps before

for making Japan’s finer drinks, Southern

most active volcanoes. The former is

koji propagation are particularly underap-

Kyushu is generally not one of the first

among the world’s largest while the latter

preciated. First and foremost in his mind

regions that comes to mind. There are sev-

experiences several eruptions every day.

is carefully steaming the rice. Ensuring

eral active volcanoes in the area, and rice

Thanks to topography and weather pat-

uniform moisture content during steam-

does not grow comfortably in soil with a

terns, the Hitoyoshi Basin is only lightly

ing allows for even penetration of the koji

high ash content. That is part of the reason

dusted by the resulting ash plumes, and

fungus that is used for saccharification.

that Southern Kyushu has become synony-

has long been considered some of the

Such painstaking attention to detail is un-

mous with sweet potatoes, a vegetable that

best farmland this far south in Kyushu.

doubtedly one of the reasons why Toyona-

is happy just about anywhere you plant it.

Toyonaga Distillery, in business since

ga Distillery shochu is so well respected

1894, sources all of its rice from the ba-

both in Japan and abroad.

But the Hitoyoshi Basin is lucky, blessed even, and that’s where you can

sin, grains that are affectionately known

find Toyonaga Distillery, right out at the

as kuma mai (kuma rice). But Mr. Toyonaga, the fourth head

Shiro Toyanaga, President of Toyonaga Distillery.

Having tasted some modest success in the American market, especially on the East Coast, Toyonaga Distillery is now

of the distillery, takes this a step further.

producing new brands. First was an aro-

He uses only organic rice for his award-

matic barley shochu, Mugi Shiru. Barley

winning flagship brands, and the distill-

shochu is quite the rarity in Kuma Shochu

ery’s namesake brand has been available

country, but it’s an award-winner in its

in the United States for more than a

own right. Additionally, following up on

decade. In fact, Toyonaga Distillery’s

last year’s limited run MK-I rice shochu

main vacuum pressure distilled brand

success, MK-II is ready to hit the shelves.

again came home with a couple of medals

These more experimental batches, which

at this year’s Los Angeles International

actually use the word “prototype” on the

Sprits Competition, an admirable accom-

label, exhibit more pronounced aromatic

plishment for such a small distillery. Of

profiles and have become something of a

course, the plaudits don’t come easily.

collector’s item in Japan.

The use of such high quality rice

And like many other shochu makers in Kyushu, Mr. Tokunaga made sure to start experimenting with barrel-aged rice shochu several years ago. One of his newest labels is the dark amber Okukuma which is a delicious seven year cask-conditioned rice shochu with a 40% alcohol content and dark amber hue. With his son currently employed by the distillery, Mr. Toyonaga has a keen sense of both Kuma Shochu’s past and present. Overlooking the patchwork quilt of rice paddies from the rim of the Hitoyoshi Basin, he also knows that shochu’s future will likely run straight

Toyonaga Distillery as seen from the rice paddies behind the distillery.


through this volcano-flanked valley.

Rokuchoshi Distillery


he beautifully fragrant Kuma Shochu that we

now know, with all of its botanical aromas and soft sweetness, is actually a relatively recent advancement in the tradition’s long history. Much of this can be attributed to refinements in the ingredients and techniques used to make rice shochu over the past few decades. However, one of the most important changes came in the form of the equipment being used. Rokuchoshi Distillery near the Kuma River has long been at the forefront of such improve-

Michito Ikebe, President of Rokuchoshi Distillery.

ments. popular low pressure distilled rice shochu

ery has a very similar climate. His tours

pressure or vacuum) pot still. The vacu-

soon became. Mr. Ikebe, the man who

of various Scotch Whisky distilleries

um created inside the main chamber dur-

oversees the distillery’s 90,000 liter an-

helped him decide that he could barrel

ing distillation allows the fermented rice

nual output, remarked that the decision

age shochu in nearly identical conditions

mash to boil at far lower temperatures

to stick to the company’s roots was not all

as long as he was extra careful during

than older pot stills, and the result is often

that difficult. They were confident in their

the Hitoyoshi Basin’s steamy summer

a more delicate shochu. The earthier and

ability to make delicately-balanced yet

months. He built a special temperature-

bolder aromas are generally muted while

character-driven rice shochu, and they

controlled room on the top floor of his

fruit and floral notes are brought forward.

were equally determined not to let the

Taisho Era distillery and installed power-

Rokuchoshi Distillery was the first Kuma

category’s routes be totally forgotten.

ful air conditioners that run all summer

Say hello to the genatsu (reduced

long to control the humidity and protect

Shochu manufacturer to install a genatsu

The gamble paid off. Rokuchoshi’s

pot still, and many other distilleries in the

various brands have won multiple awards

the valuable barrels from mold and an

region soon followed suit.

while giving fans subtle reminders of

otherwise early demise.

But Rokuchoshi decided to keep

Kuma Shochu’s roots. The various itera-

Rokuchoshi only uses new casks,

making shochu with a traditional pot

tions of the Rokuchoshi shochu lineup ex-

another departure from the industry

still anyway, a risky decision given how

hibit a wide variety of flavor components

norm. He said that it’s more labor inten-

such as steamed rice, soft maltiness,

sive to rinse the charred barrel interiors,

sweet dairy, and tropical fruit. Among

and spend extra time actually “breaking

many other dishes, the drinks pair

the casks in.” However, Mr. Ikebe, who

extremely well with sushi. The mid-level

doubles as the top representative of the

alcohol content, typically 25%, is a better

Kuma Shochu Distillers Association, is

palate cleanser than sake without being

convinced that there’s no better way to

strong enough to overpower the fish.

maintain control of the process. This is

More recently, Mr. Ikebe has found

something that Rokuchoshi has always

new ways to innovate. He brought a

made certain to do, and the distillery

thermometer and hygrometer with him

looks set to continue leading Kuma Sho-

on a trip to Scotland and figured out that

chu’s global spread, ushering both the old

the area surrounding Rokuchoshi Distill-

and new out to new markets overseas.

Hand-labeled bottles of “Tokugin Rokuchoshi.” 2018


Takahashi Distillery


he red spider

flanked by rice fields. Takahashi Distill-

major metropolitan parts of Japan. The

lilies are in

ery actually has multiple locations which

drink’s mild aroma and soft attack make

bloom, and

produce different brands, and I’m at the

it perfectly suited for a variety dishes,

two days of rain have left everything in

company’s relatively new headquarters

including sushi and chicken. However,

Hitoyoshi City pristine. The nearby Kuma

which averages an output five times that

there’s no reason to stick to Japanese

River is fed by streams tumbling through

of its sister distillery on the edge of the

dishes when drinking Shiro because it

culverts and amongst rice paddies filled

Hitoyoshi Basin in Taragi (featured in the

pairs well with oily dishes as well. Don’t

with tilting, lemon-tinged stalks of rice.

2016 edition of Zipangu shochu maga-

be afraid to drink it alongside Chinese or

It’s nearly time to bring in the year’s

zine). 2020 will mark the 120th anniver-

western dishes.

bounty, which appears plentiful thanks to

sary of the distillery’s founding.

On the international front, “Hakutake

a relatively light typhoon season. This is

Most notably, this facility is respon-

Shiro” recently won gold at the annual

Kuma Shochu country, arguably Japan’s

sible for producing Hakutake Shiro, the

Monde Selection competition. They’re

oldest sustained shochu tradition.

company’s popular rice shochu brand

soon going to need a bigger showcase be-

which also happens to be the best-selling

cause 2018 is the fifth year running that

Kuma Shochu tradition is none other than

rice shochu in the world. The vacuum

Shiro has won the top prize. The carefully

Takahashi Distillery about a 10 minute

pressure distilled drink is made from rice

selected rice and proprietary yeast strain

drive (or 40 minute walk) from Hitoyo-

produced primarily in Western Japan,

have created a consistently delicious rice

shi train station. This relatively young

and it’s incredibly smooth. The balanced

shochu that exudes a refined balance of

outcropping of metal structures is close

aroma and palate have made it a staple at

fruit sweetness and satisfying graininess.

to downtown, and like most parts of this

restaurants and izakaya across Kyushu,

As you can probably imagine, at 25% alco-

small city, the 35 year old distillery is

but the brand has also found success in

hol Shiro is highly sessionable.

The standard bearer of the storied

The distillery is only meters from the heart of its products. Rice paddies stretch out in all directions.


Takahashi Shuzo has pulled in an impressive haul of international awards.

Shiro has also become a staple at finer liquor shops across the United States. We found Shiro on shelves everywhere from San Francisco to New York City and many cities in between. Takahashi Distillery sees great potential growth in the Ameri-

“Umepon” has proven to be a smash hit both at home and abroad.

can market, even though the average consumer has never heard of shochu before.

roughly 17 million people in the 18-26 age

based Anokoro no Umeshu and dekopon

The distillery’s biggest export destination

group 20 years ago, but just 11 million as

juice, and it has earned Monde Selection

is still China, but sales there are almost

of 2018. According to recent estimates,

gold for the past five years.

entirely thanks to Japanese expats, and

that number could dip below eight million

the unstable political relationship be-

within the next 30 years.

tween the two countries has meant that

Further enflaming the situation is the

But perhaps most impressive is the effort expended to create “Hyaku,” Takahashi’s zenkoji rice shochu made from

some Japanese companies are moving

fact that younger cohorts drink less than

a blend of genshu from three different

their operations to other parts of Asia.

previous generations did. Much less in

ginjo yeast distillations. The fragrance is

Sales in the US, on the other hand,

fact. Whether it’s due to how effortless

outstanding thanks to the yeast, and the

have remained steady thus far. This

communication has become in the era

drink carries noticeable umami notes due

is encouraging for the good people at

of smartphones or some other abstract

partly to the use of award-winning Mori

Takahashi because domestic sales have

trend, the alcohol industry needs to de-

no Kumasan rice during fermentation.

been stagnant for several years. The

velop new markets. The most logical yet

This delicately balanced 23% ABV rice

well-documented challenges in Japan

daunting choice is to educate new genera-

shochu was born to be paired with food,

are demographic in nature. The country

tions of consumers abroad.

and Hyaku begs to be enjoyed alongside

is aging at an alarming rate; there were

To that end, Takahashi Distillery has

an omakase sushi dinner. The distillery

unleashed some new products that riff on

makes just 3,000 bottles of Hyaku every

the much-loved “plum wine” trend that is

year, and the only surefire way to get your

so popular with tourists coming to Japan.

hands on one of the elegant 500 ml clear,

The company’s two new umeshu (sweet

teardrop bottles is to order it directly

plum liqueur) products have proved to

from the distillery.

be an instant success both at home and

Another great reason to visit Taka-

abroad with exultations appearing regu-

hashi Distillery is the beautiful Kuma

larly on Instagram any time non-Japanese

Shochu museum that they’ve set up just

consumers can get their hands on them.

across the road from the large distillery.

“Anokoro no Umeshu” is a 13% alcohol

Hakutake Denshogura welcomes visitors

umeshu and has won Monde Selection

from all across Japan, and it is not uncom-

gold three years running. “Umepon,” its

mon to see large tour buses parked in the

10% ABV cousin, is a blend of the Shiro-

lot out front. The museum houses a very

Shunji Fujimoto, Master Distiller at Takahashi Distillery. 2018


A counter of jarred shochu samples await museum visitors.

The entrance to Hakutake Denshogura Museum.

approachable introduction to the Kuma

Japanese rice and water from the Kuma

Importantly, this building is a heartfelt

Shochu tradition, now protected interna-

River, one of the three fastest flowing in

ode to the Kuma Shochu tradition, so

tionally by the WTO as a regional appel-

all of Japan, visitors are taken through ex-

bottles from the other 27 Kuma Shochu

lation like champagne or scotch. This is

hibits explaining how Kuma Shochu has

makers are on display as well.

where you go when you want a compre-

been made for centuries and how Taka-

hensive education about the time-honored

hashi Distillery markets its products. At

who are unaccustomed to a company

Kuma Shochu category.

the end of the tour there is a tasting room

promoting its competitor’s products, but

where non-drivers can freely sample a

Hakutake Denshogura’s main aim is to

number of Takahashi’s delicious drinks.

educate the masses about one of Kyushu’s

After a multilingual video explains how Kuma Shochu has been made from

This is a surprise for some visitors

proudest enduring traditions—a pressing need given that nearly 70% of Takahashi’s sales are within Kyushu Island. Hitoyoshi City is fondly referred to as Kyushu’s little Kyoto, and while it is similarly landlocked and even trickier to access, Takahashi sees its future inextricably tied to the rice, water, and people of this place. There are no rising tides, proverbial or otherwise, to lift all ships on the racing Kuma River, but even if it is leading the way, Takahashi Distillery knows that all of Hitoyoshi City’s remaining 28 distilleries must head in the same direction in order for Kuma Shochu to continue to thrive. Mix them with club soda—Takahashi’s “Shiro” shochu family.


Okuchi Distillery


uro Isanishiki” is the

“Kuro Isanishiki,” a younger cousin with

who bring Okuchi home with them in

best-selling sweet potato

a bit more funk and a lot more swagger.

their luggage.”

shochu in Kagoshima’s

Isanishiki sales were overtaken by Kuro

To get things started, he decided to

capital city, and the brand has long been

Isanishiki about 25 years ago, and pro-

call in frequent collaborator, Professor

carefully created here in amongst the rice

duction volume has diverged steadily ever

Koichi Sakaguchi, a marketing expert at

fields of the Isa Basin. Located roughly 75


National Kyushu University in Fukuoka.

minutes north of Kagoshima City by car,

“Consumers like to try a different

Together they helped craft tasting panels

Okuchi Distillery has navigated the highs

drink every day, so it’s tough to create

by putting out a call for professionals

and lows of selling sweet potato shochu in

loyalty,” Yamada laments, “the experi-

from various backgrounds and fields. The

Japan for several decades.

ence needs to be fun; it needs to be new.”

enthusiastic response led to study groups

He’s also under no illusions about trying

which met both in person and online to

national trends in the international spirits

to educate new consumers and develop

share ideas and try to identify roadblocks

market as sharply as Mr. Koichi Yamada.

new markets abroad. “Overseas sales

that stand in shochu’s way moving for-

The globe-trotting marketing guru is one

are mostly to the Japanese expats living

ward. Some of the meetings took place

of the top executives at Okuchi Distillery

in larger cities. Consumers from South

right at the distillery in Isa City, a consid-

in Isa City, and he is keenly aware of the

Korea and Hong Kong enjoy Japanese

erable trek for some of the participants

pressures facing both his company, the

shochu, but most of our sales to consum-

based in Tokyo more than 600 miles away.

shochu industry, and Japan as a whole.

ers in those countries is from tourists

Professor Sakaguchi and Mr. Yamada

Few in the industry understand inter-

Mr. Yamada sees a clear need for a new way of marketing Okuchi’s products to younger generations of consumer. In his free time, you can find Mr. Yamada creating behind his turntables. He loves music, outdoor festivals, the intersection of good tunes and great drinks, and he’s met people from all walks of life through his travels. He’s gregarious and easy to talk to, so he tends to have a clear idea of how young people are thinking and moving. Ominously, or opportunistically depending on your angle, he sees change coming at the shochu industry from all directions. Change has already happened to Okuchi Distillery several times over. Its number one shochu product four-plus decades ago, “Isanishiki,” now accounts for less than five percent of total sales volume. The lion’s share of production, marketing, and sales energy goes toward 16

Koichi Yamada, CEO of Okuchi Distillery

guided and observed as the teams offered

ity” and other individual characteristics

was able to isolate some promising new

honest reflections and cooked up new

gleaned through interviews. A couple of

yeast strains from the samples, and a

shochu marketing opportunities.

these may prove to be useful targets for

team of intrepid distilleries have formed

future Isanishiki marketing projects.

to create a fleet of celebratory brands

The study groups were supplemented by tastings in Kagoshima City’s lively

In addition to the firm’s practical

that will debut shortly before the current

nightlife neighborhood, Tenmonkan,

approach to marketing research, Oku-

emperor, Akihito, abdicates the throne on

where more survey data could be mined

chi continues to innovate and diversify.

April 30th, 2019, and his first son, Naruhi-

and marketing keywords recorded. The

Japan’s imperial household is scheduled

to, assumes it the following day.

venue was none other than popular tep-

to undergo a changing of the guard next

pan izakaya Yokaban 017 (the three digit

spring, and Mr. Yamada is coordinating

also sought out more opportunities to

number is pronounced reina), hands down

with other distilleries to commemorate

reduce its environmental impact. One of

one of the best shochu bars in the world.

the occasion with something completely

the largest waste products created by the

Isanishiki was tasted alongside several

different. The last time the emperor

company’s facilities is imo kasu, the sweet

other sweet potato shochu brands that are

changed 30 years ago, distilleries shipped

potato lees left over from distillation.

of an easy-sipping, light-bodied style. The

samples from roughly 300 brands worth

The distillation by-product is now turned

results of these complimentary efforts

of fermented shochu mash to a govern-

into pig feed and used at local farms,

was the discovery of several consumer

ment laboratory where they have been

an endeavor that has proved successful

subgroups based on “drinking personal-

painstakingly stored ever since. The lab

in a number of ways. In addition to sig-

Concurrently, Okuchi Distillery has

Steamed sweet potatoes cool for about 45-60 minutes before shredding.

A birds-eye view of Okuchi’s newer facilities.

Distillery workers make short work of fresh sweet potatoes. 2018


nificantly reducing the amount of sweet

drinks market is naturally a perilous one

potato lees dumped by the distillery, the

for medium-sized distilleries like Okuchi

resulting agricultural product is both

Distillery. Expand too quickly, and bank-

affordable and effective for local farmers.

ruptcy is only a bad season or an eco-

The trace amounts of alcohol left in the

nomic downturn away. Fail to recognize

feed has a calming effect on the animals

market trends, and watch your market

and reduces fighting amongst the pigs at

share erode as competitors outmaneuver

suppertime. Amusingly, the ‘food coma’

you. Regardless of what the future holds,

effect becomes more pronounced, which

it’s a safe bet that Mr. Yamada and his

leads to pervasive swine naps.

team at Okuchi Distillery will find cre-

The domestic and international

ative ways to stay in the mix.

Isanishiki sweet potato shochu, 25% ABV

Kuro Isanishiki sweet potato shochu, 25% ABV

Stirring the fermenting sweet potato mash.

Both of Okuchi’s distilleries are located in the Isa Basin. Rice paddies stretch as far as the eye can see.


Hombo Shuzo: Chiran Distillery


Hombo sources it’s sweet potatoes locally.

ombo’s Chiran facilities have already been distilling at full tilt for about a month when I arrive.

The sweet potato delivery area opposite the distillery’s offices smells earthy and pungent as large hoppers feed the morning’s haul into large rinsing machines. The production season typically begins just after Japan’s Obon holiday which brings with it the eagerly anticipated sweet potato harvest. Less than a mile from the coast, the distillery’s 1970s era buildings are perched amongst rising rows of sweet potatoes, and a little further up the hill to the north, tea. Mr. Toshihiro Sezaki, the distillery manager and an encyclopedia of fermentation and distilla-

Kuro Koji Jitate Sakurajima is one of the main brands produced at the distillery. Toshihiko Uemura, Master Distiller (left) and Toshihiro Sezaki, Distillery Manager (right).


Arawaza Sakurajima is an exceptionally smooth-sipping example of sweet potato shochu.

The distillery is just a short ride up the hill from the ocean.

tion data, walks me through the distillery

six ton stills that are physically located

on a warm Saturday afternoon.

on the exterior of the distillery. Both are

“Hombo acquired this distillery in

rarities: the fact that such a large distill-

1973. It has the largest production output

ery sources all of its potatoes locally is

of all our distilleries, and we transfer the

laudable, and the decision to position two

shochu to the city for bottling.”

large pot stills outside is indicative of the

He’s referring to Hombo’s headquarters in Kagoshima City. Hombo actually has four distilleries in Kagoshima

relatively mild winters in these parts. There are more stills inside, of course. “The smaller pot stills inside produce

Distillery workers quickly remove the bad bits from the freshly harvested sweet potatoes.

Prefecture. In addition to Chiran and

a gentler shochu that is blended into

Kagoshima City, there’s Tsunuki up in

some of our major brands. 90% of what we

the mountains, home base for the group’s

make is joatsu (atmospheric pressure),

Mars whisky brand, plus an island shochu

but we also make “Seiten Sakurajima”

sweet potato shochu category, but genat-

distillery on Yakushima 100 miles south

here which is 100% genatsu (vacuum

su is well-regarded for creating lighter

of Kagoshima City by ferry. For its part,

pressure) distilled,” he comments as I

and fruitier sweet potato distillates. This

Chiran is responsible for producing two of

ogle the alcohol percentage and tempera-

is precisely the case with Seiten Sakura-

Hombo’s most popular sweet potato sho-

ture gauges. Hombo Chiran has a special

jima which exudes a lovely banana aroma

chu brands, “Kuro Koji Jitate Sakurajima”

glass box shaped like a fish tank where

and carries a soft sweetness when served

and the infinitely sessionable “Arawaza

distillery workers can carefully watch

at lower temperatures, either on the rocks


Joatsu distillation is the norm in the

a pair of hydrometers bob in the fresh

or mizuwari (cool water mix). There’s

“All of our sweet potatoes are sourced

distillate. This is how they know exactly

also an 8% ABV sparkling version for oc-

locally, from Makurazaki just west of here

when to stop the flow of distillation from

casions that call for a bit of bubbly.

to Ei a bit down the coast to the east,”

the stills before it drops down into the

Mr. Sezaki remarks as we walk past two

single digits.

Wandering deeper into the distillery, we arrive just in time to watch the newest batch of sweet potatoes, delivered straight from a nearby field, come out of the washer and onto the meandering conveyor belts that weave through a gauntlet of smock-clad, cleaver-wielding workers. The ends and bruised bits are nimbly removed, and larger specimens are lopped into more manageable chunks. We stop to taste some of the spuds after a slow roll through the conveyor steamer. They’re undeniably sweet after being force hydrated in a machine that can handle six tons per hour. After cooling, the sweet potatoes are finely shredded and fed into the secondary fermentation tanks where

Steamed sweet potatoes.

they will be fermented over a period of 2018


Hombo relies on carefully monitored pot stills to create its award-winning shochu.

about nine days.

Tin cooling coils are used in the distillery’s six smaller stills.

since abandoned tin in favor of steel

After a close-up look at the old and

which is far easier to maintain and

new, the visit confirms my long-held sus-

tons of rice and five times as much sweet

replace. Indeed, the tin coils, lashed to

picion that Hombo, with its multiple and

potato every day. That translates to some-

a lattice of wood with rope, would be

diverse distillery locations, is uniquely

where around 90 tons of fermenting mash

considered antiques if they weren’t still

positioned to navigate the opportunities

and an output of 30,000 1.8 liter bottles

actively employed in the distillation

and pitfalls coming Japan’s way. Hombo

(25% ABV). Needless to say, that’s a lot of

process. According to Mr. Sezaki, these

Chiran provides the extra capacity and

shochu. In fact, if you drank a standard

older chilling coils slowly drop the tem-

quality control that affords the entire

720 ml bottle of shochu every day, it

perature of the distillate from around 90

group an additional layer of flexibility.

would take a little over 205 years to finish

to 100 degrees Celsius at the top to about

Embodied by its most famous brand,

Hombo Chiran’s daily production.

30 at the bottom. Equally important, a

“Sakurajima,” named after the iconic

tin chilling coil can remove some of the

volcano across the bay from Kagoshima

Hombo Chiran processes roughly 10

But even at such scale, it’s important to note that there is an intense attention

impurities from the shochu during its

City, it certainly feels like Hombo Dis-

to detail that runs through the distillery.

winding journey through a pool of cold

tillery has what it takes to stick around

Nowhere is that clearer than the tradi-



tional chilling coils used in the condensing tank immediately after distillation. Stills are equipped with an apparatus that collects the alcohol vapors from inside the main chamber and funnels them through a pipe that condenses them back into liquid. Pot stills are no different, but what makes the stills at Chiran special is that the distillery chooses to maintain and employ old tin coils to slowly chill the vapor into shochu. This is a reverent nod to the history and tradition of making shochu in Kagoshima, something that the good people at the company wish dearly to preserve. Most distilleries have long A row of raised condensers turns vapor into shochu.


Hamada Distillery


hile next door neighbor,

slight variations on the pronunciation of

Miyazaki Prefecture, has

this word depending on which region you

been the top collective

visit, but the implications surrounding it

shochu producer in terms of volume for the past few years, Kagoshima Prefecture

remain the same. But daiyame isn’t just a cultural

still holds the honor for most shochu

keyword anymore. Hamada is one of the

consumed per capita. And it’s not a crown

top ten honkaku shochu makers in the

that will be easy to wrestle away. Like

country by sales volume, and they are

many other parts of Japan, and indeed the

responsible for the ubiquitous “Kaido”

world, Kyushu’s southernmost prefecture

brand of sweet potato shochu, often found

has long enjoyed an unshakable culture of

in eye-catching red and blue bottles.

unwinding after a long day’s work with a

“Daiyame,” the company’s newest prod-

drink or two. One thing that sets Kyushu

uct which hit the market this September,

apart, however, is that they have a word

is intended to become one of the com-

for this refreshing activity.

pany’s big new brands.

Well, several words actually. In

A quick tour of the sweet potato

Shotaro Demizu, PI of Product Development Office.

Kagoshima Prefecture, home to a number

preparation facility revealed metric tons

steamed slowly and evenly on a conveyor

of excellent distilleries, the term we’re

of sweet potatoes being delivered by con-

that stretches roughly the length of a vol-

looking for is daiyame. The first half of

veyor through the process. Many hands

leyball court. The process brings out the

the word (dai) basically means tiredness

are involved in getting the kogane sengan

inherent sweetness in the potatoes and

or exhaustion. The second half (yame),

sweet potatoes ready as the ends and

readies them for shredding and addition

means to halt or cease. There’s nothing

any bruises must be trimmed away by

to the fermentation tanks.

better than some daiyame with friends or

hand. A veritable army of knife-wielding

family to escape the stresses of the day,

workers cleans the tubers one by one, the

Daiyame’s production, explained that

and it’s part and parcel with daily life in

rare distillery job that a machine cannot

Hamada wanted to do something big to

this part of Japan. There are, of course,

do well. After cleaning, the potatoes are

celebrate Hamada Distillery’s 150th anni-

Steamed sweet potatoes make their way toward the shredder.


Mr. Demizu, the man overseeing

Distillery staff keep an eye out for bruised potatoes.

versary. The answer, they decided was to

From there the sweet potatoes be-

king. But that could soon change as more

add an exciting new product to the lineup.

come the heart of some of Hamada’s most

people choose to combat the day’s fatigue

The Kaido brand will turn 20 years old

famous brands, with Kaido currently the

with a couple glasses of Daiyame.

in 2020, and there was a general feeling that the distillery had to come up with something unique to keep consumers interested. Just like daiyame the activity, Daiyame the drink does not disappoint. Hamada decided to create a sweet potato shochu that is both aromatic yet easy to keep drinking, the type of shochu that one never tires of. This type of shochu is a natural fit for a daiyame session after work. Packaged in jet black glass with black labeling and a golden sweet potato accent in the center, Daiyame carries a noticeable lychee fragrance that all but leaps out of the bottle. Enjoyed straight, the shochu has a light attack with a low alcohol burn and plenty of sweetness at the front. It’s an easy sipper on the rocks, but it also goes well mixed with cool (mizuwari) or hot (oyuwari) water. It’s light-bodied and the finish seems short at first, but there’s a soft, lingering sweetness that sticks around afterwards. Hamada Distillery actually recom-

A 1.8 liter bottle of “Daiyame” dwarfs a glass of shochu with soda.

mends another way to accentuate the lychee notes in Daiyame sweet potato shochu, and it’s none other than the uberpopular sodawari (club soda mix) or highball style of cocktail. It’s recommended that you chill a bottle of Daiyame in the refrigerator and mix two parts shochu to three parts club soda in an ice-filled glass. After a solitary turn of the bar spoon, enjoy it as a pre-meal spritzer, or even try it alongside Italian dishes like pasta or pizza. Spicy dishes such as mapo tofu also work, as do fried chicken and tenpura.

This distillery is completely state-of-the-art and immaculate from top to bottom. 2018


Shochu Experts around the World Zipangu Shochu Magazine, now in its third year, has tended to focus on the people and companies that make shochu, or at the very least are based in Japan (see last year’s feature article on Chef Marc Matsumoto). This is an obvious necessity since the publication’s mission is to spread shochu’s story far and wide, something that has yet to happen on any noteworthy scale. The amount of information available online in languages other than Japanese is still dismal, and the number of shochu proponents outside Japan is still disappointingly small. When compared to the wide world of saké, it’s painfully evident that significant resources must 26

be poured into teaching the world about the shochu category. However, it’s important to note that there are indeed people out there that are promoting shochu in their own unique ways. There are dedicated professionals all across the globe using shochu in their bar programs or educating consumers about Japan’s best-kept secret. These people are positioned on the front lines of shochu’s introduction to underdeveloped markets. We’d like to take this opportunity to introduce you to some of the experts and aficionados that are working overtime to bring shochu to new audiences. 2018


Taeko Ichioka When it comes to the shochu market in New

Stephen Lyman is a leading authority on all

York City in particular, and the United States in

things shochu, and he draws his knowledge from

general, few people have as much experience and

the unique perspective of actually having made

knowledge as Taeko Ichioka. Ichioka is a certified

shochu in a traditional distillery. He has worked

Shochu Kikisakeshi (shochu expert), and she has

for the past half dozen years at Yamato Zakura in

spent a significant amount of time in Kyushu tour-

the northwestern part of Kagoshima Prefecture,

ing distilleries and guiding others who wish to

and he currently calls Fukuoka home. His experi-

learn more about the island’s various regions and

ence making shochu by hand is incredibly rare as

myriad shochu brands. She has developed a keen

there are only three distilleries left in Kagoshima

understanding of consumer segments and trends

that still make all of their shochu in this centuries-

in the American market, and she has a knack for

old and back-breaking style. He also teaches the

explaining shochu to people on their own terms.

SSA’s Shochu Advisor certification course in

She previously did sales for Mizunomai in New York City where she was responsible for

the United States, a qualification that he himself earned several years ago.

finding new accounts while taking care of the re-

Lyman lived in Manhattan until the fall of

lationships that Mizunomai already had in place.

2018 where he hosted regular shochu tastings and

Mizunomai is a private brand that is made in

was named Cool Japan Ambassador for shochu

Saga Prefecture and sold primarily in the United

by the Japanese Government. He is also the most

States. The company has grown considerably over

prolific English-language writer in the world

the past couple of years, a time period that aligns

when it comes to the topic of shochu, and much

perfectly with Ichioka’s tenure there. She was one

of his commentary on the topic can be found on

of the main reasons why domestic sales increased

his website ( He is alsos one half of the

85% and global sales 65% during her time with the

consulting firm Honkaku, which assists distill-


eries and other businesses in their efforts to bring

After completing her contract in New York


Stephen Lyman

shochu to foreign markets.

City, Ichioka has relocated to Tokyo where she

Since moving to Kyushu in September, Lyman

is currently working on various shochu-related

has already put in another stint at Yamato Zakura,

projects and promotional activities. As one of the

and he recently became a faculty member at

few shochu experts with true Japanese-English bi-

Kyushu National University. He plans to continue

lingual ability, it’s safe to say that she will remain

promoting shochu through working with vari-

one of the most sought-after shochu professionals

ous distilleries and advising them on marketing,

in the world.

branding, and export strategies.

London U.K. International Wine & Spirit Competition 2016 category best award

San Francisco U.S.A. World Spirits Competition 2018 category best award

Japanese traditional spirits “SHOCHU”. Alc.30%/vol 720ml/btl Oita,Kyushu,Japan

Victoria Vera San Francisco has a couple of bars that carry a

It didn’t take long for Uchu, one of the newest

modest collection of shochu and awamori prod-

Japanese restaurants in New York City, to earn

ucts. However, until this year there was nothing

a Michelin Star. Less than a year in fact. And a

to write home about. Now there is. Enter Tsunami

driving force behind that feat was none other

Panhandle, a new fish-focused izakaya in the

than Frank Cisneros, the phenomenally talented

Mission run by Victoria Vera that puts shochu

bartender who has extensive experience both in

front and center. Vera recently fell headlong into

the city and Japan.

the shochu rabbit hole, and she has taken it upon

He spent many moons mixing cocktails at the

herself to source just about every shochu brand

Mandarin Oriental in downtown Tokyo, an experi-

that is currently available in the western United

ence he thanks for honing his efficiency and atten-

States. And she even has some that aren’t.

tion to detail behind the counter. He now conducts

The menu is impressive. At more than 100

a cocktail omakase at Uchu in New York that has

bottles, it’s safe to say that there isn’t a better sho-

garnered rave reviews, and he routinely finds

chu list anywhere in the city. Vera also made the

ways to incorporate shochu into his creations.

pleasantly surprising decision to give shochu top

“Shochu’s diversity of flavor and aroma are

billing on the menu. Tsunami Panhandle carries a

pretty much an untapped palette for cocktail cre-

lot of saké as well, but it plays second fiddle to the

ation. I think we’re going to see a lot more experi-

shochu list, and the decadently lit bar shelves are

mentation over the next few years,” he said.

lined with shochu and awamori bottles. An order

One of the keys to getting shochu into new

of any bottle of shochu will earn you a dozen oys-

markets is courting bartenders and beverage

ters, and the food menu boasts fish from Tokyo’s

managers, roles both filled by Cisneros at Uchu.

famed Tsukiji Market.

He enjoys being the one to seed shochu in con-

Vera has made ample use of social media to

sumers’ minds. The stories he tells his guests and

help promote her lounge-inspired location on

his passion for craft drinks are a true asset to the

Fulton Avenue, and her keen eye for design and

future growth of shochu in the United States and

photography has helped draw people in for a glass

beyond. With only eight seats at his bar, Cisneros

of shochu or three.

is a pro at creating bespoke tasting experiences

When asked what she needs to better com-

for his guests. His knowledge of Japanese whisky,

municate shochu’s story to more people, she said,

shochu, and awamori allows him to answer any

“It would be helpful if the distilleries reached out

and all questions that his guests have about Japa-

a bit more and tried to interact with the establish-

nese spirits.

ments that sell their products. We’ve had saké breweries visit and even conduct tastings here, but never a shochu distillery.”


Frank Cisneros

Nowhere to Go but Up All of the people profiled above came across shochu either during their nights out drinking in


ity and breadth, so the future certainly appears to be bright. While shochu still lacks the name recogni-

the United States, or during their time in Japan.

tion that saké has made for itself, there are signs

However, we’d be remiss to suggest that the

that awareness is slowly growing. The future of

drink’s appeal is encountered only in those two

the category depends largely on the amount and

nations. Shochu has covertly entered a surprising

quality of the information available to the public.

number of markets, often through spot sales, even

The more experts and motivated ambassadors

if the total volume shipped currently remains

that can be created, the closer the category will

underwhelming. Europe and other parts of Asia

get to reaching or exceeding saké’s level of near

have proven especially receptive to shochu’s qual-


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