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: email@example.com
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: http://reflectart.jp
Feature 03 Shochu: The Best Medicine
Hombo Shuzo: Chiran 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. http://www.thekyushuadvantage.jp/shochumap/
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
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
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-
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
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.
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.
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
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
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-
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.
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.
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
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.
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 (kanpai.us). 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
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-
ments that sell their products. We’ve had saké breweries visit and even conduct tastings here, but never a shochu distillery.”
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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I strongly believe that shochu, a cornerstone of Japanese culture, will continue to make its mark on history. Of course, though, it must not...
Published on Oct 10, 2018
I strongly believe that shochu, a cornerstone of Japanese culture, will continue to make its mark on history. Of course, though, it must not...