Shochu Maker Highlight - Kuroki Honten + Osuzuyama Distilleries
Shochu fans and our customers alike (the intersection is a big one) will have no difficulty recognizing the products of Miyazaki's Kuroki Honten. For us at the shop and bar, Naka Naka is an almost perfect introduction to the style - its richness and buttery body paired with clean florals makes a dynamite sodawari (shochu highball) and has served as the gateway for many of our customers to start delving a bit deeper into the world of shochu.
As for me, Kiroku was the first black koji imo shochu I ever had that made me audibly gasp in delight – I'd never tasting anything quite like it and couldn't wait to get to try it again (and other shochus like it). Suffice it to say that I owe my hopeless obsession and curiosity for this spirits tradition in part to the drinks created by this distillery. So when I had the opportunity to visit Kyushu in September 2022, I made sure I would include Kuroki Honten in my itinerary.
My first night in Miyazaki City, I stopped in to the very dialed-in shochu bar Kokushu Matsu (國酒 松) for a little prep work. Owner Ryutatsu Komatsuyama let me know that they had over 60 brands of shochu, all from Miyazaki. He also explained that the Kuroki Honten's president, Shinsaku Kuroki was a big supporter of the bar and proceeded to lay out some Japan-only releases of their sister distillery, Osuzuyama Distillery.
Left to right: Ouka (orange sweet potato shochu from Kuroki Honten); Yamaneko (Osuzuyama Distillery's house sweet potato shochu made with ingredients they grow themselves [available at UM]); Yamaneko Doukama Joryu (limited copper still version of Yamaneko); Yamaneko Yamadanishiki (limited Yamaneko with Yamadanishiki rice used for the koji).
The day before visiting Kuroki Honten and Osuzuyama Distillery, I was down in Nichinan City and Kushima City (visiting Furusawa Jyozo and Shoro Shuzo), so the morning of the visit I took an old railway train (列車 れっしゃ) all the way up to the small station of Takanabe (高鍋) where I'd be picked up by Kuroki-san himself.
Kuroki-san then proceeded to drive me up to the farms where Osuzuyama Distillery grows all of their raw materials for their shochu and other spirits. He informed me that in all they have 40 hectares of crops (about 99 acres) ranging from imo (sweet potato), mugi (barley), and kome (rice) for shochu-making to a variety of vegetables for their own use.
Hanakagura rice used for Yamasemi rice shochu.
Koganesengan sweet potato used for Yamaneko.
I then got to see Osuzuyama Distillery's sprawling composting facility where they make use of all of the shochu kasu (lees) after distillation. The acidic kasu is great for farming and helps to reduce waste at all levels of production. Kuroki-san says, "we are so lucky to have such beautiful nature in Miyazaki, and by taking great care of it, in turn it can help us to keep making great shochu."
Next, Kuroki-san drove me up a road going up Mt. Osuzu to Osuzuyama Distillery, about a 45 minute drive from Kuroki Honten's mothership in Takanabe. Every time I looked out the window, there was a ridiculously picturesque nature scene. I took a few photos, but most of them have glare from the window. This happened a lot in Kyushu; it was hard not to get lost in the scenery while trying to stay engaged and present. Real tough stuff here.
The Omaru River 小丸川 - pristine water source for Osuzuyama Distillery
We finally made it to 尾鈴山蒸溜所 Osuzuyama Distillery. Nice looking building.
Kuroki-san straightened out the noren to wish me a big 'Yokoso! ようこそ' (welcome) to Osuzuyama Distillery. After all the driving and showing me around the outdoor facilities in the heat, I'm sure he was looking forward to some air-conditioning. I was too.
The first piece Kuroki-san showed me in the distillery was the wooden rice steamer made from Miyazaki sugi (cedar). They use this very traditional machine for steaming their kojimai 麹米 (koji rice). It brings in steam from below, which prevents the rice from holding too much moisture in the steaming process. Drier rice is ideal for the koji-making process, as the koji-kin 麹菌 (koji mold spores) can stick to the surface of the rice grain and spread easily during propagation.
Cedar koshiki古式 (old style) rice steamer.
The kojimuro 麹室 (koji room) is temperature controlled to maintain a temperature of around 37.5˚ C (99.5˚ F). These koji boxes have modular wooden panels which can be moved around to make room for spreading the koji around to regulate the temperature during propagation.
Traditional kame (clay pot) used for ichiji shikomi一次仕込み (koji fermentation starter).
I was fortunate to catch Osuzuyama in the middle of their shikomi 仕込み(preparation) for Yamaneko. These products are all seasonal, so the fermentation and distillation for their sweet potato shochu usually falls around early autumn, shortly after the potatoes are harvested. Komejochu 米焼酎 (rice shochu) and mugijochu 麦焼酎 (barley shochu) are typically done in the spring. Kuroki-san showed me a kame in the middle of ichiji shikomi (fermentation starter). Koji (after the koji mold is propagated onto rice, the final product is just referred to as koji), water, and yeast are mixed in these pots for this process, producing citric acid and alcohol. As you may know, this process is essential to shochu-making as well as all other Japanese drink fermentations. For shochu, shirokoji 白麹 (white koji) and kurokoji 黒麹 (black koji) are used, which are great for providing citric acid which protect the fermentations from unwanted bacteria.
Shirokoji shikomi 白麹仕込 for Yamaneko.
The next step in the process is nijishikomi 二次仕込 (primary fermentation). The koji starter is then combined with the prepared sweet potatoes in a new fermentation vessel. I was surprised to learn that they do all of their primary fermentations in kioke instead of stainless steel. These are huge, handmade wooden vessels used in batch fermentations for sake and shoyu. They are not often used because only a select number of craftspeople still know how to make them, and they are difficult to maintain. This process is chosen by Osuzuyama out of a dedication to favoring traditional handmade processes over simpler routes. The kioke contain microorganisms unique to the distillery and add nuance to the fermentations. This step will bubble and brew for about a week before it's ready for distillation.
Kioke barrels for niji shikomi 二次仕込.
A primary fermentation mash for Yamaneko. This fermentation is pretty mature, so it already smells like Yamaneko. Intense pineapple, banana, and caramel aromas emerge from this barrel. I want to jump in.
The next step is distillation.
This fancy copper still is used for Osuzuyama's Osuzu Gin and Osuzu Malt expressions, as well as for limited distillery releases.
Stainless steel still used for Yamaneko.
A sample portion of imo shochu genshu (undiluted sweet potato shochu) hot off the still. It's extremely gassy and smells intensely of sulfur. This wouldn't be super pleasant to drink. It needs some time to rest before its filtered, diluted, and bottled.
Strolling past rows of aging facilities.
There are beautiful angles all over this place.
Some oak barrels used for aging Osuzu Malt whisky.
Kuroki-san then took me to Osuzuyama's tasting room. It was a bar with five seats made from local sugi (cedar) featuring an enormous two-pane bay window with views of the dense forest surrounding the facility.
We hope our customers feel this special when they sit at our bar. We do have one more seat at our counter!
The tasting lineup. From left to right: Osuzu Gin, un-aged Osuzu Malt whisky, Osuzu Malt (aged 30 months in chestnut cask), Yamaneko copper still, Yamaneko yamadanishiki kojimai.
This was my first time tasting an un-aged whisky. This was shinshu 新酒 (new make), 59% abv. It had yeasty aromas, like what I had smelled in the distillery, with a yogurty and malty quality and bright beer-like notes. This made clear to me the role that barrel aging plays in the ultimate expression of any whisky; I wouldn't have enjoyed this so much as a final product.
Note: Osuzu Malt has not been released yet to the international market. We are looking forward immensely to this release and hope you are too!
Kuroki-san then took me down the mountain and back into the town of Takanabe, where Kuroki Honten is based. Kuroki Honten, established 1885, is the founding distillery from which Osuzuyama Distillery originated and the shop-favorite brands like Kiroku, Naka Naka, and Hyakunen no Kodoku were born.
After the in-depth tour of Osuzuyama, this trip was a bit shorter, and was more of a broad-strokes tour with an emphasis on the tasting room.
Inscribed here: shochu hitosuji 焼酎一筋 (devoted to shochu).
A wabbit. Customers who enjoy these shochus will notice a rabbit on the top cap on Kiroku and Naka Naka, and a rabbit stamped on the bottom of the bottle of certain releases of Yamaneko, Naka Naka, Yamasemi, and Kiroku.
Kurabito 蔵人 (distillery workers) have to stay in shape.
The room of kame (clay pots) for koji fermentation. I was here on a Sunday, but there were still folks here to check on the fermentations.
Kuroki-san was getting a bit tired and wanted to brew a cup of coffee.
Not sure if this photo conveys it, but Kuroki-san accidentally ground this coffee on the espresso setting and was NOT pleased with the result.
This coffee mug was made in Miyazaki, but I thought it was channeling our Heritage Arthur Mug!
A sampling of Osuzuyama's Yamasaru mugi (barley) shochu, using their own barley (left), next to an (hitherto) unreleased new shochu expression.
Kuroki Honten's Ouka shochu, made with Tama Akane orange sweet potatoes.
After the tour, we were tired and hungry! Kuroki-san was gracious enough to offer to take me around Miyazaki City to try some good food and drink. Unsurprisingly, he knew the chefs and owners of these business intimately, and it wasn't hard to order his stuff to pair with their food.
Miyazaki City's Sake to Sakana Moku 酒と肴 木.
Otsukaresamadeshita! お疲れ様でした (We're all done!)
House special: sudoufu 酢豆腐: vinegared house-made tofu with ume and shiso topping
Couldn't resist another helping of this limited release of Yamaneko. This is distilled using the copper still we saw earlier. Sodawari ソーダ割り (cut with club soda) made this so drinkable after a long day.
Kuroki-san then took me to Sunakku Hanatare スナックはなたれ. Sunakku is a type of bar where customers can sing karaoke while enjoying the offerings from the mama-san. We got there hoping for a polite evening but were surprised when a huge, raucous group of locals entered and took over. Kuroki-san, good friends with the owner (mama-san), graciously jumped behind the bar to help mix highballs for the thirsty newcomers. We had a terrific time here and sang lots of tunes (video footage of this may exist but is strictly classified).
Kuroki-san jumping in to crush the rush.
The only known image of musical collaboration between Kuroki Honten and Osuzuyama Distillery and Umami Mart. It was the Beatles 'Let it Be.'
While last on the itinerary of shochu distilleries for this trip, it was such a joy to get the rundown of how shochu is made at Osuzuyama Distillery and get to experience the institution of shochu-making that is Kuroki Honten of Miyazaki. It was so informative to see all of the stages of production for these globally-renowned brands. Kuroki-san is leading this company to great places, and we are looking forward to all that they have to offer and to get to share them with all of you.