On my trip to Kyushu last month, Tekkan-san of Yamatozakura was gracious enough to drive around me and my partner around to all of the shochu distilleries we could squeeze in on a Sunday, as many were closed. We were lucky enough to have the first of these be Yachiyoden Shuzo out in Tarumizu City in Kagoshima.
This was the first stop on a series of distillery visits, and I was pretty floored. We carry a couple of super special expressions from Yachiyoden at Umami Mart: Crio and Tsurushi and getting to see the lifecycle of these shochus, from the main ingredients growing outside the distillery all the way to the bottled final product was a first for me; and it gave me yet another layer of respect and admiration for this craft spirit.
Kentaro Yagi, president of Yachiyoden Shuzo (left) and Tekkan Wakamatsu of Yamatozakura Shuzo and my Kagoshima shochu guide for the day (right)
The tour started with walking around Yachiyoden's sprawling farmland where they grow both imo (sweet potatoes) for their shochu and Hinohikari rice for their kojimai (koji rice). It was extremely hot, and we were masked most of the time, but the aroma of fresh air and grass was palpable.
Hinohikari used for kojimai.
Yachiyoden currently uses this Hinohikari for all of their "Domain" ドメーヌ brands, shochus using all of their own estate-grown organic potatoes and kojimai. Yagi-san says all of the rice is milled on-site to 92%; the texture of the rice at this polishing rate is perfect for koji inoculation. Also, Yachiyoden chooses shinmai 新米 (freshly harvested rice) for their koji.
You can pluck the little grains right off of the stalk and eat them. Crunchy, grainy, and very clean.
A typhoon was supposed to hit our section of Kyushu the next day, so all of the water from the paddies were drained.
Yagi-san giving us a thorough demonstration of where the rice sits in the water as it grows (Aquarius bottle for reference).
The rice paddies were chock full of little crabs, snails, and other critters. Here's a little egg-sac interloper! I was struck by the grape color of this little guy.
Yagi-san then showed us the sweet potato fields. They grow Koganesengan, Fukumurasaki, and Shurukusui varieties of sweet potato, all for their different brands of domain shochu. They are trying to grow less commonly-used purple potato varieties in small fields. One of these fields houses about three and a half tons of potatoes, enough to yield about 1600 1.8L bottles of shochu at 25% ABV. For reference, Kogansengan, which provide the lions share of yield for most of their shochu, are grown in four fields at about 10 tons each. These purple potatoes in particular weren't quite ready to harvest; the shochu I got to see being fermented was being made from white Koganesengan.
For most of Yachiyoden's brands, fermentation and distillation begins the day the potatoes are harvested. However, for Tsurushi and other styles, the potatoes are set aside to rest for two months or so to build glucose prior to fermentation.
For a close step-by-step look how some of their shochus are made, take a look at their Instagram page. The translation function is fairly serviceable, and it's a great way to see some more in-depth photos of parts of production I wasn't able to see on my lucky Sunday visit.
These are electric fences which protect the potatoes from inoshishi 猪 (wild boar) that roam freely in this area.
A harvester sitting by its lonesome.
An empty field waiting for more potatoes.
After walking the fields, Yagi-san invited us in to the distillery floor where fermentation was in progress. After koji is made, there are two fermentations which take place prior to distillation, ichijishikomi 一次仕込み (koji + water + yeast) and nijishikomi 二次仕込み (main ingredient [imo] is added to the koji mash in a separate vessel). Yachiyoden does something a little differently with their fermentations, adding additional ki koji 黄麹 (yellow koji) to the secondary fermentation. Ki koji is most commonly used for sake production, also it can be used for shochu (albeit rarely). When I asked why they do this, Yagi-san told me it's just for additional flavor, not for any extra alcohol production or other necessary fermentation as the mash is basically ship-shape by this point and ready for distillation.
Traditional kame 甕 on the distillery floor for nijishikomi 二次仕込み fermentation. The pot still can be seen just to the left of the pot labeled '62.'
A sign at the very front of the distillery floor: 'Five Charters for Kurabito (distillery workers)'
An automated koji propegator near the kame 甕 for ichijishikomi (koji fermentation).
A conveyer belt for washing potatoes.
A sign for visitors explaining ichijishikomi.
An ichiji moromi (koji fermentation mash).
Another sign outlining nijishikomi (main fermentation), in addition to the lifecycle of production.
Nijimoromi 二次もろみ (primary fermentation mash) - incredible aromas of yeast and citrus and warm air wafting out of here.
A kurabito 蔵人 (distillery worker) mixing up the moromi so we can taste!
I got to taste the moromi (fermentation mash)! Bright and slightly pulpy, this liquid is about 15% ABV and is just about ready to be distilled. Yachiyoden's fermentations take about 10 days, and the name of the game is maintaining high levels of citric acid to protect the fermentation, and that's precisely the profile of this moromi. I got notes of pineapple and yogurt, and it reminded me of makkgeoli.
After tasting the moromi and taking a look at the distillery floor, we were finally ready to taste Yachiyoden's lineup. The tasting area sits right beside the fermentation pots, so we got to see kurabito taking care of various tasks as we were tasting.
This sign reads: Kuradashi Shochu 蔵出焼酎 (distillery releases [shochu]). That is one very big bottle (unfortunately just for display in this case).
Yagi-san sitting proudly in front of the tasting lineup.
From left to right: Kiiroi Tsubaki, Jukushi, Domain 2021 Muroka
Shop favorites, Tsurushi and Crio (left and right, respectively)!
Left to right, Luther and Mahler. All of these being in their Domain lineup, all are using imo and kojimai grown at Yachiyoden's farm.
It was quite an experience to taste such different expressions of shochu. All of the Domain brands are using different potato varieties and are only lightly filtered to preserve as much of the unique flavors as possible; these are quite modern takes on shochu and come across as pretty wild compared to the Yachiyoden's namesake house brand. All of these shochu distilleries have a trusty house brand that has been around for decades; these brands have decades-standing loyal customers and help to keep the lights on and give the distillery reign to try out newer styles and expressions to keep pushing the company toward future markets.
A cheeky Tekkan-san offering up his tasting notes of Domain 2021 Mahler. A polite way to say this would be 'herbaceous.' It's true indeed that these modern shochu styles distilled from freshly harvested local organic potatoes are terroir-forward expressions; you are really tasting the local soil and water of Kagoshima.
After the tasting, we all gathered around at a table in the office for some coffee. These final sit-downs are very common in Japan, and usually summarize the day, answer questions, or bring up any points that got left out during the rest of the day.
I was just really glad to have some coffee!
Yagi-san pouring us coffee.
Yagi-san, between tending to the farm, running Yachiyoden, and assisting in fermentation and distillation, rarely gets time off. Kagoshima was just coming off a recent spike in Covid cases when we were visiting, and Yagi-san got sick and the team had to cut production in half, coordinating who would come in to check on the fermentations in his absence. Luckily, he recovered just fine and was feeling great by the time we came.
While he explained all of this in Japanese, he then took it upon himself to make us a chart (see below). His timeline from onset to 'resistant' took about 20 days. He told us that the 20-day interval in the center of the chart was 'very, very bad.'
Yagi-san explaining his difficult 20 day bout with Covid.
And that just about covers our visit to Yachiyoden! They usually keep quite busy with all of the various stages of production, and it's not super common for them to get visitors, so we felt extremely fortunate.
Here's hoping that more Yachiyoden shochus will make its way over and we can share these meticulously-made drinks together very soon.