At the beginning of September of 2022, I had the opportunity to visit a number of shochu distilleries in Kagoshima and Miyazaki prefectures. For the Kagoshima portion, president and toji (master distiller) of Yamatozakura Shuzo Tekkan Wakamatsu was kind enough to take me in his car to some unmissable handmade sweet potato shochu distilleries.
We finished off the day with a trip to Ichikikushino, a small city on the Western coast of Kagoshima, home to quite a few distilleries packed into a small area, not least of which being Tekkan-san's own Yamatozakura Shuzo. Yamatozakura is situated on a strip of land about 350 meters from Shiraishi Shuzo (read about my visit to Shiraishi here) and across the street from Hamada Shuzo, a truly gargantuan shochu operation.
Hamada sort of looms off in the distance – it's quite the contrast.
The front of Yamatozakura and entrance to the warehouse and shipping area.
Turn around and there's Hamada. Bonus style points for Yamatozakura's retired kame (traditional clay pots) lining the distillery's property.
We had just finished a long day of driving and visiting distilleries – plus, Tekkan-san's distilling season was not set to start for another few weeks, so this visit was brief. Still, I got to take a good look around.
Yamatozakura Shuzo is such a small operation that Tekkan-san does most of the technical work on his own, but does get help from local obachan and ojichan (grandmas + grandpas) who had previously spent decades working in shochu distilleries with certain tasks like washing and cutting sweet potatoes.
For a narrated "day-in-the-life" perspective of a kurabito (brewery worker) at Yamatozakura Shuzo, be sure to check out the special 3-part episode of Japan Distilled (Ep. 34-36) in which co-host Stephen Lyman describes his experience working as a longtime seasonal worker at Yamatozakura. It's fascinating, very detailed, and gave me a ton of context to the things I was to view before my visit to the distillery.
A sweet potato washer.
Gloves hanging to dry, likely belonging to the local obaachan kurabito.
I then got to see the distillery floor, with the traditional kame (clay fermentation pots) used for the shochu fermentations. Tekkan-san told me his mother wrote the kanji on the wooden placards denoting batch number and details. He said his writing isn't as nice as her's.
A row of kame awaiting the next production cycle.
Tekkan-san also showed me a number of kame filled with water. He does this periodically when they're not in circulation to check for cracks in the ceramic. If the water level goes down further than what could be explained by regular evaporation, it may indicated that he needs to repair the pot. Kame jikomi (clay pot fermentation) is the backbone of Yamatozakura's shochu, traditional through and through, so taking care of these handmade pieces is essential to keeping the operation going.
A kame filled with water.
Yamatozakura's pot still used for their single-distillation runs.
At long last, I got to taste some of Tekkan-san's resting genshu (final pre-dilution distillate). Each kame is sealed tightly with a plastic cover and wooden lid to keep light out.
When the cover gets taken off one of these pots, the aroma is pure insanity. Think about your favorite aromas from your favorite shochu, magnified it about five times and carried by a gust of warm air. It's pretty remarkable!
Tekkan scooping out a nice splash of Beni Imo genshu.
This had all of the gorgeous berries and cream character of the Beni I was accustomed to, but with so much extra depth and body.
We had a brief wrap-up in Tekkan-san's shipping area. Cases and cases of isshobin (1.8L bottles) and 720ml bottles all packed up and ready to fulfill orders for local restaurants and liquor stores, as well as some destinations outside of Kagoshima.
Tekkan-san only recently started exporting his shochu (including his two main brands which we are carrying) to the U.S., but he has been busy getting other releases ready for the European market, including some special genshu bottlings among other things. These take extra time and resources, as Europe only allows 750ml sizes for spirits – he needs to re-bottle and label his shochus from his standard 720ml size to make them legal to sell in these markets.
I got to see some of his more rare and limited local offerings, including a lightly-filtered 500ml bottle with a label made by a local artist.
A smattering of Yamatozakura Beni Imo labels, oyuwari glasses, and 900ml, 500ml, and isshobin bottlings of their shochu.
Two posters of Tekkan-san with his father and kids looking proudly down upon a kame.
Tekkan-san downloading some final tidbits to happy camper Ian in his new Yamatozakura maekake (apron). And if I never mentioned it previously in this post, it was very hot.
Tekkan-san is an exuberant, generous, and funny guy. He went far above and far beyond what any reasonable person could expect just to show a shochu-obsessed traveler the specialties of his industry, and I'm beyond grateful for the opportunity to learn about his particular craft and artistry in the framework of a centuries-old distilling tradition.
Tekkan-san said if he was to be directly quoted on one thing, it would be this:
重く作って軽く売る omoku tsukutte karuku uru
I take this to mean "make something with dignity and purpose, and you can sell it with ease." This philosophy resonates with me. In the seemingly esoteric world of shochu (or anything we deem worthy of our time and effort), it takes no small amount of passion and determination to properly distill and convey what it is that we love about what we do. The hope is that this passion will be infectious and can inspire others to see what's so great about these handmade, exquisite drinks. I sincerely hope all of you get the chance to taste a sampling from the microcosm of vigor and grit that is Yamatozakura from Ichikikushino in Kagoshima, Japan.
Thank you as always for reading! And of course, enjoy shochu!