Kirishima Distillery

Kirishima Distillery: Bringing Kuro Koji Shochu to the Masses

Miyakonojo, an expansive city in Miyazaki Prefecture, rests right on the border with Kagoshima Prefecture. Kagoshima was long the undisputed production leader of premium sweet potato shochu, but the relentlessly growing Kirishima Distillery has recently helped Miyazaki Prefecture take the overall lead. Back in 2003, the company was eighth in overall sales of honkaku shochu, but only 10 years later Kirishima was leading the industry and had more than quadrupled its annual shipments in the interim. We sat down with Mr. Naoyuki Kuroki, Adviser of the Management Planning Division, to learn a bit more about what has made it the top-selling honkaku shochu producer in Japan.

Please tell us about Kirishima Distiller’s background and history.
2016 is actually the company’s 100th anniversary. The second distillery head, Junkichi Enatsu, was responsible for much of the company’s modernization immediately after WWII, conducting rigorous research and innovation to improve every aspect of shochu production. In fact, some machines that were named after him are still commonly in use today. Furthermore, he is credited with finding the distillery’s current water source, Kirishima Rekkasui, and in 1957 he also spearheaded efforts to start calling single-distilled shochu “honkaku shochu” in addition to “otsurui shochu.” Current president, Yoriyuki Enatsu, has led the company since 1996, two years before our best-selling Kuro Kirishima label was released in Miyazaki Prefecture. In May of 1999 it was made available nationwide, and our Kirishima Distillery has enjoyed steady growth ever since.

What factors led to the national success of Kuro Kirishima?
Our distillery has always had a strong connection with the local culture and community, and that has consistently been a contributing factor to the company’s growth. Kuro Kirishima was fortunate to debut at a time when the domestic market was literally thirsty for high-quality regional products. The entire Kirishima line is made with excellent local ingredients; everything from the water to the sweet potatoes are sourced nearby. The mineral water that we use, Kirishima Rekkasui, is drawn from the vast Miyakonojo Basin reservoir 100 meters underground, and it is highly regarded across the country. We use the best locally-produced sweet potatoes, and we meet regularly with farmers to improve communication and keep tabs on how the year’s harvest is going. Kuro Kirishima uses kogane sengan sweet potatoes because of their delicious sweetness and high starch content. And of course, the kuro (black) koji is a key factor because it helps add complexity and umami to the finished product. Importantly, Japanese consumers were interested in all sorts of kuro products around the same time that the third so-called “honkaku shochu boom” took place a little over a decade ago. Kuro sesame and kuro vinegar were highly sought after at that time, mainly because they were seen as being healthy products. Kuro koji shochu came along and fit well with this narrative because honkaku shochu is low in calories and relatively hangover-resistant. It is probably fair to say Kuro Kirishima benefitted from this trend in the beginning, but we think that the drink’s balanced aromas and flavors have helped sustain its growth nationwide.

Indeed, back in 2001 Kuro Kirishima was only available in a few prefectures outside of Kyushu. Now it is widely available across the country. Is Kirishima Distillery working on developing new markets overseas?
That’s very true. It is available nearly everywhere one travels in Japan. And I think that a stabilizing factor is the synergy between Kuro Kirishima and the other shochu in the line. Aka (red) Kirishima became popular quite quickly after its release in October of 2003, and last year Shiro (white) Kirishima was brought to market. These three premium shochu have worked well together to build brand recognition across the country. And to answer your question about international markets, yes, Kirishima Distillery is constantly exploring new opportunities abroad. Kuro Kirishima, for instance, is available in many izakaya in the United States, especially in big cities such as New York and Los Angeles. However, I think it is still fair to say that we are mostly focused on the domestic market here in Japan. Our distillery is constantly striving to maintain the balanced flavors and aromas that consumers have come to expect from Kirishima honkaku shochu.

How do people in your home market, Miyazaki Prefecture, enjoy Kirishima honkaku shochu?
One interesting thing about honkaku shochu culture in Miyazaki Prefecture is that 20% ABV product is quite common. After WWII, there was a lot of bootlegging going on, and the government wanted to price illegal alcohol out of the market by reducing the tax rate on shochu bottled at 20%. Many distillers across Kyushu did just that, but years later when the tax rate was amended again, most premium shochu makers resumed bottling at the standard 25%. Many places in Miyazaki, however, still bottle some of their product at 20%. Kuro Kirishima and Shiro Kirishima, for example, come in 20 and 25% versions. Many folks drink shochu oyuwari (mixed with warm water), which is perhaps the more traditional style. Younger generations, on the other hand, might be more likely to drink their shochu mizuwari (mixed with cool water) or on the rocks. As you know, sweet potato shochu can be paired with dishes from a diverse background of culinary traditions. The line of Kirishima Distillery’s shochu is no exception, and it is our sincere hope that people around the world will begin to enjoy shochu in their daily lives as is common here in Japan.

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Steamed kogane sengan sweet potatoes give off a delicate aroma.

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Large conditioning tanks hint at the size of Kirishima’s annual output.

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A vintage Kirishima advertising panel hangs in the corridor.

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From the Kirishima shochu line: (left to right) Kuro Kirishima, Aka Kirishima.

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A distillery worker checks the fermenting mash’s aroma.

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Pot stills waft vaporized alcohol into waiting condenser columns.

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4-28-1, Shimokawahigashi, Miyakonojo-shi, Miyazaki