Hombo Tsunuki Distillery

Hombo Tsunuki Distillery: Kishogura

There are few family businesses as developed as the Hombo portfolio. Hombo Shuzo Co. Ltd. boasts shochu distilleries, whiskey distilleries, wineries, real estate, and an array of other affiliates related to everything from bottling to convenience stores. But it is still a family business with indelible ties to the communities of southern Kagoshima Prefecture. Its history there is embodied in the ancient stills still perched on concrete pedestals in a disused but pristine building at the Tsunuki Distillery. Company President, Mr. Kazuto Hombo, was kind enough to take us on a detailed tour of the distillery and storage facilities.

Please tell us more about your facilities here at the Tsunuki Distillery.
Matsuzaemon Hombo started a cotton processing operation at this site in 1872, which later became a sales company, and single-distilled shochu production officially began in 1909. This distillery started making multipledistilled shochu quite quickly after the patent still became more widely available in Japan, and Tsunuki was later granted a license for making whiskey. Even though Hombo’s various factories have licenses to produce many different alcoholic beverages, we have carefully nurtured our shochu business using the delicious sweet potatoes that are famously cultivated in the southern part of the prefecture. Honkaku shochu continues to be the largest part of Hombo Distillery’s business, representing roughly 70% of our sales annually.

Hombo Distillery’s shochu is well-known and regarded all over Japan. Can you tell us the secret to the company’s success?
Over a period of decades, Hombo Distillery has used the natural resources of Southern Kyushu to create a line of balanced and delicious drinks. On top of that, I think it’s worth mentioning that we have a track record of being early adopters of new technology and quick movers into new markets. For example, we established offices in Fukuoka and Tokyo earlier than most other shochu makers, and that gave us a significant head start. I think that our diverse offering of beverages also promotes brand awareness and allows us to tell a variety of connected stories about where and how our drinks are made. As you know, we also have a shochu distillery on beautiful Yakushima off the southern coast of Kagoshima Prefecture. The master distiller there makes shochu that is not made at any of our other distilleries.

Can you share some of your thoughts on marketing with us, especially internationally?
Well, as I just mentioned, it’s important to tell stories about where our drinks are made. In Tsunuki’s case that means talking about the small community that has hosted our family business for generations. We really enjoy telling that story to audiences overseas, but one thing that is holding everyone back is the fact that shochu companies seem to be pursuing different markets. It would be far more effective if we worked together to enter new international markets at the same time. Actually, 95% of Hombo’s international sales are whiskey, and our global shochu sales effort is really just getting started. China and some Southeast Asian countries are our biggest customers at the moment.

How do people in this part of Kagoshima, Minami Satsuma, enjoy Hombo’s sweet potato shochu?
When I was a child, I remember that people would visit each other’s homes, sit at a table together, and pour each other small cups of shochu using tokuri and choko, much like people do when drinking nihonshu. Of course, many people drink our shochu oyuwari, but these days an increasing number of customers are drinking it mizuwari or mixed with soda, and this is especially true for younger generations. Our shochu goes well with all types of food, but I really like pairing it with oily dishes. Tonkotsu and tonsoku are excellent pairings, too. I’m pretty confident about pairing sweet potato shochu with anything that’s oily or a little bit sweet. For instance, chicken sashimi with sweet soy sauce and a glass of potato shochu is a delicious combination.

Is there anything new and exciting that you can share with us?
Yes, there are several things actually. As you can see, the distillery is undergoing extensive renovations, and we are looking forward to ramping up our whiskey production here. We’re aiming to produce about 72 kiloliters of whiskey during our first year of operation, and we have a couple new pot stills arriving in September. Also, we just received our brand new Italian-made hybrid still that will be used to make gin. With regard to foreign sales and marketing, we have had some recent successes at international competitions. At the 2016 San Francisco World Sprits Competition (SFWSC), our Kishogura and Yakushima Daishizenrin Imo brands both won gold medals. We also had two winners at the 2016 International Spirits Challenge (ISC) in London, England. Arawaza Sakurajima and Kuradashi Ko’on Decanter both took home gold, a first for honkaku shochu at this competition. The latter is a smooth 40% ABV drink that marries sweet potato shochu with a cask-aged rice shochu that is actually matured in an old stone building at the Tsunuki Distillery. Other changes involve the remodeling of the old house across the street which is being turned into an educational and tasting facility for visitors. There will also be a space for buying the drinks that are made here. It will have an outdoor deck where people can sip the drinks made at this distillery while looking over the Japanese-style garden and stream. I was actually born in that house, so I’m excited that it will be used to bring shochu and whiskey to a wider audience.

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Pot stills create shochu with an ABV just shy of 40%.

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Hombo’s brand new Italian hybrid still will be used to make some of the new drinks being planned, such as gin.

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There are many beautiful stone buildings at the Tsunuki Distillery. This one is used for aging spirits.

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A crowd of oak barrels waiting to be filled.

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Master distiller, Ryuji Hombo, stands guard in front of a warehouse filled with shochu maturing in giant earthenware pots.

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Sweet potato shochu ages in giant earthenware vessels.

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6594, Kaseda Tsunuki, Minamisatsuma-shi, Kagoshima