Hombo Tsunuki Distillery

Hombo’s MARS Tsunuki Distillery: One of Japan’s Foremost Shochu Makers Gets Serious about Whisky and Gin

Award-winning Kagoshima-based Hombo Distillery is well-regarded for its range of delectable beverages. The family firm is best known domestically as a fine producer of premium shochu with four distilleries in Kagoshima Prefecture. More recently, however, Hombo has begun pouring its extensive energy and resources into producing some of the most exciting whisky products now available in Japan. Add to that a new gin brand, and Hombo Distillery can easily claim to be one of the most innovative distilleries in the country.

MARS Tsunuki Distillery: Hombo’s Newest Whisky Distillery
Hombo has been making whisky since 1949, but the Tsunuki Distillery has only been in operation since 2016. MARS Shinshu Distillery has been producing all of Hombo’s whisky products since 1985, but now the increased capacity is creating new opportunities for the company. In addition to the two new alembic whisky stills in the production facility, increased warehouse space means that there is potential for aging whisky from the Shinshu plant in Nagano Prefecture.

Along with the new storage facility on Yakushima Island southeast of the Kagoshima mainland, that makes three aging facilities in distinctly varied climates. The results promise to be eye-opening. With Nagano’s cooler climate, the whisky there tends to be mellower after years of cask aging. Tsunuki’s comparatively warmer and more humid summers are creating a firmer flavor profile in the whisky stored there. The jury is still out on the “new make” whisky resting in the Yakushima warehouse because aging just recently began there, but the strong winds coming off the coast promise to impart something altogether fresh and unlike anything the company has made before.

Strong Demand for MARS Whisky both at Home and Abroad
Japanese whisky has seen a rapid rise in its international reputation after winning several competitions recently, and Hombo’s whisky is no exception. Its “Mars Maltage 3 Plus 25 28 Years,” a blended malt whisky, was crowned world’s best at the 2013 World Whiskies Awards, and that accolade was buttressed by being named Craft Producer of the Year at the 2017 Icons of Whisky awards hosted by Whisky Magazine. As the awards pile up, so does demand, and roughly 90% of Hombo’s foreign exports are whisky rather than the premium shochu that accounts for the lion’s share of its domestic sales.

Imported Stills and Malt Meet Hombo’s Craftsmanship
Tsunuki is the heart of Hombo’s family business, so it’s appropriate that the company elected to locate its newest whisky distillery there. Inside are two custom-made gleaming European copper pot stills, sitting side by side waiting to distill one batch at a time. While there is some experimentation under way with malt produced in Japan, the Tsunuki Distillery currently uses malt imported from the United Kingdom. The mash ferments for three to four days before reaching an alcohol content of about 7%. The first pot still creates a spirit that is 20% alcohol by volume (ABV), and that is fed immediately into a second pot still which pumps out a 70% ABV “new make” spirit that, after dilution down to 60%, is ready to be aged in large casks. The new Tsunuki Distillery will allow Hombo to expand its impressive range of whiskey offerings over the coming years, something that fans both in Japan and overseas are eagerly looking forward to.

Hombo’s Newest Creation: Wa Bi Gin
A new hybrid still arrived by ship from Italy during the summer of 2016. It’s a beautiful copper and silver-colored combination of batch and column distillation technology that Hombo wasted no time in using to make a new Japanese gin: “Wa Bi Gin” is a delightful blend of citrus, spice, koji, and juniper. With the exception of the juniper berries which are sourced from Eastern Europe, the botanicals are grown in Kagoshima Prefecture. The 10 main ingredients are steeped in rice spirit in three groups. The first includes juniper, ginger, shiso, and tea. The citrusy botanicals, lemon, cumquat, yuzu, and hetsuka daidai, make up the second group, and the third is shell ginger and cinnamon tree leaf.

These three macerations are combined and distilled with a rice shochu that has been double-distilled, technically turning it into a rice spirit. Crucially, this means that koji is involved in the distillation and it adds a delicious depth of flavor to the final product. The undiluted gin distillate is 70% ABV after running through the hybrid still, but “Wa Bi Gin” is bottled at 45%. In addition to being a lovely addition to the growing class of Japanese gin, its name can also be translated as “Japanese Beauty,” a very apt description.

Visit the Idyllic Hōjō Café Bar after an Informative Distillery Tour
Following a distillery tour, guests are welcome to take a load off in the impeccably restored family home that Tsunekichi Hombo, the second company president, lived in with his family. The classic wooden interior evokes memories of its birth more than 80 years ago, and the dark wood motif extends to the new bar and outdoor deck with space to sit and enjoy a glass or two of Hombo’s famous liquors. During cooler months, try to grab a seat outside under the large white parasols which affords a view of the beautifully manicured garden. Back inside the Hōjō Café Bar you’ll find a small retail space where you can pick up a bottle of your favorite new whiskey or the fresh-on-the scene “Wa Bi Gin” that will soon find its way onto shelves at finer cocktail bars the world over.

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The pot portion of Hombo’s new hybrid still.

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Whisky casks stacked neatly inside the warehouse.

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Hombo’s aging facilities are open to the public. Look for the see-through casks which let you see what’s going on inside the barrel.

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Belly up to the gorgeous bar to try some of Hombo’s legendary spirits.

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Hombo’s new “Wa Bi Gin” is a delightful blend of Japanese botanicals and juniper berries.

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Bottles of Kishogura shochu, available exclusively at MARS Tsunuki, line a shelf in the Hojo shop.

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6594, Kaseda Tsunuki, Minamisatsuma-shi, Kagoshima