Kyoya Distillery

Kyoya Distillery – Japanese Tradition Meets Gin

Shinichiro Watanabe helps lead and innovate within a nascent category of spirit, Japanese Gin. As the head of one of Kyushu's oldest distilleries, Watanabe wants Kyoya Distillery in Miyazaki Prefecture to stay true to its premium shochu roots while pushing the envelope of what can be achieved with the traditional beverage's sophisticated flavor profile. His mission is to entice customers with new products which highlight the darling of Southern Kyushu, sweet potato shochu.

Lack of International Shochu Knowledge Blocking Growth
One of the biggest challenges facing the shochu industry is the lack of information about its products overseas. It's understandably difficult to sell shochu to people that have never heard of it before. And for those who have, there's a dearth of information about the products and what makes them unique. For distilleries that jump through the hoops to sell their products overseas, the payoff is sales that typically equate to less than one percent of the firm's annual shipments.

The story from most companies shipping shochu internationally is that sales have pretty much stayed steady over the past decade, neither rising nor falling significantly from one year to the next. The question is how to break through this stagnancy. Kyoya Distillery in Nichinan, Miyazaki Prefecture, has a clever way of inspiring curiosity about shochu, and that's by using it to make gin.

The Birth of Japanese Gin
Enter "Yuzugin," a multi-year passion project that is helping introduce sweet potato shochu to non-Japanese drinkers while revolutionizing the thinking on what can be done with a drink that is normally understood to be finicky when it comes to blending with ingredients other than water or soda.

Yuzugin is a citrusy iteration of the drink that pulls the majority of its flavor from, you guessed it, yuzu (citron). The aroma is both unmistakable and remarkable given the fact that this gin is bottled at 94 proof. One would expect there to be a much stronger alcohol presence on the nose, but Kyoya has found a way to tame it with a careful blend of the botanical notes weaned out of the mostly Miyazaki-grown ingredients. For instance, additional tang is provided by the use of Hyuga Natsu Mikan and hebesu, both local specialties from the citrus family.

Finding the right mix of ingredients was not easy. Company president, Watanabe, remarked that "We actually wanted to add shiitake mushrooms, but it threw the balance off. So we decided not to include them in the blend." Indeed, Yuzugin strikes an excellent synergy between the requisite juniper notes and some of the less expected ingredients that will lead people to call this a truly Japanese gin.

One of the most interesting components of the flavor profile is the clear sansho presence which underlines the citrus. Sansho is a Japanese species of Sichuan pepper, and it adds a refreshing prickly counterweight to the fruity sweetness of the gin. Additional complexity is found in the use of cloves, ginger, and coriander. It is the delicate blend of these diverse flavors that helps to keep the admittedly high alcohol level from taking control. One noted quality of Yuzugin is that it doesn't punch like most spirits in the upper 40s. It doesn't have the same, pronounced burn.

Creating an Unforgettable Japanese Spirit
But let's not forget the most interesting part of Kyoya's newest creation. This gin is made with a sweet potato shochu base. 40% of Yuzugin's blend is a combination of Kyoya's revered "Kame no Shizuku" brand and its "Sora & Kaze & Daichi" offering. That means that koji is in the mix as well, adding even more palate variables to the flavor profile. Many have commented that sweet potato shochu is too earthy and fragrant to be used as a base for such a complex class of spirit, but Yuzugin may change the calculus there. The lovely array of aromas and flavors built into this drink should turn heads abroad and create new opportunities for cocktail mixing.

The botanicals used to make Yuzugin are fermented and distilled separately, a time-consuming process that affords more control over the resulting flavors through deliberate adjustments to fermentation and distillation duration and temperature. And Kyoya Distillery has opted to stick with a small 200 liter stainless steel Japanese still, unlike its growing number of peers that have imported shiny Italian or German stills to help mold their new, more western concoctions.

Shochu as the Vehicle for Something New and Delicious
Mr. Watanabe explained that Kyoya Distillery hopes to help start the conversation about shochu by creating a dynamic and delicious product that will naturally cause people to inquire as to how it is made.

He said that he's seen how this process might work through firsthand experience. "We participated in an event in Hollywood recently, and we're part of a team of Miyazaki shochu makers that does tastings in New York at the beginning of the year," he said.

"Yuzugin can't be labeled as shochu because it uses unpermitted ingredients such as fruit, and the alcohol percentage is too high, but we believe that we may be able to introduce something that consumers don't know, shochu, via something that they do [gin]."

Only time will tell if Kyoya can be successful with its bigger goal of bringing premium shochu to a wider audience. One thing, however, is certain: Yuzugin is a delicious libation that is certain to help establish a new category—Japanese Gin.

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The small still used to make "Yuzugin" near the distillery entrance.

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Kyoya's main pot still which is used to make its many shochu brands.

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The season's first batch of rice koji.

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Old clay pots wait their turn to cradle the fermenting shochu mash.

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Mr. Watanabe proudly displays his Japanese gin, "Yuzugin."

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