Takahashi Distillery

Takahashi Distillery

The red spider lilies are in bloom, and two days of rain have left everything in Hitoyoshi City pristine. The nearby Kuma River is fed by streams tumbling through culverts and amongst rice paddies filled with tilting, lemon-tinged stalks of rice. It’s nearly time to bring in the year’s bounty, which appears plentiful thanks to a relatively light typhoon season. This is Kuma Shochu country, arguably Japan’s oldest sustained shochu tradition.

The standard bearer of the storied Kuma Shochu tradition is none other than Takahashi Distillery about a 10 minute drive (or 40 minute walk) from Hitoyoshi train station. This relatively young outcropping of metal structures is close to downtown, and like most parts of this small city, the 35 year old distillery is flanked by rice fields. Takahashi Distillery actually has multiple locations which produce different brands, and I’m at the company’s relatively new headquarters which averages an output five times that of its sister distillery on the edge of the Hitoyoshi Basin in Taragi (featured in the 2016 edition of Zipangu shochu magazine). 2020 will mark the 120th anniversary of the distillery’s founding.

Most notably, this facility is responsible for producing Hakutake Shiro, the company’s popular rice shochu brand which also happens to be the best-selling rice shochu in the world. The vacuum pressure distilled drink is made from rice produced primarily in Western Japan, and it’s incredibly smooth. The balanced aroma and palate have made it a staple at restaurants and izakaya across Kyushu, but the brand has also found success in major metropolitan parts of Japan. The drink’s mild aroma and soft attack make it perfectly suited for a variety dishes, including sushi and chicken. However, there’s no reason to stick to Japanese dishes when drinking Shiro because it pairs well with oily dishes as well. Don’t be afraid to drink it alongside Chinese or western dishes.

On the international front, “Hakutake Shiro” recently won gold at the annual Monde Selection competition. They’re soon going to need a bigger showcase because 2018 is the fifth year running that Shiro has won the top prize. The carefully selected rice and proprietary yeast strain have created a consistently delicious rice shochu that exudes a refined balance of fruit sweetness and satisfying graininess. As you can probably imagine, at 25% alcohol Shiro is highly sessionable.

Shiro has also become a staple at finer liquor shops across the United States. We found Shiro on shelves everywhere from San Francisco to New York City and many cities in between. Takahashi Distillery sees great potential growth in the American market, even though the average consumer has never heard of shochu before. The distillery’s biggest export destination is still China, but sales there are almost entirely thanks to Japanese expats, and the unstable political relationship between the two countries has meant that some Japanese companies are moving their operations to other parts of Asia.

Sales in the US, on the other hand, have remained steady thus far. This is encouraging for the good people at Takahashi because domestic sales have been stagnant for several years. The well-documented challenges in Japan are demographic in nature. The country is aging at an alarming rate; there were roughly 17 million people in the 18-26 age group 20 years ago, but just 11 million as of 2018. According to recent estimates, that number could dip below eight million within the next 30 years.

Further enflaming the situation is the fact that younger cohorts drink less than previous generations did. Much less in fact. Whether it’s due to how effortless communication has become in the era of smartphones or some other abstract trend, the alcohol industry needs to develop new markets. The most logical yet daunting choice is to educate new generations of consumers abroad.

To that end, Takahashi Distillery has unleashed some new products that riff on the much-loved “plum wine” trend that is so popular with tourists coming to Japan. The company’s two new umeshu (sweet plum liqueur) products have proved to be an instant success both at home and abroad with exultations appearing regularly on Instagram any time non-Japanese consumers can get their hands on them. “Anokoro no Umeshu” is a 13% alcohol umeshu and has won Monde Selection gold three years running. “Umepon,” its 10% ABV cousin, is a blend of the Shiro based Anokoro no Umeshu and dekopon juice, and it has earned Monde Selection gold for the past five years.

But perhaps most impressive is the effort expended to create “Hyaku,” Takahashi’s zenkoji rice shochu made from a blend of genshu from three different ginjo yeast distillations. The fragrance is outstanding thanks to the yeast, and the drink carries noticeable umami notes due partly to the use of award-winning Mori no Kumasan rice during fermentation. This delicately balanced 23% ABV rice shochu was born to be paired with food, and Hyaku begs to be enjoyed alongside an omakase sushi dinner. The distillery makes just 3,000 bottles of Hyaku every year, and the only surefire way to get your hands on one of the elegant 500 ml clear, teardrop bottles is to order it directly from the distillery.

Another great reason to visit Takahashi Distillery is the beautiful Kuma Shochu museum that they’ve set up just across the road from the large distillery. Hakutake Denshogura welcomes visitors from all across Japan, and it is not uncommon to see large tour buses parked in the lot out front. The museum houses a very approachable introduction to the Kuma Shochu tradition, now protected internationally by the WTO as a regional appellation like champagne or scotch. This is where you go when you want a comprehensive education about the time-honored Kuma Shochu category.

After a multilingual video explains how Kuma Shochu has been made from Japanese rice and water from the Kuma River, one of the three fastest flowing in all of Japan, visitors are taken through exhibits explaining how Kuma Shochu has been made for centuries and how Takahashi Distillery markets its products. At the end of the tour there is a tasting room where non-drivers can freely sample a number of Takahashi’s delicious drinks. Importantly, this building is a heartfelt ode to the Kuma Shochu tradition, so bottles from the other 27 Kuma Shochu makers are on display as well.

This is a surprise for some visitors who are unaccustomed to a company promoting its competitor’s products, but Hakutake Denshogura’s main aim is to educate the masses about one of Kyushu’s proudest enduring traditions—a pressing need given that nearly 70% of Takahashi’s sales are within Kyushu Island. Hitoyoshi City is fondly referred to as Kyushu’s little Kyoto, and while it is similarly landlocked and even trickier to access, Takahashi sees its future inextricably tied to the rice, water, and people of this place. There are no rising tides, proverbial or otherwise, to lift all ships on the racing Kuma River, but even if it is leading the way, Takahashi Distillery knows that all of Hitoyoshi City’s remaining 28 distilleries must head in the same direction in order for Kuma Shochu to continue to thrive.

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The distillery is only meters from the heart of its products. Rice paddies stretch out in all directions.

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Takahashi Shuzo has pulled in an impressive haul of international awards.

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Shunji Fujimoto, Master Distiller at Takahashi Distillery.

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“Umepon”has proven to be a smash hit both at home and abroad.

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The entrance to Hakutake Denshogura Museum.

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