Hombo Shuzo: Chiran Distillery

Hombo Shuzo: Chiran Distillery

Hombo’s Chiran facilities have already been distilling at full tilt for about a month when I arrive. The sweet potato delivery area opposite the distillery’s offices smells earthy and pungent as large hoppers feed the morning’s haul into large rinsing machines. The production season typically begins just after Japan’s Obon holiday which brings with it the eagerly anticipated sweet potato harvest. Less than a mile from the coast, the distillery’s 1970s era buildings are perched amongst rising rows of sweet potatoes, and a little further up the hill to the north, tea. Mr. Toshihiro Sezaki, the distillery manager and an encyclopedia of fermentation and distillation data, walks me through the distillery on a warm Saturday afternoon.

“Hombo acquired this distillery in 1973. It has the largest production output of all our distilleries, and we transfer the shochu to the city for bottling.”

He’s referring to Hombo’s headquarters in Kagoshima City. Hombo actually has four distilleries in Kagoshima Prefecture. In addition to Chiran and Kagoshima City, there’s Tsunuki up in the mountains, home base for the group’s Mars whisky brand, plus an island shochu distillery on Yakushima 100 miles south of Kagoshima City by ferry. For its part, Chiran is responsible for producing two of Hombo’s most popular sweet potato shochu brands, “Kuro Koji Jitate Sakurajima” and the infinitely sessionable “Arawaza Sakurajima.”

“All of our sweet potatoes are sourced locally, from Makurazaki just west of here to Ei a bit down the coast to the east,” Mr. Sezaki remarks as we walk past two six ton stills that are physically located on the exterior of the distillery. Both are rarities: the fact that such a large distillery sources all of its potatoes locally is laudable, and the decision to position two large pot stills outside is indicative of the relatively mild winters in these parts. There are more stills inside, of course.

“The smaller pot stills inside produce a gentler shochu that is blended into some of our major brands. 90% of what we make is joatsu (atmospheric pressure), but we also make “Seiten Sakurajima” here which is 100% genatsu (vacuum pressure) distilled,” he comments as I ogle the alcohol percentage and temperature gauges. Hombo Chiran has a special glass box shaped like a fish tank where distillery workers can carefully watch a pair of hydrometers bob in the fresh distillate. This is how they know exactly when to stop the flow of distillation from the stills before it drops down into the single digits.

Joatsu distillation is the norm in the sweet potato shochu category, but genatsu is well-regarded for creating lighter and fruitier sweet potato distillates. This is precisely the case with Seiten Sakurajima which exudes a lovely banana aroma and carries a soft sweetness when served at lower temperatures, either on the rocks or mizuwari (cool water mix). There’s also an 8% ABV sparkling version for occasions that call for a bit of bubbly.

Wandering deeper into the distillery, we arrive just in time to watch the newest batch of sweet potatoes, delivered straight from a nearby field, come out of the washer and onto the meandering conveyor belts that weave through a gauntlet of smock-clad, cleaver-wielding workers. The ends and bruised bits are nimbly removed, and larger specimens are lopped into more manageable chunks. We stop to taste some of the spuds after a slow roll through the conveyor steamer. They’re undeniably sweet after being force hydrated in a machine that can handle six tons per hour. After cooling, the sweet potatoes are finely shredded and fed into the secondary fermentation tanks where they will be fermented over a period of about nine days.

Hombo Chiran processes roughly 10 tons of rice and five times as much sweet potato every day. That translates to somewhere around 90 tons of fermenting mash and an output of 30,000 1.8 liter bottles (25% ABV). Needless to say, that’s a lot of shochu. In fact, if you drank a standard 720 ml bottle of shochu every day, it would take a little over 205 years to finish Hombo Chiran’s daily production.

But even at such scale, it’s important to note that there is an intense attention to detail that runs through the distillery. Nowhere is that clearer than the traditional chilling coils used in the condensing tank immediately after distillation. Stills are equipped with an apparatus that collects the alcohol vapors from inside the main chamber and funnels them through a pipe that condenses them back into liquid. Pot stills are no different, but what makes the stills at Chiran special is that the distillery chooses to maintain and employ old tin coils to slowly chill the vapor into shochu.

This is a reverent nod to the history and tradition of making shochu in Kagoshima, something that the good people at the company wish dearly to preserve. Most distilleries have long since abandoned tin in favor of steel which is far easier to maintain and replace. Indeed, the tin coils, lashed to a lattice of wood with rope, would be considered antiques if they weren’t still actively employed in the distillation process. According to Mr. Sezaki, these older chilling coils slowly drop the temperature of the distillate from around 90 to 100 degrees Celsius at the top to about 30 at the bottom. Equally important, a tin chilling coil can remove some of the impurities from the shochu during its winding journey through a pool of cold water.

After a close-up look at the old and new, the visit confirms my long-held suspicion that Hombo, with its multiple and diverse distillery locations, is uniquely positioned to navigate the opportunities and pitfalls coming Japan’s way. Hombo Chiran provides the extra capacity and quality control that affords the entire group an additional layer of flexibility. Embodied by its most famous brand, “Sakurajima,” named after the iconic volcano across the bay from Kagoshima City, it certainly feels like Hombo Distillery has what it takes to stick around forever.

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Toshihiko Uemura, Master Distiller (left) and Toshihiro Sezaki, Distillery Manager (right).

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Kuro Koji Jitate Sakurajima (left) is one of the main brands produced at the distillery.
Arawaza Sakurajima (right) is an exceptionally smooth-sipping example of sweet potato shochu.

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Steamed sweet potatoes.

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Hombo relies on carefully monitored pot stills to create its award-winning shochu.

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Tin cooling coils are used in the distillery’s six smaller stills.

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A row of raised condensers turns vapor into shochu.

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6594, Kaseda Tsunuki, Minamisatsuma-shi, Kagoshima