Hombo Denshogura Distillery

Hombo Denshogura Distillery

Wherever there is pristine water, you will find people making alcohol with it. This is a nearly universal truth, even in the foreboding mountainous landscape of Yakushima Island. A World Heritage site, the island is described as a “primeval temperate rainforest” by UNESCO with ancient yakusugi cedar trees and more than 30 mountain peaks rising abruptly to over 1,000 meters. That’s a lot of vertical when considering that Yakushima is less than one third the size of Oahu Island in Hawaii. This means that whatever water falls on the island moves downhill quickly, picking up relatively few minerals along the way.

“It rains 35 days a month on Yakushima,” joked Hombo Denshogura Distillery head, Ichiyo Okizono. We enjoyed both sunshine and a bit of cleansing rain every day that this observer was on Yakushima, a short jetfoil or flight from the Kagoshima mainland. Hombo Distillery began distilling shochu on the island in 1960, taking advantage of the unique land- scape, micro-climate, and ultra-soft water to its distinct advantage. If the island were bigger, or offered more arable land, you can bet that there would be more distilleries here. Nearby Tanegashima Island has twice as many shochu distilleries despite being about 50 km2 smaller.

Yakushima Denshogura is arguably the most traditional distillery in the Hombo group, and also the smallest. All of the shochu produced here is the product of handmade koji and clay pot fermen- tation. There are 58 clay pots lined tidily in the floor, shipped to the distillery’s verdant location from the Osumi side of Kagoshima well over half a century ago. The handmade clay pots, which are large enough for an adult to hide in, are buried in the distillery floor so that only the opening at the top and the pot’s shoulders are exposed. This centuries-old tech- nique leverages the earth’s ability to help cool the fermentation while also making the pots easy to stir without ladders or raised platforms.

Yakushima Denshogura also has a traditional koji room, a clear indication of the distillery’s small size and dedication to shochu’s roots. The koji room can handle roughly 200 kg of koji rice per day, all of which is then used to start the fermentation in the clay pots which dot a wide swath of the distillery floor. Off to the side sits a one ton stainless steel pot still, a humble size when compared to the distillation capacity of many other distilleries in Kyushu. Yakushima Denshogura can safely claim to be a small batch distillery

The distillery makes a couple of brands that are only sold on the island, such as the delightful “Mizunomori,”but a majority of the distillery’s output has a larger audience in mind. Like all of the shochu distilleries in the Hombo family, Yakushima Denshogura continues to collect accolades, and 2019 has been a particularly fortuitous year.“Yakushima Daishizenrin Mugi,”a 25% alcohol (ABV) all-barley shochu, was awarded a gold medal and 95 points at this year’s Interna- tional Wine and Spirits Competition. The fragrant barley notes carry a bit of cacao with them, and it’s superb on the rocks.

Three other Yakushima Denshogura creations were among five Hombo products that won gold at the 2019 San Francisco World Spirits Competition (SWSC). Notably,“Onze” (French for 11) is a limited 42% ABV all-barley shochu that spends 11 years in clay pots in a long tunnel dug into the mountain. Key production notes include the use of black koji and atmospheric pressure distillation, both of which might be considered relatively uncommon in the wider barley shochu world. Teamed with extended pot aging, the result is a lusciously smooth barley shochu that has hints of maple amongst a sweet barley profile. Only 4,800 bottles of “Onze”were ever created, so grab a couple of bottles of this tunnel- aged shochu before it disappears forever.
“Genshu Yakusugi”also won a gold medal at SWSC 2019, and it picked up another at this year’s International Spirits Challenge. The 37% ABV spirit is an undiluted shochu made from Kagoshima koganesengan sweet potatoes sourced from the fields of Kagoshima Prefecture. It has a faint chocolate sweetness on the nose which is complemented by the roundness and depth of the potatoes. There’s a prickly earthiness that really comes to life when mixed with hot water, but I’d also recommend trying it on the rocks or with cool water mixed in.

One brand that hasn’t been mentioned yet, but has garnered several accolades over the years, is one of this observer’s favorites.“Yakushima Daishizenrin Imo,”a 25% ABV relative of the barley product mentioned earlier, is a delicious sweet po- tato shochu that can be served a number of different ways. It’s made with locally harvested shiro yutaka sweet potatoes, a varietal that thrives in Yakushima’s tricky climate.

“Daishizenrin Imo is versatile, and it’s especially enjoyable when mixed with soda water,”said Mr. Okizono.“In fact, it’s one of the more popular brands in our tasting shop with non-Japanese visitors.”Despite not being the most sought-after sweet potatoes for cooking, shiro yutaka can exude a refreshing fruitiness during fermentation. This makes the shochu an excellent candidate for chilling, and“Yakushima Daishizenrin Imo”is perhaps one of the best sweet potato options for summer shochu cocktails.

Mr. Okizono futher explained that hundreds of thousands of tourists, both from other parts of Japan and abroad, visit Yakushima annually. About 6,000 of those visit the distillery each year, many arriving from Shanghai or Hong Kong. While there is certainly the appeal of the small batch story which Yakushima Denshogura can proudly tell, the distillery also has significant experience with aging spirits. In addition to the mountain tunnel aging used for brands like“Onze,”the distillery started aging whisky in 2016 following the completion of a new cellar. The whisky is shipped to Yakushima from Hombo’s Shinshu Distillery in Nagano Prefecture and Tsunuki Distillery in the mountains of Kagoshima proper. According to Mr. Okizono, Yakushima’s humidity has a unique impact on the sweetness and roundness of the spirits aged on the island.

Yakushima Denshogura has also recently started incorporating one of the island’s most indelible and truly enduring qualities, its cedar trees. The distillery has begun experimenting with finishing sho- chu in cedar barrels. The wood has such a characteristic aroma that no more than a few months of aging in locally crafted jisugi (young cedar) casks is required to impart a smooth, woody spiciness. Keep your eyes peeled for some ground-breaking new cedar-aged brands from Yakushima Denshogura in the coming years.

For those looking to check Yakushima off their bucket list, keep April in mind. It’s the time of year when the distillery holds its fresh shochu festival. About 1,000 shochu lovers get together to enjoy Yakushima Denshogura’s youngest creations. There’s singing, dancing, and plenty of afternoon drinking to be enjoyed by everyone in attendance. If you’re able to attend, then you’re in for a great time. Just make sure that you’re not driving, and remember to bring an umbrella.

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Soft freshwater, which is low in mineral content, is abundant on Yakushima.

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Distillery workers inspect and clean the day’s sweet potato shipment.

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Making koji by hand requires meticulous temperature and humidity control.

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Ceramic vats poke out of the distillery floor. These vats will help regulate the temperature of the fermentation.

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Newly filled bottles of shochu spin through the labeling machine.

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The distillery has a cozy shop where guests can also freely sample and purchase Yakushima Denshogura’s many creations.

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