The earliest known written reference to shochu was discovered at Kōriyama Hachiman Shrine in the small valley city of Isa, Kagoshima. Dating from 1559, the reference is actually graffiti, a protest by the carpenters who hid their complaint within the roof’s rafters. They were upset that they were not given any shochu while working on the shrine, a considerable slight since the area already had strong ties to what would one day become the national spirit. Nearly five centuries later, Okuchi Distillery has consolidated and carried the Isa Basin’s resources and vigor, and helped create a prefectural mainstay in the process. The distillery’s flagship shochu, Kuro Isanishiki, is the best-selling shochu in the capital, Kagoshima City. The affable and energetic General Manager of Okuchi Distillery, Koichi Yamada, sat down with The Kyushu Advantage to tell us what makes the company unique.
Please tell us about Okuchi Distillery’s background and history.
This valley has long had a strong connection to shochu. Even though we make honkaku potato shochu at Okuchi, the fields surrounding the distillery are mostly rice paddies. This basin is surprisingly cold, the mornings can be just shocking when you remember that Isa is part of Kagoshima and not even on top of a mountain. The climate is sometimes compared to Niigata Prefecture far to the north, which means sweet potatoes do not easily grow here. But the water is excellent for making shochu, and that is why we are still here. And of course we use locally cultivated rice in our starter mashes. In 1970, 11 Isa distillers merged and formed this distillery, Okuchi. The government did not have a system for issuing shochu distilling licenses until 1906, so it is impossible to know which of the 11 is the oldest. I joined the company in 1985, two years before the debut of Kuro Isanishiki, our flagship premium shochu.
Can you tell us a little about what makes Okuchi Distillery unique?
Okuchi Distillery only makes sweet potato shochu, a fact we’re quite proud of. Like all Satsuma Shochu producers, we source our sweet potatoes from farmers in Kagoshima and focus on providing great shochu to our customers here in this prefecture. During the recent honkaku shochu boom we were mostly unable to ship to Osaka and Tokyo even though the phone was ringing off the hook. We just didn’t have the stock to enter those huge markets. It would have meant cutting off our customers here at home, and that was something that Okuchi Distillery couldn’t stomach. Instead, we redoubled our efforts locally and put more energy into making our Isanishiki line available in Kagoshima City. Our customer appreciated our dedication, and they have remained loyal. Consequently, Kuro Isanishiki is now the number one selling shochu in Kagoshima City.
A decade after the boom, Kuro Isanishiki is beecoming a bit easier to find in Tokyo. As a next step, what are your thoughts on international markets?
Our shochu is currently available in Los Angeles and New York, but on a somewhat limited basis. Our biggest market outside of Japan is undoubtedly China because so many Japanese business people live there. Some major Japanese companies such as car manufacturers are starting to move plants and employees to Indonesia, Thailand, and Vietnam, so we’re seeing growth in those countries as well. But it’s not easy to move into a market where few people have ever heard the word “shochu” before. There are many places that we would love to be able to target, like London and Paris, but knowledge of how to serve and enjoy shochu is lacking in those regions. But we won’t let that stop us. I’m working hard to make sure that shochu booms overseas, and I hope that Kuro Isanishiki will become the Nissan GT-R “GODZILLA” of Shochu!
How do people at home in Kagoshima Prefecture enjoy your shochu?
As you can probably imagine, oyuwari is most common when it comes to Kuro Isanishiki. Our younger customers are a bit more likely to drink it mizuwari or even mixed with a sparkling water. And that is one of the great things about shochu in general, everyone can find their own favorite way to enjoy it.
Are there any new or exciting things that Okuchi Distillery is currently working on?
Our new Isa Komachi shochu is being bottled at both 13 and 25% ABV. It has a beautiful, almost tropical bouquet, and is made with hamakomachi sweet potatoes and locally grown rice. These sweet potatoes are orange in color, and the resulting shochu is great on the rocks or mizuwari. It goes well with a variety of snacks, such as dried fruit, and can even be poured over ice cream! Okuchi Distillery: A Kagoshima Favorite from the Isa Basin Isa Komachi has become quite popular with female customers, and we even have a contingent of employees that have formed a “Shochu Girls” group to help promote this new product. By the way, nearly 20% of Okuchi’s salaried staff is female, a surprisingly large number for this industry.
Another thing that we’re quite excited about is a joint project that will create a shochu tasting facility in Kagoshima City in the near future. It will operate on a coin system and make it possible to try a wide variety of shochu from different producers very affordably. It’s based on the coin system that is sometimes found at large ski resorts in Japan, and it should be a great way to attract tourists or other people who are new to shochu. If we give people 100 different options, then they will be more likely to discover shochu’s quality and find a brand that they enjoy.
Republished with permission by Zipangu Japan and The Kyushu ADVANTAGE.