Every shochu distillery has its own unique character and I’ve probably visited more than 60 over the past 5 years including nearly half of the 28 in Hitoyoshi, Kumamoto. The city and surrounding Kuma-gun area has appellation of origin status from the World Trade Organization for “kuma shochu”, or rice shochu made in this area. The region gets this terroir designation both because the area has traditionally been the breadbasket (in Japan rice is king) of Kyushu, but also due to the Kuma River, which was chosen as the best river in Japan for about a decade straight. I don’t know if it still holds the title, but the local shochu makers have been silent on the issue recently so I’m guessing that honor has moved elsewhere. Nevertheless, the Kuma River is a beautifully clear river that cuts through a deep valley in lush mountains. The rice shochu from the region is easily the best in Japan, so the appellation is well deserved.
I’m rarely surprised by the production facilities of shochu distilleries anymore, but every so often one hits me unexpectedly. On a recent trip to Hitoyoshi with two New York shochu lovers who partially planned their Japan visit around this opportunity to see rice shochu production, I had one of those unexpected discoveries. We had planned to visit our friends at Sengetsu and Takahashi distilleries, and to make my annual pilgrimage to the amazing Jufuku Shuzo. While in the tasting room at Takahashi (makers of Hakutake Shiro), I was perusing the bottles of the other Kuma Shochu makers, which they stock in their souvenir shop. I offhandedly mentioned to Hiroe Takahashi that I’d lost a bottle of GokuRaku when it broke in my luggage, but that I really loved the shochu. Within minutes she had arranged a visit to the makers of GokuRaku for the next morning. I had no expectations other than the excitement of seeing a new distillery.
Hiroe picked us up at our ryokan the next morning to make the 40 minute drive to Hayashi Shuzo. Most of my kuma shochu distillery visits had been in Hitoyoshi proper or in the nearby countryside. This was deep countryside, properly in Kuma-gun. The GPS held true and we arrived as scheduled, but not without quite a few pauses and gasps of surprise as we were lead deeper and deeper into and through a very small village. We finally ended up in what looked like the driveway of a private home but for the telltale crates used for shipping the traditional 1.8L bottles of shochu. We’d arrived at Hayashi Shuzo.
I would not be exaggerating if I said there were chickens clucking in the yard with a 4×4 up on blocks, but this isn’t the U.S., this is Japan, so instead there was a decrepit k-truck tucked under a tarp and a lithe cat warming itself in the sun. There was no activity, though I spied a middle aged man through a 2nd floor window of the old home. He quickly turned and disappeared from sight. We cautiously followed Hiroe past a van and light duty truck to arrive at the entrance to the distillery. There was no door. Hiroe stopped at the entrance and made introductions. She did not enter, because there is an unwritten courtesy that one maker does not enter the facility of another maker even upon invitation. We said our goodbyes and were lead into the distillery proper by two brothers, the older serving as president and the younger as toji (master brewer/distiller).
In truth, the distillery was a ramshackle pile of detritus. Every spare corner held something and most of it probably hadn’t been used in ages. The wood beams supporting the roof were termite eaten. The concrete floor buckled and cracked from more than a century of earthquakes. The wood aging barrels covered in a thick layer of dust and black mold. None of it was particularly appealing except as an abandoned factory. But this one is operational. And once they started talking it all came together.
The Hayashi brothers are a two man team. They do all of the production work themselves. The older brother, Nobuhrio, is the president, and the younger brother, Yasuhiro, is the toji. It is a true family business. It’s such a family business that one wall of the distillery is a series of sliding doors into the family home. We could overhear their parents and one of their wives watching television and discussing something or other. There were dozens of pairs of shoes on the floor of the distillery outside the home. Steps away was a makeshift tasting table holding samples of the few products they make.
The tour started where every tour should start – at the koji production facility. I felt a pang of disappointment when I realized that they were not making hand made shochu despite the Edo era building. They do have a koji muro (koji making room), but it’s not been used in years ode to the fact that they can’t find enough men in their tiny village to staff a handmade distillery. Instead, they have made a concession to modern technology by installing a Kawachi koji machine. What makes this particularly interesting is that their particular machine was actually designed by Professor Genichiro Kawachi himself in the 1920s. For those of you unfamiliar, which I am guessing is most of you, Prof. Kawachi first discovered white koji. He also developed the automatic drum koji machine. Somehow one of his original machines ended up in the deep countryside of Kumamoto.
Once I realized they were using a machine made by a legend, the rest of the process made sense. They do everything as a two man team and allow their house yeasts to contribute to the flavor and aroma profile of their projects. Near one of the fermentation tanks near an exterior wall there was a window. Only there was only cracked and rotting wooden shutter and no glass. The weeds outside the window were nearly growing into the distillery.
In another concession to modernization, the Hayashi brothers have installed a vacuum still alongside their atmospheric pot still. Their main brand, GokuRaku, comes in two styles – vacuum and atmospheric. Given that no atmospherically distilled rice shochu is currently imported to the US, you can guess which one I recommend if you find it. Their other brands include one aged in those musty barrels and another aged in clay pots. The pot aging room has a dirt floor with the pots buried up to their necks. There is a moat running along the perimeter walls to keep water away from the pots. A rickety wooden staircase leads to a storage room in which I spied koji boxes (the small boxes used to separate koji during handmade koji production) that look as though they were from at least the Meiji Era. There were no nails used in their construction. These historic relics discarded yet not thrown away.
I left with a huge smile on my face and a new appreciation for the truly moonshine-like origins of shochu made in Kyushu.