Nishi Yoshida Shuzo

The day we visited Kitaya Shuzo, we visited also Nishi Yoshida Shuzo. The contrast was stark.  Kitaya makes sake and shochu including rice, barley, sweet potato, and green tea versions of their shochu. 95% of Nishi Yoshida’s production is barley shochu. They also make small runs of some niche products such as chestnut and carrot, but barley predominates. In the past they made sweet potato and rice shochu, but switched to barley in the 1980s, distilling for their own labels and for other shochu makers. Their production facility is also substantially smaller than Kitaya, producing approximately 1,200 kilo-liters per year.

But what set Nishi Yoshida apart was the fact that it’s run by a family. Two brothers and a sister have joined forces to carry on their family tradition. One serves as the president (oldest brother), one as the toji (master distiller), and one as the chief of sales and marketing (sister). They work together tirelessly with a small team (12-14 employees) to keep their distillery running.

All of their barley shochus use Australian barley, which they believe is higher quality than Japanese barley. Their current U.S. products include Tsukushi Shiro, Tsukushi Kuro, Kintaro, and Ark Jakuunbaku. All are aged 3 or more years, which is uncommon for barley shochu not aged in wood barrels. Nishi Yoshida ages in enamel lined steel tanks or clay pots (kame, which which also means “turtle” in Japanese). Perhaps their most unique product, not available in the U.S. due to a very limited production schedule, is a genshu (undiluted shochu) aged for 7 years in a kame in an old rail tunnel (photo next to the big clay pot in the picture above).

The distillery itself is a sprawling complex of connected buildings where the barley is processed, steamed, barley koji is prepared, the first and second fermentations, and finally the distillation. Throw in storage for aging shochus, a bottling facility, a warehouse, a business office, and a retail store, and you’ve got quite a few buildings bustling with activity.

While we were there they were making barley shochu and bottling Tsukushi Shiro 1.8L bottles. We were given the opportunity to stir the first moromi (fermenting koji mix). At every distillery we visited this is still done by hand, because it is critical for the correct temperature to be maintained in order to both keep the koji active and maximize the fermentation. Stirring the moromi, we felt like part of something, contributing to this process in our own small way.

The highlight of the visit was peeking into the attic of their bottling facility, which used to be the area where the koji was made in a traditional koji room. As the distillery grew their koji preparation was automated, but the old koji room, smelling of cedar, was a sight to behold.  The space surrounding the room was full of old equipment used for traditional shochu production. The distillery no longer uses this completely hand crafted process, but they keep the equipment on hand as a tribute to their heritage.

We were able to sample about a dozen of Nishi Yoshida’s current and past products. When they learned we had never tasted a kasutori shochu (shochu made from sake kasu – the solids left behind after sake is made), they opened a bottle that they estimated had been produced 20 years before. They no longer make kasutori shochu, but keep just a few cases on hand for a single customer near Osaka who places an order each year.

By the end of our visit to Nishi Yoshida we felt as if we’d made new friends in the family that runs the place. This struck us time and again with the distillery visits. The people were warm and friendly – open to our interest – and generous in the extreme. We will definitely be enjoying their premium barley shochus more often now that we’re back in New York.

 

Kampai!

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