Kitaya Shuzo is a nihonshu (sake) and shochu producer in Fukuoka Prefecture and the first stop on our shochu distillery tour. Seikai Ishizuka and I traveled nearly an hour south of Hakata (main station in Fukouka City) on a commuter train to reach Yame, a city of less than 40,000 people in southern Fukuoka Prefecture. There we were met by a Kitaya representative who drove us to the distillery.
The first thing you notice about the distillery entrance is a suspended ball of dead leaves (see photo above). This strange object is actually very useful. A fresh ball of green leaves is hung outside the distillery when the new sake is bottled and ready for purchase. Passing customers know it’s time to buy Kitaya’s nihonshu. When the ball has turned brown the sake is ready to drink – it will have matured int he bottle. Inside the distillery courtyard is the largest such ball in Japan.
Kitaya has been most ladued for their nihonshu, but we’d first discovered their shochus by accident at Mitsuwa Japanese Marketplace in Edgewater, NJ. There on the shochu aisle was an end display for a sale on Kitaya’s products – particularly Jinkoo (sweet potato), Gokoo (oak aged barley), and Gyokuro (green tea). We’ve since tried their rice shochu as well, Yosaku. All have a soft mouthfeel thanks to the spring water they use.
As the first company we visited, we had no concept of size or volume, but we’d later learn that Kitaya is a mid-sized shochu producer. Kitaya operates two kura (distilleries) within a few kilometers of each other. A smaller one focuses exclusively on sweet potato shochu production. The other brews sake and all of their other brands of shochu. This split distillery decision was made due to the overwhelming aroma and flavor of sweet potato shochu relative to the delicate aromas and taste of sake. All of their products are bottled in the same bottling facility, but imo shochu is bottled in a separate line from the other products.
Kitaya was the first shochu manufacturer to bring low pressure distillation (genatsu) to Japan in 1972. This low pressure process allows the mash (moromi) to boil at a lower temperature, releasing the alcohol with a more subtle flavor profile than would be achieved using atmospheric distillation (joatsu).
All shochu originates from koji – a mold that grows on steamed rice or barley when kept at a proper temperature. Far from being an unpleasant by product of moisture, this mold is vital to the production of both shochu and sake. It serves as a starter yeast for the first fermentation, turning the starches in the grains into sugars. Kitaya uses black koji for their shochu products, which provides a richer, earthier flavor.
The first step in shochu production is the creation of the koji. Rice or barley is steamed and then cooled. Koji spores are then stirred into the grain and left to sit for 2-3 days. At kitaya they make their koji by machine over a 50 hour period.
The second step is the “first moromi” in which the koji rice or barley mixture is placed in a steel tank. Water and yeast are added. The yeast begins the process of breaking the sugars into alcohol. This moromi has to be carefully monitored and stirred regularly to keep the temperature down. As the koji and yeast begin their fermentation process heat is generated. That heat can destroy the batch. This fermentation continues for 5-6 days after which the “shubo” is formed. Shubo stands for “sake’s mother” since this fermented moromi is now approximately 8% alcohol and is the foundation for the shochu.
The third step is the “second moromi” in which the shubo is added to a larger tank along with the grain that the shochu is made from whether it be sweet potato, barley, or rice. This moromi is also carefully monitored for temperature, being stirred as necessary to keep the temperatures low enough to keep the fermentation viable. This process lasts approximately 2 weeks after which time the moromi is approximately 18% alcohol.
The fourth step is distillation. The moromi from step 3 is placed in a still. Over a 4 hour period the moromi is brought to a boil and the alcohol steam is captured and condensed back to liquid form to create the new shochu. This undiluted shochu (genshu) is approximately 40-44% alcohol depending upon the grain – those with more sugar content have higher alcohol content after this process.
The fifth step is aging. Unlikely Scotch, shochu is not often aged for long periods of time. Six months is probably average for most shochus – just long enough to mellow out the genshu before step 6. Some shochus are aged in glass lined steel tanks, some in clay pots (kame), and some in oak barrels. Barrel and kame aging is usually conducted over a longer period of time, but most shochu is aged briefly in a glass lined tank. Each of these aging processes imparts a different flavor profile to the shochu. Kitaya uses all 3 of these aging techniques for various products. In the photo above you can see barrels aging barley shochu and kame aging sweet potato shochu.
The sixth step is bottling. Most often genshu is cut with spring water to dilute the distillate down to a lower alcohol content prior to bottling. Most shochus are 24-25% alcohol as a result of this dilution. While this makes shochu a very nice, light spirit to drink, it’s reasons are almost accidental. Traditionally, cutting shochu with water prior to bottling simply allowed more product to be sold. The more practical and accidental reason is that Japanese alcohol taxes are graduated so a 25% ABV shochu is not taxed at just half of a 50% ABV spirit. It’s taxed at a much, much lower rate. Therefore, shochu producers can sell their products and pay less tax when they dilute prior to bottling.
At Kitaya we were able to sample each of their products – sweet potato, barley, rice, and green tea – as well as each of their different distillation (low pressure v. atmospheric) and aging (glass, clay, oak) processes, demonstrating the wide variety of products that can be produced with these subtle changes in the distillation process.
Kitaya sources their oak barrels from Jim Beam or Jack Daniels (they alternate every few years) and you can almost taste the whiskey in the Gokoo (aged 4 years) and Zeikoo (aged 5 years) barley shochus. Only Gokoo is available in the US currently (aged in Beam barrels). Perhaps even more interesting was Kokyu Yosaku, a barley shochu aged for 5 years in a clay pot in an old train tunnel near the distillery. However, both Seikai and I agreed, while Kitaya has lovely products across the spectrum, our favorite was Bikoo, a clay pot aged sweet potato shochu. As this would demonstrate for the first time or many on our trip, Seikai and I share very similar tastes for our shochu and Bikoo would stand out throughout our trip. Now if we can convince them to import it to the U.S.
The story of our visit to Kitaya would not be complete without mentioning the people. We met their sake toji (master brewer), mugi & kome shochu toji (master distiller), imo toji (sweet potato master distiller), and their graphic artist. This might seem like an odd person to add to the list of staff we were introduced to, but Kitaya has some of the most beautiful labels in the business and their artist is somewhat a legend for his simple, elegant, evocative label designs. We had a lovely lunch at a nearby restaurant before our guide was kind enough to drive us to our next destination – another distillery of course, but that’s a different story.