Japan Eats

Boozehound: Kuroki Honten Distillery

Christopher Pellegrini tours Kuroki Honten in majestic Miyazaki Prefecture.

Click here to read the first Boozehound report from our recent trip to Kyushu.

After a day and a night in Kagoshima City, we hopped on a northbound train headed for Miyazaki Prefecture. Our ultimate goal for the day was to visit Kuroki Honten, the makers of well-respected shochu labels such as Kiroku, Nakanaka, and Hyakunen no Kodoku.

Planting sweet potatoes.

To our pleasant surprise, we were in for an incredibly educational and inspiring tour conducted by the president of the shuzo, Mr. Toshiyuki Kuroki himself.

Mr. Kuroki is the fourth generation to have piloted the family distillery, and it was under his watch that business flourished during the past 15 years. A trim and jovial family man, Mr. Kuroki is an executive with a serious hop in his step. He’s difficult to keep up with.

One thing that stood out about Mr. Kuroki is that he has a clear affection for his employees. That evening, and the next day, we observed countless instances of him talking to and joking with the distillers, bottlers and field workers. Solid sales will put smiles on many people’s faces, but it was obvious that the working culture at Kuroki Honten is buoyed by workers who share Mr. Kuroki’s passion and believe in his vision.

And another thing that grabbed our attention, and something that Mr. Kuroki is very proud of, is the shuzo’s determination to recycle everything they possibly can. This includes using the lees from the distilling process to make both fertilizer and livestock feed. Their efforts to make the shochu production process as circular and socially responsible as possible are detailed on the Kuroki Honten website (Japanese).

We later tasted several of the shuzo’s less widely available brands, such as their unfiltered Kiroku and Bakudan Hanatare. The latter, an 88 proof imo shochu that is best kept in the freezer, is supposed to be consumed like a shooter even though there tends to be served in vessels much larger than shot glasses. That might have been the highlight of the visit, but I don’t recall.

Casks of mugi shochu.

While Kuroki Honten doesn’t normally do tours, shochu fans can take solace in the fact that the shuzo’s exemplary products are easily locatable around Japan. In Tokyo, for example, one can purchase Nakanaka, the company’s smooth sipping mugi shochu, at vendors as diverse as Shinanoya (chain liquor store) and Bic Camera (chain electronics store).

Anything made by Kuroki Honten or their sister shuzo, Osuzuyama (the shuzo detailed in my next Boozehound article), is well worth your time and hard-earned cash.

Boozehound: “Taste of Akita” with John Gauntner

Several industry insiders came together to bring the nihonshu-loving public “Taste of Akita” on Saturday

John Gauntner, author of The Sake Handbook, answering questions at each table.

October 23rd at Akita Bisaikan. And 40+ fortunate souls were treated to an evening of Akita’s finest, all while being guided every step of the way by nihonshu author and expert, John Gauntner, bilingual guide and brewery tour organizer, Etsuko Nakamura, and brewery representatives such as Saiya Shuzo’s Akihisa Sato.

Starting with a quick introduction to the history of sake production in Akita Prefecture, Gauntner simultaneously espoused on the mystery sake, a unique unlabeled contest sake given to each table. From there the food began to arrive. First, a hinaidori chicken liver pate followed by broth-simmered Azuki Babylon Shellfish.

And by this time sake number two had already been delivered, again one bottle per table, but this time every table got the same thing–Mansaku-no-Hana Daiginjo. Aged for two years and much more refined than the contest sake, this sake was an excellent counter point to the far richer flavors found in the shellfish and pate.

Next up was the Kariho Hiyaoroshi (fall seasonal sake), a junmai ginjo that nicely complemented the fresh sashimi selection with its pronounced and bright aroma.

Mr. Sato from Saiya Shuzo sat with the guests for much of the evening.

Right on Kariho’s heels was crowd favorite Saiya Shuzo’s Yuki-no-Bosha which is actually a genshu at 16%. Genshu is the result of a brewing style that doesn’t involve using water to dilute the sake, and the fact that this sake peaked at 16% means that the toji (master brewer) is one of the best in the business. Most genshu end up being several percentage points higher in alcohol content.

Last but not least, and as the small dishes of food continued to appear in front of the six people at our table, a tokubetsu junmai sake by the name of Ama-no-To Umashine appeared. Teamed with Akita’s specialty, Kiritanpo Nabe, this sake from Asamai Shuzo added liquid notes of raisin and butter to the end of the meal.

From start to finish, “Taste of Akita” was a wonderful experience for both the uninitiated and experienced sake tippler. The Akita cuisine matches easily with what Gauntner calls the “fine-grained” nature of the sake produced in that region, and there were ear to ear smiles on everyone’s face as they left the restaurant to take pictures with the two namahage waiting outside.

This was the first time that Gauntner and Nakamura have teamed up with a prefectural government to help sake reach a wider audience. To make sure that you don’t miss future events like “Taste of Akita”, subscribe to Gauntner’s monthly newsletter.

Boozehound: rice lager for US$13 per sixer

I’m not gonna lie: I love beer. I’m just as prone as the next guy to losing a night on whiskey or wine, but beer is my first love.

And I like the beers that are generally on offer in this part of the world. The mass-produced stuff is OK, easy to drink and all that, so long as you stay away from Happoshu and the third level beer imitator that we perused in the pilot episode of Japan Booze Blind.

But I’m not gonna lie: the supermarket variety of beer in Japan, I’m talking about the Asahi’s, Kirin’s, Sapporo’s, Ebisu’s, Suntory’s, and Orion’s of the world, ain’t worth what you pay for it.

It costs between 220 and 260 yen for a decent can of beer over here. ‘Decent’, in this case, means that it’s better than everything else on the shelf. Not a very helpful explanation, I know. If I had to make a comparison in terms of quality, which is obviously an exercise in extreme subjectivity, then I’d say that the best mass-produced beers are on par with Michelob Amber Bock or one of the other craftesque macrobrews. In other words, it’s drinkable, but it’s not something to write home about.

Now here’s the big question: would you pay US$2.50 for a bottle of Amber Bock? Didn’t think so. I might pay that amount for two bottles, but not one. But that’s basically what you have to fork over for a single can of OK beer over here.

Where I’m from in the states (Vermont), you can often get a sixer of Otter Creek or some other quality microbrew for US$6.30 (including the deposit). That works out to about 100 yen per bottle.

Crazy.

So it’s not that Japanese beer is bad; it’s just that it’s flagrantly overpriced considering the quality. You can blame taxes for that, but the beer would likely still be overpriced even without them.

Anyway, I just wanted to put that out there. It’s just an important thing to remember when watching the JBB videos on this site. The folks on camera may not always have good things to say about what they’re drinking, but they sure as hell paid good money for it.