Manzen Distillery

Manzen Toshihiro

Shochu is one of Japan’s most loved alcoholic beverages. Outside of Japan the distilled spirit is still not widely known or consumed. However, in Kagoshima, it is the locals’ undisputed poison of choice. There are currently 113 shochu distilleries in Kagoshima Prefecture – the majority of which have been around for over a century – creating more than 2,000 varieties of the spirit. 

This time on People of Kagoshima we caught up with Manzen Toshihiro, owner of a craft shochu distillery hidden deep in the Kirishima mountains. We chatted about his philosophy relating to distilling shochu, how he found the plot of land where the distillery is located, and how he helped a young entrepreneur start making shochu in Hawaii.

Growing up in Kirishima

Manzen grew up in Kirishima City. His father died early, so he had to work part-time while he was a student to make ends meet. He moved away from Kagoshima for work with no intention of taking over the family business, but his mother fell ill, and her son to come back home. Thinking back to this time Manzen says, ‘I had some time on my hands, so I decided to try to rebuild our little liquor store. 42 years ago, now, I took over the family business. And then the bubble economy came and went, and I came to realize we needed to sell real, high quality alcohol. Regional drinks, sake, and locally made shochu.’

shochu kagoshima

Selling drinks in his liquor store and creating new brands wasn’t enough for Manzen however. He says, ‘I’ve made lots of different brands over the years, but I still wanted my customers to be able to drink an original product that I had created myself. So, 22 years ago, in November 1999, I founded Manzen Distillery and it’s still going strong today.’

Kagoshima Shochu

When asked about shochu, Manzen says, ‘Shochu is a drink that I truly love. I really hope that people both in Japan and around the world can try Manzen shochu and discover how delicious it is. Unlike sake, shochu is a distilled liquor. Basically, the koji (rice mould) is exactly the same as sake. When we do niji shikomi (second fermentation) we use Satsuma-imo – sweet potatoes, then we ferment for 15 days, then use a distiller to create imo-shochu.’

Opening a shochu distillery wasn’t all smooth sailing. Manzen recalls, ‘My wife was at first very opposed to the idea of me rebuilding the distillery. I had to spend millions of dollars, and I didn’t have the skills to do it. A friend who was a master distiller came and helped us which was really how we got started. The reason I found this plot of land. I heard there used to be a place behind here that farmed yamame (landlocked salmon) and also served somen noodles, so I went looking for it.’

Secret Hideaway

He continues, ‘The road wasn’t wide enough for a car to get through and was covered in foliage. I thought surely it can’t be here and went home. Then about a year later a guy told me that was the place. So, I went back, drove through the bushes and came to a clearing. There was a stone bridge, and the old somen noodle restaurant. I thought it was a wonderful place and started going back regularly. The water there was also very good. I used to have a shochu called Manazuru made on consignment by nearby distillery, and when we used this water, it was amazing. It was so well received that we decided to try and buy this plot of land.’

Manzen Shochu Distillery Clearing

Manzen approached the owner of the plot of land in the hopes of buying it, but things didn’t progress as smoothly as he thought they would. Looking back he says, ‘The owner of the somen noodle restaurant owned this land. I spent seven years visiting him with my wife asking him to sell me the land. Finally, I decided to give up, after seven years I went to see him, and he said, “I’ll sell it to you, but on one condition”.’

‘He said, “You have to preserve nature, and promise not to destroy the environment here. You can cultivate it, but you must protect it. If you do that, I’ll sell it to you”. To open up the dense overgrowth we cut down trees on the mountainside, cleared away the bushes – it took about two to three years. We opened up the clearing and saw the river running through it. It was just the ideal place to build our distillery.’

Authentic Handmade Shochu

Truly handmade craft drinks are something of a rarity, even in detail obsessed Japan. Manzen has had a philosophy of doing everything in the traditional way right from the beginning. He says, ‘People often say “handmade”, but they are usually just talking about making koji. They call it “handmade” regardless of the rest of the process.’

shochu making at Manzen distillery

‘Most places use enameled or stainless steel tanks, or even a stainless steel distiller. We care about every step – from the first fermentation and handmade koji to the moromi mash in traditional clay jars. All the traditional jars were destroyed and replaced with mass production during the shochu boom in the late ’70s. They changed to stainless steel and enamel tanks. So, I went looking in the storehouses of old distilleries and found about 100 of the old clay jars there. We bought them up before we started making our own shochu. The jars are all from the Edo period, so they’re about 300 years old. We use them for the second fermentation.’

shochu distiller

There are risks to consider as well when forgoing the benefits of modern technology. Manzen pauses for a moment and says, ‘Then there are accidents and acts of God. We use a wooden distiller, which can be quite dangerous. If you don’t maintain it properly, it could explode. And actually, people died due to accidents like that back in the day. Some people say we shouldn’t use a wooden distiller, but it’s such a rare thing to have and I knew that gas slowly escaping from the cracks creates a mellow and rounded shochu. So, I decided to stick to that. And keep the old-fashioned way of doing everything. That’s really what the essence of Manzen shochu is.’

Drinkable to the End

There was a time when shochu was the drink of choice for older men, who would gather in bustling izakaya pubs after work to knock back cheap drinks. Manzen reflects on this time saying, ‘Back in the day, I would go to banquet halls, and they would have unfinished shochu cups all over the table. The warm shochu had gone cold people left them. Loads of them all lined up. I mean, I couldn’t stand to see that – whether it’s warm, room temperature, or cold I had it in my head to make a shochu that could be drunk to the last.’

Times have changed and two subsequent resurgences in the popularity of shochu have introduced the classic spirit to a wider and younger audience. Manzen reflects on when he first introduced his handcrafted shochu to the market saying, ‘When I first started out it wasn’t the shochu boom or anything. We were in a situation where we literally didn’t know if it would sell. I thought if we could make 10,000 bottles, maybe we could sell them in the shop. I was thinking maybe we could get by with that. It turned out some very specialist liquor stores from around Japan came down here and chose the shochu they wanted to sell. We started off with 13 members originally and explained to them about our location, the whole process of making our shochu, and now we finally made it to a position where it’s sustainable.’

Shochu in Hawaii

Shochu is still not really widely known abroad, but it has been developing a solid fan base among alcohol aficionados in recent years. Manzen recalls the story of one enthusiastic shochu fan who wanted to distil shochu in his native Hawaii.

He says, ‘Ten years ago now, I think, a young man came to our brewery saying he wanted to make shochu in Hawaii. Before coming to us he went to another distiller, but they refused to teach him. He was on the verge of giving up and going back home. There’s actually another company we work with who recycle the waste from the shochu making process. He worked in their factory for a while because nobody would teach him how to make shochu. The driver of one of the trucks that come to pick up the waste brought this guy along without asking permission first and told him there’s a distillery that might help him out. I was just starting up at the time and didn’t have the means to hire people. I turned him down, but he kept coming back over and over.’

Persistence Pays Off

Despite being rejected over and over again, the persistent Hawaiian didn’t give up. Manzen recalls the moment he cracked and decided to teach the secrets of shochu making. He says, ‘One day, I went into my favourite izakaya, and he was just sitting at the entrance, so I went to the other side of the place to avoid him. He kept looking over at me, so I thought I might as well have a drink with him. So, we had a chat about his ideas, and I told him how hard it would be to make shochu overseas. I told him how hard it would be to learn the skills to make shochu. He said, “I’ll try my best so please give me a chance”.’

hawaii shochu

Manzen continues, ‘I thought that if shochu could become more well known overseas and more people would understand it then that would be reason enough to teach him. So, I taught him how to make shochu for three years. I remember I told him that no matter what, you have to make your dreams a reality. You have to give it your all to succeed – he spent seven years talking to the State of Hawaii, giving presentations in Congress, securing land, getting a US liquor license. It took seven or eight years, but now it’s going very well. We’re working very hard on a drink called Namihana in North Shore. The production method is the same as mine, with the fermentation in clay jars, handmade koji, and using a wooden distiller. He’s doing his best to use exactly the same process as in Japan.’

Inspiration from Europe

Aside from his dedication to creating the finest handcrafted shochu, Manzen is also a huge fan of wine. The international wine community allowed him to discover the kind of hospitality guests can expect at a European winery. He says, ‘I love wine, and in fact, the distillery has had a lot of visitors from overseas from some famous wineries. I’ve been invited to Germany, France, and Italy before. I’ve also been influenced by their culture, particularly the way their hospitality.’

‘Their style and attention to detail – I thought we have plenty of things in common. I thought, “What can I do for the fans of Manzen shochu?” I decided to build a guesthouse here, so we could serve our shochu, have a good time, be surrounded by nature. I suppose what I learned from overseas was this guesthouse.’


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