A Hawaiian Shochu: crafting fine, Japanese liquor from local sources

Place Haleiwa
Text Randy Wong
Art Will Caron

About 25 years ago, Ken Hirata first vacationed in Hawai‘i from Japan. It was during this trip that he first tasted poi, and he wondered if a shōchū—a traditional Japanese distilled spirit—could be done with taro. He waved the idea off, but says it came back to him a decade later while traveling in Australia. This time, he decided the idea was actionable; and we’re lucky he did because, a quarter-century later, Hirata’s dream has come to fruition with Hawaiian Shochu Company.

After his Australia trip, Hirata applied for an apprenticeship under master shōchū distiller Toshihiro Manzen, in Kagoshima, Japan. Manzen makes shōchū the old-fashioned way—using deep clay pots and wood stills, eschewing technological advances that larger operations might use. At first, Manzen was skeptical that Hirata could succeed: most apprentices need 10–15 years of training before they can go out on their own, and Hirata was already 40 at the time. But Manzen gave Hirata a shot, telling him he could apprentice for three years and then, “you struggle,” Hirata recalls.

Shōchū is consumed worldwide, and unlike many other distilled spirits, it seems that it can be made from nearly anything. There are shōchū varieties made from barley, corn, rice, carrots, wheat, sugar and—in Hirata’s case—sweet potato. The key difference between shōchū and sake, in case you’re wondering, is that shōchū is distilled, whereas sake is brewed.

Although Hirata’s first idea to distill shōchū in Hawai‘i was inspired by taro, he says he chose sweet potato instead to be culturally sensitive. Taro has particular meaning to Native Hawaiians and, as a foreigner, he says he wanted to be respectful. Plus, he felt dutiful to his training in Kagoshima, where sweet potato shōchū has been made since the Edo period (1603–1868).

Nonetheless, the choice of sweet potato was a wise move. There are over 20 varieties of sweet potato grown in Hawai‘i alone, and Hirata experiments with different combinations in each batch. Like the complex relationship between soil, weather and grape varietal that gives wine its nuance, shōchū takes on different flavor notes depending on the conditions in which its ingredients were grown. The sweet potatoes Hirata uses may take on richer, deeper flavors or drier, earthier ones depending on the farm they’re from, and these notes find their way into the final spirit. His most recent batch, “No. 5,” is entirely sourced from a farm on O‘ahu’s North Shore. Other batches have included potatoes sourced from the Hāmākua Coast of Hawai‘i Island.

Hawaiian Shochu Company is owned by Ken and his wife, Yumiko, and housed in a tiny distillery in Hale‘iwa, O‘ahu. Like Manzen’s, Hirata’s shōchū is made by hand. The process begins with the Hiratas steaming a large batch of rice in a koshiki (giant wooden box). They are able to steam about 200 pounds of rice at a time, but they will repeat the process again and again until they have made over 2,000 pounds. The rice is a medium for the koji mold to grow, and is massaged continually using traditional tools. This step is important, says Hirata, because, “Without quality koji rice, you can’t have quality shōchū.”

Koji is a fungus (Aspergillus oryzae) and it provides the underlying characteristics for which shōchū, and other Japanese fermented foods (like miso and mirin), are known. In shōchū, the koji gives a slightly sweet, floral flavor to the fermented mash. Hirata imports black koji from Japan for each new batch of shōchū.

After 48 hours, the koji will have spread evenly throughout the rice and, at that point, Hirata adds water and yeast to the koji rice and transfers the mixture to deep, clay vats called kametsubo which he acquired from Manzen. The vats are huge—about 5 feet tall and roughly 3 feet in diameter—and burrowed into the ground. Each vat is between 100–150 years old. You can imagine how much shōchū has been made in them.

As the mixture of koji rice, yeast and water ferments in the kametsubo for a week, the Hiratas ready their batch of sweet potatoes. Over 1,000 pounds of potatoes will be cleaned and chopped before steaming. The Hiratas leave the skins on for added character. When mashed, the potatoes present a deep fuschia or fandango hue, and are then mixed into the vats. The smell is extraordinary: bright, sweet and nearly floral. The mash will ferment for 10 more days; from there it will be distilled in a single pass using a traditional cypress wood still, called a kidaru, over two subsequent months. Hirata takes care to tell me about the single pass: “Authentic shōchū is distilled just one time,” he says.

In fact, the wood still and single pass are a key difference between Hawaiian Shochu Company’s batches and mass-produced shōchū. Most commercial shōchū distillers use a continuous (or column) still to quickly distill the spirit in high volume, and cut the final product with water until it is palatable and cost-effective. With Hirata’s wood still and traditional tools, a single batch may take two months or more. Very few shōchū distillers outside of Japan use a single-pass process.

After distillation, the shōchū will need another four to six months to mature before it is bottled and ready for consumption. Every bottle is hand labeled—another expression of the Hiratas’ attention to detail and craft.

Shōchū has yet to really find its footing in Hawai‘i; the predominant Japanese spirit is still sake. But Hirata is definitely on to something, and it’s really only a matter of time before Hawaiian Shochu Company takes off. Already, it is served at some of Hawai‘i’s finest restaurants, including Alan Wong’s, Wada, Nanzan Giro Giro, Roy’s and Rinka.

“In his four short years since starting, you can really taste the improvement and development of Ken’s technique,” says Todd Yukumoto, a popular local musician and shōchū enthusiast. “The flavors are becoming more sophisticated and refined.”

Batch “No. 5” is perfect for the Hawai‘i palate and cuisine. Drier than most other spirits, it is a great complement to savory foods. It pairs well with lean meats and fish, yet has rich, floral notes that allow it to stand on its own, either in a cocktail, neat, or on the rocks. People in Hawai‘i seem to enjoy it with lots of ice, which Hirata notes is different from Japan, where it is more often enjoyed straight.

Just as shōchū can be enjoyed in practically any context, Hawaiian Shochu Company’s unique lineage and process make an equally important statement. Yukumoto, enjoying his third glass, says it best: “What is truly wonderful is that Hirata-san uses all local ingredients. The end product is something from traditional Japanese origins but uniquely Hawai‘i.”


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