- Established in 2013
- Distilled in Hale’iwa, Oahu
- One batch of sweet potato shochu requires 15 to 20 thousand pounds of sweet potatoes!
Ken Hirata is Hawai’i’s shochu pioneer! And it all grew out of a Hawaiian vacation during which Hirata tasted of slightly fermented poi. The possibility of turning the purple Hawaiian goop into shochu intrigued Hirata. Ten years later, the thought of making shochu in Hawai’i was still unshakeable, despite his lack of distillation know-how. So his quest finally began.
Hirata requested apprenticeship from Toshihiro Manzen, a revered shochu master, only to be turned down at least five times. Manzen insisted that apprenticeship flow through the family line, of which Ken was not a part. But one night, Ken and his wife Yumiko ran into Manzen in a small bar. Sipping shochu all together, Ken reiterated his dream of opening a tradition shochu distillery in Hawai’i. Either something clicked or everyone was drunk, Manzen finally agreed to a three-year tutelage, as, at age 40, Ken was too old for the traditional ten to 15 year track.
What is Shochu?
Shochu is a Japanese distilled beverage no stronger that 45% ABV. While it can be distilled from any starch, the most common bases are rice, barley, and sweet potatoes. For a long time, shochu was thought of as a “low-brow alcohol favored by the working class.” Regardless, recent generations have anchored shochu back into the spotlight where it now outsells sake.
While shochu can be made from nearly any starch, sweet potato shochu, or imo shōchū, has a cult-like following for its robust, earthy depth. In fact, Kagoshima, known in Japan as the “Land of Sweet Potatoes,” has had a difficult time meeting the demand! Kagoshima is also the biggest shochu producing region in Japan with over 200 distilleries. This is also where Manzen mentored Ken Hirata.
Kōji. The mold behind miso, shoyu, and mirin is also the fermentation aid in shochu. Ken sources black or white kōji from Japan for each new batch, each color lending a specific flavor. The culture behind kōji is called Aspergillus oryzae. It can’t grow on its own; instead, it needs a habitat – steamed rice or soy beans. Ken imports his kōji-supporting heirloom rice from a Japanese American family farm out of California.
Since Ken’s initial taste of that fermented poi over a decade earlier, he recognized the potential for a taro-based shochu. But when Ken approached local taro farmers with his plan, they were none too pleased. Not wanting to disrespect the Hawaiian culture in any way, Ken abandoned his taro-based shochu dream and turned back to the traditional sweet potato. The locally-grown sweet potato varieties of the Hawaiian islands are ideal for shochu production. They have high starch and low water contents.
First, Ken cooks the rice in a large wooden steamer, or koshiki. Next, the kōji mold grows into the steamed rice in stacked wooden trays. During the first few days of kōji growth, Ken takes special care. Every few hours, even throughout the night, Ken massages the rice. This helps distribute the mold to each and every grain. He also keeps a close eye on the temperature and humidity in the room built specifically for this process. Only through his years of mentorship under his master does Ken knows how to read how the kōji spores are progressing via his touch.
Next, Hirata uses Manzen’s ceramic kametsubo, or fermentation vats, which have been passed down through his family for over 150 years. The vats are buried three feet into the ground at Hirata’s North Shore distillery and he cover them with only metal screens and plastic tarps. The mash’s low pH inhibits bacteria growth that is a common problem for other openly-fermented alcohols. The earthbound vats maintain coolness for the kōji rice, yeast, and water mash for up to a week of fermentation. Okinawan, Molokai, or a combination of sweet potatoes join the fermentation party next. Hirata steams and mashes them before adding them to the vat. The product is roughly 18% rice and 82% sweet potato. Using only taste and smell for testing, Ken monitors the bubbling fermentation closely, as there is a very small window of time between the perfect ferment and spoilage.
About ten days later, its time for distillation! Hirata uses a kidaru, a traditional Japanese cypress still. As the mash heats up inside the wooden still, steam rises into a condensing tank, entering down a water-cooled coiled pipe. The holding tank collects the newly formed liquid for maturation at around 30% ABV. In the Hiratas’ quest to distill the most authentic, or honkaku, shochu, there is only one round of distillation, which takes only a few hours. The spent sweet potato mash is not just discarded. Hirata and his neighboring sweet potato farmers use it as compost in their fields, returning nutrients back to the land.
Steaming the rice and potatoes, fermenting in the kametsubo, and distilling the mash is the cycle the Hiratas endure at least a dozen times to fill the holding tank. Producing just one full holding tank of imo shōchū requires 15 to 20 thousand pounds of sweet potatoes! The full holding tank matures for four months.
All that for just one season of shochu production.
In addition to tending to the kōji rice throughout the night, Ken and Yumika work 12-hour days. Due to the amount of time he spends just cleaning and sanitizing, Ken humorously likens himself to a janitor. “Contamination is the worst thing that can happen,” he says.
No two batches of Hawaiian shochu are exactly the same. Wind, rain, delicate timing, and the ingredients all lend variations in flavor to the final product. Thet named their shochus Nami Hana. Nami means “waves” and hana means “flowers,” depicting the vibe of Oahu’s North Shore. Here is a peak at some of their past batches:
Batch # 6 Three Islands Shochu – named for its use of Oahu, Big Island, and Molokai sweet potatoes
Batch # 7 Backyard Blend – the sweet potatoes used in this batch grew behind their distillery
Banzai Strength # 1 – both pineapples and sweet potatoes appeared in this batch at 47% ABV
Banzai Strength Genshu – this 2016 unfiltered batch came in at 42.5% ABV
Each year, Ken makes a small batch of shochu featuring a new addition, such as his Pineapple Banzai Shochu. Another recent creation was his shochu featuring both charred Mizunara wood, reflective of his Japanese heritage, and Hawaiian strawberry guava wood.
Master Manzen visits every year to taste the Hiratas’ shochu and ensure his continued tradition of perfection.
Where to Find and Buy
With hopes of future expansion, Ken and Yumika currently produce 6,000 bottles of shochu each year from their bi annual batches. Only a few restaurants serve their shochu and you won’t find it on any store shelves or online stores. Eager customers place their preorders via email (firstname.lastname@example.org) and pick up their shochu from Ken and Yumika out of their shed in Hale’iwa. Prices range based on the batch, but generally run between $35-$55. Every batch sells out, so be sure to preorder!
Address: 66-542 Haleiwa Rd (Gated entrance on Paalaa Rd), Hale’iwa, HI