“I might die.”
Ken Hirata’s response to questions about expanding his distillery may seem extreme, but given the labor required in making his artisanal liquor, it’s completely understandable.
Inside a self-built warehouse in a sleepy beach town called Haleiwa on the North Shore of Oahu, Hirata and his wife are the sole employees of the Hawaiian Shochu Company. The couple, originally from Japan, complete every step of the shochu production by hand; from steaming rice in the traditional koshiki, to adhering labels to bottles. This operation is truly their baby, for NamiHana, the name of their shochu, must be tended to every three hours when freshly formed, just like other newborns.
Shochu is a clear, ancient Japanese spirit often compared to vodka, and usually made from buckwheat, barley, brown sugar, or sweet potatoes. The taste is crisp, and slightly sweet, with delicate, earthy notes. Put simply, shochu goes down damn smoothly. Commonly served neat, on the rocks or diluted with hot water, shochu can also replace vodka in cocktails like Bloody Marys.
Although Japan is well-known for its sake, shochu is actually the more popular beverage in the Land of the Rising Sun. About half of NamiHana drinkers are Japanese visitors who make the trek out to Hirata’s distillery. It’s worth it, not just for the booze but for the stunning views as well. Verdant mountains rise high in the distance, ornate birds roam freely, and world-class waves break just steps away from the Hawaiian Shochu Company.
NamiHana, which means “wave flower,” begins with heirloom white rice. After cooking, the rice is placed in wooden baskets and mixed with koji, a mold. It remains in a special room for 48 hours to culture, and is then mashed with steamed sweet potatoes grown not far from Hirata’s distillery. The starchy concoction ferments in 100-year-old vats called kametsubo. When the shochu is ready, Hirata pumps it into the still, or kidaru. Once the alcohol is extracted it’s kept in a holding tank to mature for six months.
Each step of the process is carefully monitored by Hirata, just like his master Toshihiro Manzen taught him. Hirata apprenticed under Manzen for three years in Kagoshima, Japan, a region famous for its sweet potato, or imo, shochu. Manzen provided all the equipment used by the Hawaiian Shochu Company and he visits yearly just to make sure Hirata isn’t screwing things up.
Hirata could currently be the single shochu crafter located in the United States. Owning just one still, Hirata can only produce two batches a year for a total of 6,000 bottles. Since the formation of the company in 2013, Hirata has sold out NamiHana months in advance.
Actively negotiating with local taro growers, Hirata may soon add the traditional Hawaiian root to his shochu line, a dream he’s held for twenty years. Therein lies the rub: to make a profit, his business must grow, but that might put Hirata’s life in danger from the work that would entail.
Hawaiian Shochu Company, P.O. Box 952, Haleiwa, HI 96712
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