Shared from Hawai’i Magazine

Hawaiian Shochu Co. uses Hawaiian sweet potatoes to make the beloved distilled spirit.

Shochu Ken HirataOwner Ken Hirata uses 12,000 to 15,000 pounds of locally grown sweet potatoes for each batch of shochu.  |  Photo Credit: DAVID CROXFORD

When Ken Hirata vacationed in Hawai‘i more than 20 years ago, he tried poi, a traditional Hawaiian staple made from mashed taro. Realizing that fermentation was a key process in making both poi and shochu, a beloved distilled spirit made in his home country, Japan, Hirata wondered if he could craft good shochu with Hawai‘i-grown ingredients.

But life went on and another decade passed before the idea of making shochu in the Islands came back to him. At 40, Hirata and his wife, Yumiko, packed up their life in Australia and moved to Kagoshima on Japan’s Kyushu Island, where Hirata sought out Toshihiro Manzen, whose family had been producing handcrafted, small-batch sweet potato shochu, or imo shochu, at its distillery for several generations.

Hirata asked Manzen to take him on as an apprentice, and after much consideration—Hirata had persisted for a month to no avail—Manzen finally agreed to pass on his family’s craft to Hirata.

The black specks in the rice is koji, a Japanese mold that gives food that coveted umami (savory) flavor. Hirata imports the koji from Japan.  |  Photo: David Croxford

Then in 2013, after eight years of learning under Manzen, Hirata established the Hawaiian Shochu Co. in Hale‘iwa and released its first batch of shochu, named NamiHana (“Wave Flower”). Each batch takes six months to process and yields 3,000 to 3,500 bottles. Now on his 13th batch, Hirata credits his success to overwhelming support from the local community.

A bottle of shochu cost around $40  |  Photo: David Croxford

Shochu is arguably more popular than sake (rice wine) in Japan and has gained a loyal following in Hawai‘i as well. To put it simply, shochu is comprised of a starch—most often barley, rice, buckwheat or sweet potatoes—and koji, a Japanese mold found in myriad Japanese food products, such as shoyu (soy sauce) and miso (fermented soybean paste). Hirata buys koji spores from Japan and sweet potatoes from Hawai‘i growers. In Japan, big shochu makers often use sweet potatoes specially developed for shochu-making. But Hirata prefers to use the stuff we eat: The balance of the potatoes’ sweetness and starchiness, he says, is the key to making great-tasting shochu.

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