Hawaiian Shochu Co.: In Haleiwa, Making Shochu out of Sweet Potatoes

Left: sweet potato fermenting in 100-year-old ceramic vats partially buried in the ground; right: Nami Hana, Hawaiian Shochu Co.'s first batch of shochu

Up in Haleiwa, Ken Hirata is turning sweet potatoes into shochu, or what he likes to call a distilled sweet potato spirit. Hawaii, it turns out, is a great place to make sweet potato shochu—the temperate weather, the abundance of locally-grown, starchy, not-too-watery sweet potatoes.

Shochu is not well known outside of Japan, but for about a decade now, shochu consumption there has overtaken sake (though in an alcoholic beverage popularity contest, they both lose out to beer).

Hirata makes his shochu using traditional methods, learned through a three-year apprenticeship with a shochu master (“Just like a kung fu movie!” Hirata says). He steams rice in a wooden koshiki and mixes it with koji to kickstart the fermentation process. The rice and sweet potatoes are fermented in 100-year-old, partially below-ground ceramic vats—passed down from Hirata’s shochu’s master—inherited from his father and grandfather before him. Hirata distills the mash into a cypress still, and then he lets it age for six months to round out the flavors before bottling.

The result: an unfiltered, yet clear spirit—as clear as vodka, but with more character and a smooth, sweet finish and notes of lychee. It’s about 30 percent alcohol, somewhere between sake and whiskey in proof. 

Hirata is one of only two shochu producers in the United States. At the moment, he describes his operation as a micro, micro-distillery; with only one holding tank, his production is limited to two batches of about 5,000 bottles a year. Restaurants like Roy’s and Wada and hotels such as the Moana Surfrider and Hyatt Waikiki carry his shochu, and you can also buy it directly from Hirata at his production site for $39 a bottle. Sometime down the line, he hopes to play around with other fruit and starches that grow well in Hawaii—pineapple perhaps, or banana—for more unique, made in Hawaii spirits.

Hawaiian Shochu Co., P.O. Box 952, Haleiwa, 96712, kaloimo@gmail.com