Hawaiian Shochu Co.: Sweet Potato Shochu Made in Haleiwa, Hawaii

Hawaiian Shochu Co., a tiny craft distillery, turns sweet potatoes into shochu.

Ken Hirata shows off his raw ingredients.

Photos: Odeelo Dayondon

“It was just like a kung fu movie!” says Ken Hirata, on how he learned to make shochu. “I decided to become an apprentice to my master, Toshihiro Manzen, because I liked his shochu,” he says. “I literally walked up to his door, like a kung fu movie. I got rejected. Just like the kung fu movies. During a one-month period, I returned more than five times. I was rejected more than five times. Finally, I told him my goal was to start a shochu distillery in Hawaii. And I think he kind of liked it. He decided to accept me as his apprentice. Usually, traditional-style shochu-making runs in the family. They don’t usually teach techniques to outsiders.”

Nine years after first knocking on Manzen’s door in Kagoshima, Japan, Hirata is finally distilling his own shochu out of sweet potatoes in Haleiwa. Hawaii, it turns out, is a great place to make sweet potato shochu, thanks to the temperate weather and 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 from Manzen. He steams rice in a large wooden steamer and mixes it with koji, a mold, to kickstart the fermentation process. The rice and sweet potatoes are fermented in 100-year-old, below-ground ceramic vats, passed down from Hirata’s shochu master, inherited from his father and grandfather before him. Hirata distills the mash into a cypress still, then lets it age for six months to round out the flavors before bottling.

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

Hirata is only one of 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. He just released a new batch at the end of March. Restaurants including Roy’s and Wada and hotels 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 a unique, made-in-Hawaii spirit.

As for the master? He visits Hirata once a year to taste his shochu. “When I get confused, I call him and he helps me out,” Hirata says. Just like a kung fu movie.

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