HONOLULU – In a self-built single-room facility in the small North Shore beach town of Haleiwa, Hawaii, Ken Hirata is distilling a unique kind of liquor.
The 46-year-old Hirata and his wife, Yumiko, moved to Hawaii from Japan three years ago to start Hawaiian Shochu Co., the only “shochu” distillery in Hawaii and one of very few in the United States.
“I thought it would be a good idea, living in Hawaii and making shochu, where the quality of sweet potatoes is growing and we can experiment with all kinds of ingredients,” Hirata said. “Business-wise, I thought there would be a great potential to grow, but personally, it’s a quality of life thing.”
Shochu is a hard liquor distilled like vodka, rum and whiskey, while sake, the more widely known Japanese alcohol, is brewed the same way as beer or wine.
Hirata and his wife are the only two employees at the company, often working over 12-hour days making shochu with a process that takes about six months to produce a batch of 3,000 bottles. The pair do everything from making their own “koji” (mold) rice to fermenting the grain and the sweet potatoes, and bottling the finished product.
Hirata, a laid-back, affable man with a self-deprecating sense of humor, grew up in Osaka and attended Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon, majoring in business. He started his finance career in Hong Kong and lived and worked in Japan and Australia before approaching Toshihiro Manzen of shochu distillery Manzen Shuzo Co. in Kagoshima to train as an apprentice.
“My master’s place is really traditional, he uses traditional techniques of shochu-making, and that kind of stuff is usually passed on within the family,” Hirata said.
“No outsiders are usually allowed to learn,” he added, “especially someone like me, almost 40 years old and unknown to him. So of course, I got rejected. It took many, many times till I was accepted.”
Hirata said Manzen finally acquiesced when he ran into him at an “izakaya” (pub) and told him about wanting to start a distillery in Hawaii.
“We talked frankly, and before that, I hadn’t told him I wanted to start this distillery in Hawaii because if I said that, he would think I might be crazy,” Hirata said. “But at the izakaya, I told him everything and then, finally, he accepted me.”
Hirata apprenticed under Manzen for just three years, a fraction of the typical 10- to 15-year apprenticeship, because of his age.
In 2013, Hawaiian Shochu Co. released its first batch of sweet potato shochu under the brand Namihana. “Nami” means wave and “hana” means flower in Japanese.
“The wave is the symbol of the North Shore, and when we were trying to do this, we didn’t have much money, so we were picking flowers, plumeria flowers to make lei,” Hirata said. “So we put together those two memorable things.”
Hirata and his wife invested everything they had in starting the business, and were granted loans by the Hawaii State Department of Agriculture and Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism.
They built their distillery on 4.5 hectares of land leased by Kamehameha Schools. All of the equipment and tools used are traditional, Hirata said, from the wooden “koshiki” used to steam the rice to the 100-year-old fermentation vats gifted to Hirata by his master.
The Hiratas produce two batches of shochu a year totaling about 6,000 bottles, which are 30 percent alcohol by volume and sell for $39 each. Each batch sells out in three to four months, Hirata said, but he admitted he needs to expand output to turn a profit.
Production of the fourth batch of Namihana started around September and will be ready next March.
A surprising 60 to 65 percent of Hirata’s sales are via direct purchase, about half of which are local and the remainder from mainly Japanese tourists. Hirata also distributes to local restaurants, including Roy’s, Japengo at the Hyatt Regency Waikiki and Doraku in Honolulu.
“People have been really supportive from the beginning of this project,” he said. “We are so thankful.”
One of the parts Hirata said he enjoys the most about making shochu is experimenting with different combinations of his locally sourced ingredients. More than 20 varieties of sweet potato are grown in Hawaii, he said, and he has used sweet potatoes from different islands in every batch.
“Even if they are from the same variety, they come out different because of soil conditions, climate conditions, so the shochu comes out different,” he said.
Hirata even tried a sweet potato and pineapple blend, but said “it didn’t come out really good.”
The next thing Hirata would like to try is a “taro”-based shochu, which is how he got the idea of starting a shochu distillery in the first place.
“I was in Hawaii and eating poi, which is fermented food from roots, so I was just joking around with friends and family that if they had poi (from taro), we could make a poi-taro shochu,” he said.
“We really want to try taro, but we’re trying to be careful because it is a sacred plant to the Hawaiian people,” he added. “We don’t want to be disrespectful, so we’re trying to see what we can do with taro and when the chance comes, we will make a taro shochu.”