Story by Mari Taketa
Photos by Dana Edmunds
Coming from the city, the road to Hale‘iwa tops a rise, and
for a moment the world turns blue, the expanse of sky meeting the deeper hues
of the North Shore’s sea. Follow the road down toward Hale‘iwa town, go left at
the McDonald’s to the end of the pavement, and you arrive at a simple white
structure. This is where, surrounded by the red dirt of former sugar cane
fields, Ken Hirata makes Hawai‘i’s only shöchü.
If the North Shore of O‘ahu seems an unlikely place for a
centuries-old Japanese liquor, it’s no more unlikely than Hirata himself.
Wavy-haired in a T-shirt and shorts, he looks more like the windsurfer he used
to be than the traditional distiller he’s become. From somewhere he produces a
perfect ice cube — a small marvel, considering the distillery was only just
hooked up to electricity last March. He drops the ice into a glass, pours two
fingers of clear shöchü and swirls it.
The aromas rise— concentrated, earthy, gentle. Above them
all is the familiar essence of sweet potato. That’s what shaped Hirata’s vision
for a Hawaiian shöchü, what drew him from his native Japan to Hale‘iwa: the
Islands’ twenty-plus varieties of sweet potato. In this case it’s the white-skinned,
purple-fleshed Okinawan sweet potato that defines the shöchü’s flavor, starting
with a hint of bitterness from the skin and progressing to intensifying caramel
notes. Against the sixty-proof spirit, the sweet potato taste is a surprise. It
lingers on the palate in a long, glossy finish. “We can make shöchü from a
variety of ingredients— buckwheat, rice, sugar cane, even American potatoes.
Why sweet potato shöchü?” Hirata asks. “Because I like it.”