Issue 17.3: June/July 2014

Master of Spirits

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 shōchū.

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 shōchū 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 shōchū, 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 shōchū’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 shōchū from a variety of ingredients— buckwheat, rice, sugar cane, even American potatoes. Why sweet potato shōchū?” Hirata asks. “Because I like it.”

The difference between shōchū and other distilled spirits is that whatever it’s made from, shōchū always starts the same way—with steamed rice cultivated with mold spores—and unlike whisky or vodka, authentic shōchū is distilled just once. Hirata knew none of this the day he came up with the idea to make shōchū himself. He was visiting his parents, who had moved to Honolulu from Osaka, and his mind was jumping with cross-cultural possibilities. A spoonful of poi led to the thought that one day it would be fun to make a poi shōchū. It was a fleeting whimsy. Hirata filed it away and went back to his job brokering US interest rates in Hong Kong.

But that was transitory. In search of something more rooted, he returned to Osaka and dived into traditional arts. Lacquer, ceramics, kimono textiles: He helped artists develop new products. That lasted until he broke out with a severe skin condition. With his wife, Yumiko, he retreated to Australia and took up windsurfing. It was pure escape, without focus or direction, and after a while even the open blue couldn’t help. “The poi shōchū idea came back to me. I only had good memories of Hawai‘i. Everything came together,” Hirata says. “I remember asking my wife, ‘How about coming to Kagoshima with me, and I’ll be an apprentice to a shōchū maker?’ ‘That sounds like fun,’ she said. At least that’s what I think she said.”

Kagoshima, on the southern island of Kyushu, is the heart of Japan’s shōchū industry. More than one hundred distilleries in the prefecture produce shōchū, most of it sweet potato shōchū. And shōchū, for want of a better term, is hot: Relatively inexpensive, it’s popular with Japanese college students, who drink it mixed with oolong tea or soda and fruit juice, which makes it even cheaper. Traditionalists drink it mixed with hot water. Others take it neat or on the rocks. In Japan the thirst for shōchū has long outpaced that for sake — especially, Hirata says, sweet potato shōchū, which women love for its bouquet.

Hirata loved it, too. With no background in shōchū, he read up on it. One distiller stood out: Toshihiro Manzen, who was making small batches by hand in the backwoods of Kagoshima. He wasn’t much older than Hirata. He’d trained under his uncle, a legendary shōchū master, then resurrected his late father’s tiny operation, shuttered more than thirty years. It was there, at Manzen’s isolated outpost in a forested valley by a stream, that Hirata went knocking. The master sent him away. Hirata wrote letters. He knocked again. Wrote more letters.

“In Japan everything is high-tech. You can say the same about shōchū-making. His distillery is one of the smallest, but he uses minimal machinery. He does almost everything by hand, the traditional way,” Hirata says. “Of course I got rejected. It was just like kung fu movies. You go to the master’s place and ask to learn his secrets and the master says get out. But I liked his shōchū the best.”

Manzen finally gave in to the wild-haired windsurfer’s persistence, and Hirata took his place among the kurabito, or distillery workers. The other three were related to Manzen—a common practice, to protect trade secrets — and all in their twenties. Hirata was 37. He was the newest and lowest among them. It was exactly where he wanted to be.

The balmy sea air and open fields around Hirata’s distillery are a world away from Manzen’s cozy valley in Japan. But not in Hirata’s mind: To him the humidity and mild temperatures of Hale‘iwa are like Kagoshima’s climate. The soil of both islands is volcanic. And both have all those sweet potatoes.

From the beginning Hirata knew he’d be expressing the flavors not of Japan but of Hawai‘i. “You make sake from local rice. In Scotland they use local ingredients to make scotch. The reason I came here was because of the quality and availability of sweet potatoes,” he says. “Liquor is an agricultural processed product. ‘Tochi no mono o tsukau’—it has to be ‘heavily attached to the soil.’”

He was going for terroir. Everything would come from as close to his patch of red dirt as he could manage: water from a friend’s well in Mokulë‘ia and Okinawan sweet potatoes from Hawai‘i Island’s Hämäkua coast, Mililani in O‘ahu’s central highlands and Waialua just five minutes away. Only the rice would be imported because it is no longer grown in the Islands, but instead of prized Japanese rice, Hirata chose a variety from California. “I didn’t want to bring a shōchū machine and just press a button. Making handcrafted shōchū is an art. You have to sweat and work hard,” he says. “I wanted to do something meaningful — not just to make money, but something attached to the land.”

In 2008 he was ready. Or rather, Manzen had just kicked him out. After three distilling seasons— barely an introduction as Japanese apprenticeships go—the master had taken his junior kurabito aside and told him he was getting old. If he waited much longer, Hirata would be too old to build a distillery and start a new tradition. Manzen promised, though, to continue Hirata’s training from afar. He gave Hirata fifteen ceramic vats four feet deep and about 150 years old that his father had buried to their shoulders in the Kagoshima soil to age his rice and sweet potato mashes for the still. Manzen told Hirata to plant them in Hawai‘i.

It took five years to find the land and build the distillery. The plans were easy— Hirata copied every detail from Manzen’s, down to the placement of rice steamer, vats, still and aging tank. Even the size of the windows in the koji room, where mold spores were cultivated on freshly steamed rice, was identical. He and Yumiko built the distillery themselves, trucking plywood and two-by-fours from Home Depot in Pearl City and Ace Hardware in Hale‘iwa. Weekends and after work, friends showed up to help dig pits and to paint.

In February 2013 Hirata placed offerings of sake, rice and purifying Hawaiian salt on a Shinto altar above the door. He bowed his head and prayed for quality shōchū that would make people happy. And then he steamed his first batch of rice.

Hirata stands beside the tank, sniffing and tasting. The clear liquor inside has been mellowing for close to six months. The cycle that Manzen taught him, that plays out in Kagoshima from late summer to spring—steam the rice; prepare a mash of koji rice, water and yeast to age in the vats; steam the sweet potato and add the rice mash to age in other vats; distill the mixture; collect the liquid and let it round out in the tank—plays out twice a year now in Hale‘iwa’s milder climate. Hirata and his wife labor daily for weeks at a time, steaming rice or sweet potatoes one day, distilling a small batch another day. The separate distillations add up slowly: It takes two months to fill the stainless-steel tank. And then, as the shōchū matures, he begins tasting. “One day you find it’s different,” he says. “It’s different from the day before. The bitterness, it disappears. I think it must be ready. I stir it, let it go for a while, until it’s settled. And then I know.”

Last September the first batch of Hirata’s Hawaiian shōchū—Namihana, meaning “waves and flowers”—was ready for bottling. Atypically for a shōchū, Hirata left it unfiltered. It was still as clear as vodka. He loved the raw flavors and wanted people to taste the full range. At that point Manzen flew over and tasted it. “Well,” the master said, with typical restraint, “go ahead and sell it.” For Hirata it was the ultimate approval.

Never mind that most of Hawai‘i had never heard of shōchū. Or that many who had confused it with Korean soju, which has similar origins but has added flavorings and sells in Korean supermarkets for the less-than-artisanal price of $5 for a small bottle. Or even that Hirata sells Namihana for a relatively pricey $39 a bottle. Restaurants and hotels began picking it up: Roy’s, Japengo, Doraku, Tokkuri-Tei, Restaurant Wada, the Moana Surfrider, the Hyatt Waikiki. The entire first batch of 2,500 bottles sold out by February— half of it to curious locals and Japanese who read about the Hawaiian shōchū, looked up Hirata’s number and made the drive out to Hale‘iwa. “Many of the locals said, ‘Do you guys sell sake?’ ‘No, we sell shōchū.’ They said, ‘What’s the difference?’” Hirata says. “‘Sake is brewed and shōchū is distilled. That’s the main difference, and there are others.’ I’m not sure if they really understood, but after they tasted our shōchū, they did.”

Early in the spring the flavors of Namihana’s second batch were just beginning to mellow in the tank. For this year’s batch Hirata had used a different koji and thrown some purple-skinned, purple-fleshed Moloka‘i sweet potatoes into the mix. The scent is better, he says; he could tell from the aromas rising from the mash. He might experiment with an all-Moloka‘i sweet potato shōchū next. He sniffs the bouquet, takes a small sip, holds it on his tongue. The middle of March, he guesses. That’s when the second batch should be ready for bottling. And then he’ll steam some more rice.