In the fall of 2018, I visited Hawaiian Shochu Company (HSC) in the little town of Haleiwa on the North Shore of Oahu. This was one of the many trips I took while I was pregnant, and I checked things off the bucket list here like surfing, wooo! I even got up on the board! The North Shore was a wonderful place for surfing, snorkeling, and soaking in all the aloha.
Our distillery visit was a highlight of my trip and I always meant to post the photos. Now seems to be the perfect time, since we're so proud to feature Nami Hana, the imo shochu by HSC, for Shochu Gumi this quarter! This is a really big deal – Nami Hana is handmade in very small batches by Ken Hirata, owner and toji of HSC, and this has rarely been sold outside of Hawaii before. I had kept in touch with him since my 2018 visit, and when I inquired with him last year about the possibility of getting his spirits for Umami Mart, it was good timing. Hirata-san had extra bottles since restaurants were struggling with the pandemic, so he was willing to send me enough for our Shochu Gumi members. We are so lucky!!
Nami Hana, now on its 18th bottling (Batch 19 coming this fall), is made with locally grown Hawaiian sweet potatoes, and is always unfiltered. With our upcoming Shochu Gumi theme focusing on filtration, I asked Hirata-san about his process and inspiration for starting HSC in Hawaii.
HRC is located in Haleiwa on Oahu Island. It was easy to miss as it is discreetly tucked away off the side of the road.
Sweet hand painted sign
Growing lettuce on the property
KA: What is your name and title? Tell us a little about your company.
KH: My name is Ken Hirata from Osaka, Japan. I am the owner/shochu distiller of Hawaiian Shochu Company.
Hawaiian Shochu Company is more like a one-man operated distillery so I do everything from shochu-making, cleaning, sales, etc.
How did you get into the shochu industry?
Poi is the reason to get into the shochu industry. Almost 30 years ago when I visited Hawaii as a tourist from Japan, I was eating poi (fermented Hawaiian food made from Taro) and thought of shochu-making. I was just joking about the idea, but 15 years later, the idea suddenly popped up in my mind and I thought it would be fun to make shochu in Hawaii. Then, I became an apprentice under my master Manzen in Kagoshima.
What do you like most about shochu making?
I can make my own shochu from locally grown ingredients/produce.
What would you say is unique about your brewery?
We apply Japan's traditional hand-craft shochu making technique for our small batch shochu production in Haleiwa, Hawaii. Our equipment and tools are old style.
What do you think is the most important step in shochu-making and why?
Preparation. If we are well-prepared, we are able to avoid or handle the unexpected troubles.
How long have you been making this shochu?
This is our tenth year since we started making shochu in Hawaii.
How are Hawaiian sweet potatoes different from those grown in Kagoshima?
Majority of imo shochu in Kagoshima are made from sweet potatoes which are developed for shochu making in Japan. We use Hawaii grown sweet potatoes. They are different from the ones from Japan. They have different characteristics due to the climate and soil conditions. They say about 20 varieties of sweet potatoes are grown in Hawaii. Each one of them gives different characteristics as well.
Locally grown sweet potatoes. Photo by Ken Hirata
We used the sweet potatoes from Mokuleia (15 mins drive from our distillery on the North Shore). It was the first time we used the sweet potatoes from this area.
Ceramic vats for fermenting and aging
What different techniques are used to make this shochu?
Traditional handcrafted shochu-making is applied to make Nami Hana. Hand made koji is fermented with Hawaii grown sweet potatoes in 150-year-old ceramic vats from Kagoshima. Distilled in a wooden pot still from Japan.
Ken-san with his wooden still. Watch distillation take place!
Aging shochu in the green vat
How best would you recommend to enjoy this shochu (cold, warm, room temperature)?
In Hawaii, we recommend to drink on the rock with relatively more ice. Fill a glass with ice and fill NamiHana to 50%. Wait a few minutes. Sip while the ice melts. The flavor comes out.
Any cocktail recipes for this shochu?
The Summer Breeze by Blaine Shimabukuro
1.5 oz NamiHana
2 oz Freshly juiced watermelon
1 oz simple syrup
0.25 oz lime
0.25 oz apple cider
Shake mixture throughly and pour over ice.
What food pairings are best for this shochu?
Our shochu is dry. It pairs well with rich flavored food including Teriyaki chicken, shoyu pork, miso butter fish. Also Chinese and Korea dishes are good to pair with our shochu because of the dryness.
Was there a specific inspiration for you to make this shochu?
I try to let Hawaii work as much as possible. I try not to do so much.
What is your method for filtration usually for your shochus? And Nami Hana does not use a filter at all?
Nami Hana is basically unfiltered: no modern filtration system is used to treat Nami Hana Shochu. We use thin layer of cloth to take the sediment out, though.
Why did you choose to keep Nami Hana unfiltered?
For more aroma from the oil.
How did your time at Manzen influence your shochu-making?
I was able to learn not only shochu-making, but also the lifestyle and future vision as a shochu maker.
What is the lifestyle and vision you had about becoming a shochu maker at Manzen? How did it inspire you?
Shochu making is not just making and selling shochu. It is closely tied with the local community, custom, culture, people, nature, climate, etc. We try to source our ingredients as local as possible. Chiho (locale) is important and you are closer with the end result of the shochu when you source locally and work with people from the community.
Tell us a little bit about your town. How does your region influence your shochu-making?
We live and make Nami Hana in Haleiwa, Hawaii. It is a small country town well known for surfing and big waves. We can hear the sounds of big waves in the winter and sea breeze all year around. I think our shochu can hear and feel the ocean while it is being matured.
Anything new or exciting coming up at your brewery?
We will celebrate our 10-year anniversary next year.
Ken-san and his wife Yumiko-san
Congratulations Hawaiian Shochu Company on 10 years!!! We can't wait to see what you will create in the next decade. Omedetou!!!