Before COVID-19 hoisted tourism on its petard, shochu drew an increasing number of people to Japan every year. Distilleries in Kyushu have noticed annual bumps in the number of foreign tourists traveling south just to learn more about Japan’s indigenous spirit. But for Mr. Ken Hirata, a former kurabito at Manzen Shuzo in Kagoshima, his love for shochu took him in the opposite direction, all the way to Hawaii’s Oahu Island to be exact. Haleiwa, on the North Coast of the island, known internationally as a surfer’s paradise, is now home to The Hawaiian Shochu Company, which makes the most authentic single pot-distilled shochu currently made outside Japan.
Hirata-san was kind enough to answer a few questions for us.
Kanpai: Please tell us a little about your background and experience in the shochu industry in Japan.
Hirata: I was an apprentice under Mr. Manzen at Manzen Distillery in Kagoshima, Japan. He gave me three years to work and learn all about making sweet potato shochu.
Kanpai: So where did the idea for starting The Hawaiian Shochu Company come from?
Hirata: It was poi which brought me to Hawaii. Poi is a traditional food for Hawaiians. It is a fermented food made from taro. When I was visiting Hawaii as a tourist about 25 years ago, and I was eating poi, I thought of making shochu in Hawaii. I thought since they have potatoes and they like to eat fermented foods, it would be possible to make shochu in Hawaii. I was really just joking with my friends about it back then.
Kanpai: I see that you are still closely connected with Manzen Distillery. How did Manzen-san help with your transition to Hawaii?
Hirata: I had an idea of making shochu in Hawaii, but did not know how to make it. Manzen-san was kind and generous enough to accept me as an apprentice even though he did not know me well. When we were preparing to make shochu in Hawaii, he gave us 15 valuable 150-year-old kametsubo (ceramic vats) and helped us financially when we started The Hawaiian Shochu Company. One of the biggest reasons why we are able to make shochu in Hawaii is Mr. Manzen’s generosity and kindness.
Kanpai: How have your experiences with Manzen Shuzo influenced your approach to making shochu in Hawaii?
Hirata: I wanted to bring and introduce shochu to Hawaii, but I also wanted to introduce shochu culture in a traditional way. The Japanese immigrants in Hawaii have had a strong influence on Hawaii in many ways. The people in Hawaii respect Japan’s traditional values. I thought Manzen’s traditional handcrafted shochu-making techniques would be able to showcase shochu culture with more impact.
Kanpai: You make shochu by hand, but I noticed that you don’t write “Honkaku Shochu” on your labels. In what ways is Namihana similar to/different from the honkaku shochu that is produced in Japan?
Hirata: My understanding of “honkaku” is more like a regional product such as champagne or scotch whiskey. Our shochu is made in the honkaku style, but since we make it in Hawaii, I am not sure if it is OK to label as honkaku. Also, we can be more flexible and have more freedom by not labeling as honkaku. After all, we are controlled by the U.S. liquor laws in which there is no category of shochu.
Kanpai: Your distillery in Haleiwa is gorgeous, but there must be some serious challenges to making shochu in the United States. What has been the most difficult part for you in starting The Hawaiian Shochu Company?
Hirata: We struggled so much before we started making shochu because it was taking so much time to obtain permits, licenses, and we had to deal with all kinds of legal matters. It took us more than eight years to start the business. We simply lost all the time and money before we even started the production of shochu.
Kanpai: Oahu Island is fortunate that you persevered! Who are your customers? Can you describe (generally) the people who come to the distillery to buy Namihana and Banzai Strength?
Hirata: Half of our customers are Hawaiian residents. They try to support local products and small businesses like us. Additionally, we now have an increasing number of customers from Japan.
Kanpai: What makes Namihana and Banzai Strength unique?
Hirata: Our annual production is extremely small. We produce two batches per year, one in the spring and one in fall. With two batches we can produce approximately 7,000 bottles now. It is a micro-production compared to most shochu companies in Japan. Our sweet potatoes all come from the Hawaiian Islands. Each batch is also unique because the farm or variety of sweet potatoes changes every batch. I believe making shochu in the traditional Japanese way in Hawaii makes our shochu unique to begin with.
Kanpai: Where else can people find your shochu?
Hirata: Over 80% of our production is sold at our production site in Haleiwa. We regret that we don’t ship internationally at all. The other 20% goes to restaurants, hotels, and bars in Hawaii.
Kanpai: Do you feel like there is better awareness of shochu in Hawaii these days, or have things largely stayed the same?
Hirata: Most people in Hawaii still think we (the Japanese) drink sake. Shochu is not established at all, but I feel more people are getting to know of shochu due to the popularity of Japanese whiskey and micro distilleries.
Kanpai: Do you have any advice for shochu makers in Japan who wish to sell their products in the United States?
Hirata: It is not easy to sell a large quantity of shochu in the U.S. I feel it is important to promote shochu as Japan’s original and authentic spirit. Unfortunately, the image of shochu is often confused with Korean soju which does not have a good brand image compared to other spirits such as vodka, tequila, rum, and whiskey. Promoting Japanese shochu with higher value could create a stronger brand for the category. To be honest, I think shochu is priced too cheap compared to other spirits.
Kanpai: What is your favorite way to enjoy Namihana?
Hirata: Namihana has a distinctive aroma from Hawaiian sweet potatoes. Drinking it on the rocks with more ice opens up the aroma and flavor of Namihana. Just like other Japanese sweet potato shochu, it is good to pair with relatively rich flavored food such as teriyaki chicken, kalua pork, or yasai itame.
Kanpai: What would you like to tell American consumers who have never heard of or tried shochu before? What do you tell them about shochu to get them interested?
Hirata: Honkaku shochu is a very unique spirit in some ways compared to other spirits including vodka, rum, or gin. You can easily taste the base ingredient (in our case, sweet potatoes) so there’s no need to make it into a mixed drink. Also, you can enjoy shochu during meals unlike most other spirits because it does not overpower the food. This is due to shochu’s sophisticated and delicate flavor and smoothness.
**Note: A previous version of this interview, also conducted and written by the author, is reprinted with permission by Zipangu Japan.