After visiting KoHana rum we drove 15 minutes to Haleiwa home of the Hawaiian Shochu Company. Sochu is a traditional Japanese spirit, widely consumed throughout Japan. Like sake and soju, shochu is rice based and uses koji mold to break down the starches in steamed rice. The drink has been in continuous production for hundreds of years; the first known reference to it is grafitti on a shrine in Kyushu.
“The head priest here is such a tightwad! he didn’t give us Shōchū even once.”
— Carpenters Sakujiro and Suketaro Tsruta, 1559
Unlike sake which is brewed like beer, shochu and soju are both distilled spirits. Shochu is also different from soju in that it is only distilled a single time, and it doesn’t contain sugar and other additives. Both shochu and soju are relatively low powered spirits, varying between 20 and 35% ABV.
Like sake, Shuochu starts with rice and koji, the silent workhorse of several Asian culinary traditions. There are three major types of Koji used in fermentation, and the selection process is dictated in large part by the climate of the shochu distillery.
The Three Koji Variants
Aspergillus kawachii, is a mutant albonio strain of black koji. It tends to create fruity and elegant shochu flavors. Rice fermented with white koji produces the highest concentrations of alcohols and aldehydes.
Aspergillus oryzae, Yellow Koji, is the most difficult strain to work with, and is used predominantly in sake making. It’s very temperature sensitive, and is better adapted to the northern Japanese islands, where it makes light, fruity, and smooth shochus.
Aspergillus awamori, Black Koji mold is used predominantly in Okinawan awamori and Thai rice shochus. It imparts strong, sweet, and full bodied drinks.
Hawaiian Shochu Company production method
Back to our trip.
The visit felt like a trip to some fusion between a Japanese country house, and a Hawaiian farm. After the honorifics and greetings, we took off our shoes and put on sandals, and sat in wooden chairs at the roughly hewn wooden table.
Hawaiian Shochu Company is a mom, pop, and doggy type of operation. Ken, the patriarch is a proud Japanese-Hawaiian distiller, educated in Kagoshima by master distiller Toshihiro Manzen. Ken is supported by his wife Yumiko and their dog Imo. They’re currently producing 60,000 bottles of Shochu a year and are in their fourth year of operations. They’re at a potential inflection point, trying to decide whether to hire staff and try to scale production, or stick with what they have.
Hawaiian Shochu Company closely follows the same, resolutely traditional distillation process Toshihiro Manzen uses at his distillery in Kyushu.
Ken starts by steaming massive bags of Californian Kokuho Rose rice to start to dissolve rice starch. The steamed rice is then laid out in in a purpose built room and raked to spread it evenly across the drying tables. Koji Mold is then sprinkled on top, and the the rice starts its exciting transformation into Koji rice! The rice is checked regularly over the course of the next two days, and once properly transformed, it’s transported to the fermentation tanks.
Koji is mixed with water and yeast, and is left to ferment. Where bigger distilleries use steel vats, Hawaiian Shochu Company uses bug pots, which is mostly buried in the ground. Ken’s master donated his pots, which are more than 100 years old. The rice is left to ferment for about a week, and then the main ingredient is added to the mixture. Sweet potatoes!
Ken has been experimenting with a few different types of sweet potatoes, some grown in the back yard, and some grown on the big island, to create his shochu. The peeled, washed, steamed sweet potatoes are left to ferment for about a week, until they are distilled.