Searching for the world's best drinks and what makes them extraordinary.

Searching for the world's best drinks and what makes them extraordinary. EZdrinking is a drinks blog by Eric Zandona that focuses on distilled spirits, wine, craft beer and specialty coffee. Here you can find reviews of drinks, drink books, articles about current & historical trends, as well as how to make liqueurs, bitters, and other spirit based drinks at home.

Filtering by Tag: Defining Craft

Hawaiian Shochu Company: Blending Japanese Tradition with Aloha

The Hawaiian Shochu Company makes Namihana Shochu. In Japanese, Nami means waves and Hana means flowers. Photo ©Ken Hirata

For more than 200 years the histories of Japan and Hawaii have been intertwined. On May 5, 1806, the first Japanese people ever recorded to have set foot in Hawaii arrived as survivors of the cargo ship Inawaka-maru, which was carried into the Pacific Ocean by a severe storm and left adrift for two months. The eight survivors were rescued by an American ship and left in the care of King Kamehameha I. Since then, the Japanese and Americans of Japanese descent, who make up the second largest ethnic group in Hawaii, have helped to shape the physical and cultural landscape of the islands. Today, the Hawaiian Shochu Company, founded by Ken and Yumiko Hirata, is continuing this long history of Japanese and Hawaiian cross-cultural pollination.

The Hiratas have been distilling and selling their shochu, a traditional Japanese distilled spirit, made from rice and sweet potatoes, on Oahu’s North Shore for the past three years. Getting to this point was a long and circuitous road. Years ago, while Hirata was visiting his parents, who had moved to Honolulu from Osaka, he sampled poi, a traditional Hawaiian staple. (Poi is a mash made from baked or steamed taro root, often the consistency of pudding.) As Hirata ate the poi, it occurred to him that poi could make an interesting shochu. However, that thought receded to the back of his mind as Hirata returned to Hong Kong and his job brokering U.S. Financial instruments.

From there Hirata moved to Osaka and worked with artists who made traditional Japanese ceramics and textiles. But after developing a skin condition, Hirata and his wife moved, this time to Australia. It was during this time in Australia that the idea of making traditional shochu began to take shape.

Around 2005, the Hiratas moved to Kagoshima, Japan, the epicenter of shochu production for the past 500 years. Ken Hirata determined that he wanted to apprentice with Toshihiro Manzen, a master distiller with more than 30 years of experience. Hirata described the process by which he approached Manzen for an apprenticeship as a kung fu film. Manzen’s distillery is tucked away in a remote valley outside Kagoshima, surrounded by forests and planted near a stream. Hirata wrote Manzen numerous letters and visited the distillery again and again, each time being turned down until Manzen finally relented and agreed to take Hirata on as an apprentice. Hirata spent three years there learning how to make a very traditional style of imo shochu distilled from rice and sweet potatoes.

Photo ©Ken Hirata

In 2008, Manzen sent Hirata off to start his own distillery. Driven by his passion and training to create shochu from sweet potatoes, Ken and Yumiko returned to Hawaii. Besides its sheer beauty and relaxed pace of life, more than 20 varieties of sweet potato are grown on Oahu, including the white-skinned and purple-fleshed Okinawan sweet potato. Ken Hirata believed that the Okinawan sweet potato would give him the aromas and flavors he was looking for. Slowly the Hawaiian Shochu Company arose from the red dirt of Oahu’s North Shore with Hirata performing much of the work himself. Surrounded by the wild grasses of an old cane field, the Hiratas’ distillery is tucked away on a quiet road in the town of Haleiwa. While Honolulu is a bustling city that sees millions of tourists flock to Pearl Harbor and the beaches of Waikiki, Haleiwa, on the other side of the mountain, has a slower pace that feels much more relaxed.

Photo ©Eric Zandona

The Hawaiian Shochu Company officially began production in 2013, making a traditional sweet potato shochu using methods and equipment that are hundreds of years old. Since the mid-sixteenth century the Japanese have been making shochu by distilling a fermented mash of rice or rice and other starches such as barley, sweet potato or buckwheat. However, rice and sweet potatoes need an external agent to break down their starches into sugar. While traditional distillers in the West have relied on malted barley to provide the diastatic power necessary to convert starches into fermentable sugars, Japanese distillers have relied on koji mold. This particular strain of mold is very well adapted to creating the enzymes necessary for starch conversion. Hirata sprinkles the mold over steamed white rice which has been spread out into shallow wooden boxes and left to be propagated in a specially designed room called the koji room. The koji room is designed to hold the temperature and humidity at the ideal levels for the mold to flourish. During this propagation phase, which takes about three or four days, Hirata, with his years of training, checks the temperature and moisture content of the rice with his hands.

Photo ©Eric Zandona

However, neither the koji nor the rice Hirata uses are cultivated in Hawaii, which means he has to import them. He orders the koji direct from Japan, but instead of importing Japanese rice, Hirata uses an heirloom variety of rice grown in California by a Japanese American family.

After about three days, the koji mold has propagated throughout the steamed rice and Hirata is ready to begin the fermentation phase. When Hirata left to start his distillery, Manzen gifted him 15 handmade ceramic fermentors that range in age from 100 to 150 years old and which hold between 550 and 650 liters. The vats are about four feet tall and buried in the ground up to their shoulders, which helps stabilize the temperature of the fermenting mash. Hirata adds the inoculated rice, water and yeast to his vats and lets the fermentation begin. After a day or so, Hirata steams his Hawaiian-grown sweet potatoes and adds them to the fermentors. The enzymes present in the fermenting rice slurry break down the sweet potato starches into sugar, which is then quickly consumed by the yeast and converted into alcohol.

Photo ©Eric Zandona

About a week into the fermentation, Hirata checks the aromas and flavor of the mash, which should be approximately 12% alcohol, to see if it’s ready to be distilled. Hirata uses a 1,700-liter steam-injected wooden still made from Japanese cypress. The mash of fermented rice and sweet potato is distilled in one pass and he collects the hearts in a large glass-lined steel holding tank. Hirata and his wife repeat this process for two months until the holding tank is full. The shochu rests in the holding tank at 40% ABV for up to six months before it is bottled. What comes out of the still is slightly harsh and bitter, but mellows during this rest period into a lightly sweet and wonderfully aromatic spirit.

Photo ©Eric Zandona

Once the shochu has finished its rest period, it is ready to be bottled. Ken Hirata proofs the shochu down to 30% ABV and he is able to fill about 3,000 bottles per batch. Once the bottling begins, Yumiko Hirata starts the process of labeling every bottle of their shochu by hand. The name Namihana is written in both English and Japanese, which serves both their American and Japanese customers. In Japanese, Nami means waves and Hana means flowers. This name suits their shochu well because it has a strong character with lots of floral aromas. Their batch #2, which was made with sweet potatoes grown on Molokai, had a very fruity nose with notes of ripe pear and Fuji apple. On the palate, the shochu started slightly sweet with fruity and floral notes and finished dry with no heat from the alcohol. Overall the spirit is light, elegant and simply wonderful to drink.

Because of their two-month production cycle and the six-month rest period, the Hiratas are only able to produce and bottle two batches of shochu per year. While using traditional methods to make shochu limits their total output, they are solely focused on the quality of the spirit. The results have been very well received, and even though they produce about 6,000 bottles per year they quickly sell out of each batch they make. A few cases go to local restaurants and hotels on Oahu and the rest is sold directly to customers who visit the distillery.

Visitors who make their way to the Hawaiian Shochu Company are greeted at the gate with wooden signs written both in English and Japanese. This is useful because many of the people who come to taste Hirata and Yumiko’s shochu are Japanese tourists who have heard about their national spirit being made in Haleiwa. After parking in the dirt field next to the distillery, a friendly little dog name Imo (Japanese for sweet potato) greets visitors at the door. The guests are asked to remove their shoes and given slippers to wear inside the distillery, most of which are sized for people with smaller feet. Once inside, the distillery has a simple open floor plan, which allows visitors to see almost the entire production area from the entryway. Near the door, the Hiratas have a six-foot table with a few chairs where they sit with their visitors, pour samples and describe how they make shochu.

Photo ©Eric Zandona

The Hawaiian Shochu Company is a perfect blend of a traditional Japanese distillery with the Hawaiian spirit of aloha. Hirata and Yumiko are exacting in the production and packaging of their shochu as well as relaxed, generous and welcoming. Hirata, who is an avid surfer, is not just making a shochu in Hawaii, but a Hawaiian shochu that represents the terroir of the islands in a way that has never been explored. Finally, any trip to Oahu should include a drive over the mountain to visit Ken, Yumiko and Imo.

Originally published as part of the "Defining Craft" series in Distiller Magazine (Fall 2016): 64-71.

State 38 Distilling: The House Built on Agave

Designed by Gail Sands

From the early 2000s, “Tequila” and “mezcal”—Mexico’s most famous agave spirits—have experienced significant growth in popularity and consumption in the United States. According to the Distilled Spirits Council of the US (DISCUS), imports of Tequila into the US have grown by 92% since 2002. In 2014, Tequila sold 13.8 million cases in the US, 6 million cases less than all Bourbon and Tennessee Whiskey. Given this growth, it is no surprise that US craft distillers have tried their hand at agave spirits. However, there are a couple of significant differences from Mexican and US agave spirits. First, while a few US distillers have tried to mirror the Mexican process of making agave spirits from whole piñas, the vast majority simply uses agave syrup. Second, US distillers cannot call their spirits Tequila or mezcal because
those are protected terms that refer to specific appellations of origin.

Despite difference in production and naming from their Mexican counterparts, a number of US craft distillers have brought agave spirits to market. For most US distillers of agave, their agave spirits often sit on the fringe of their portfolio, often playing 2nd or 3rd fiddle to some other brown spirit made from grain or sugar. State 38 Distilling however, is quite different. State 38’s entire portfolio of spirits, including their vodka and gin, are fermented and distilled from agave.

Sean Smiley, owner and head distiller of State 38, is not the most obvious candidate for creating the US’s only all-agave distillery. Smiley is a petroleum and process engineer who started by home brewing before he decided to open a distillery. But, unlike many former home brewers turned distillers, he did not make the obvious transition into whiskey. His choice to focus on agave seems even more strange in Colorado, the 38th state to join the union, and bursting with craft whiskey; and in Golden, of all places, with its long  association with the Coors Brewing Company.

Smiley explained that even though he tried making whiskey and rum, he did not think either were as intellectually challenging or interesting in their flavor profile as agave. Part of the challenge he faced during product development was to find a yeast strain that could fully attenuate agave syrup and give him a flavor profile he liked. He pitched his yeasts at a specific gravity of 1.070 and noticed that most quickly drop to 1.040 SG, but stalled out and would not attenuate much beyond that. Incidentally, Vapor Distillery (formerly Roundhouse Spirits), ran into a similar problem, which is partly why they suspended production of their Tatanka American Agave Spirit. However, Smiley persisted. After experimenting with 45 different strains, Smiley found his ideal yeast.

The Young Ace, reposado agave spirit, The Clever Jack blanco agave spirit and The Pious Queen vodka are part of the agave-centric spirits line distilled at State 38. The distillery also makes an agave-based gin. Photo courtesy of State 38 Distilling

All of State 38’s spirits start off as Fair Trade 100% Organic Raw Blue Agave syrup, which Smiley buys from Mexico. The syrup is separated into a half dozen or so 55-gallon stainless steel drums and diluted to 1.070 SG before he pitches his yeast. Smiley explained that because the agave was naturally
rich in minerals, he did not need to add nutrients to the fermentation. Once the yeast is pitched, the drums are wrapped with an insulating blanket to help maintain their temperature.

When fermentation has finished, the contents of a drum are transferred to the first of Smiley’s 250-gallon still that Smiley built from a used milk pasteurizer.

Both State 38’s Vodka and Gin are triple distilled. State 38’s vodka is stripped and then gets two passes through Smiley’s finishing still with its 6-plate column. After the third distillation, the vodka is proofed down, filtered and bottled. The gin, however, takes a slightly different path. For the third distillation, Smiley fills a vapor basket with Colorado juniper and a number of other gin botanicals. Once the gin has been vapor infused, it rests in a new charred oak barrel for one month before it is proofed down and bottled. Until recently, Smiley’s vodka was the only agave-based vodka sold in the US but, so far, no one else is distilling an agave-based barrel rested gin.

All of State 38’s agave spirits are twice distilled and matured in full-sized, new American white oak barrels with a #3 char from Independent Stave. After the finishing run, Smiley fills one of his barrels and lets it sit. His blanco agave spirit typically rests for five days before the barrel is emptied, proofed, filtered
and bottled. Meanwhile, Smiley’s reposado and anejo agave spirits mature for two months and 12 months, respectively, before they are bottled. Given all the media attention about the existence or non-existence of a barrel shortage, Smiley’s maturation schedule for his four aged spirits seemed like it
would burn through new barrels pretty quickly. However, he explained that, given the current after market for barrels, it is actually more cost effective for him to buy new barrels, use them once and then sell them to local breweries who use them two or three more times.

Sean Smiley and his wife Jessie show off a 250-gallon still that he constructed from a milk pasteurizer. Jessie went into labor a few hours after this picture was taken and their son Jordan was born in the wee hours of the next day. Photo © Bill Owens

Like many small distilleries around the county, State 38 is growing their business because people in their local market like what they taste. Their tasting room, modeled after an 1870s mining town saloon, does a good job of introducing drinkers to the idea of US agave spirits. Their Agave Reposado
has the distinct vegetal notes that one associates with a young, or lightly aged, Tequila. Its flavor profile, balanced finish and bottling strength of 90 proof, make the reposado an excellent candidate for margaritas. The Agave Anejo is likely to appeal to whiskey fans, or those drawn to extra-anejo Tequilas. Sitting in a new charred barrel for 12 months, the agave picks up a
ton of barrel notes. The palate is full of vanilla, caramel and sweetness, with an underlying note of green agave. Bottled at 80 proof, State 38’s Agave Anejo is a very smooth and tasty spirit worth sipping slowly throughout an evening.

Unbound by Tequila or mezcal’s legal definitions, Smiley plans to add complexity to his agave spirits by blending different varieties of agave syrups. While Smiley currently uses syrup from blue agaves, this past summer he purchased the remaining maugey organic agave syrup from Vapor Distillery. Maugey is a variety of agave, which traditionally has been used to make a low alcohol “beer-like” beverage in Mexico. Smiley stated that, when distilled, maugey has a fuller and earthier character compared to blue agave. He believes that a blend of maguey and blue agave will layer new flavors and add nuance, similar to the way that whiskey or brandy distillers use multiple varieties of grains or grapes to create flavor profiles.

State 38 has helped break new ground in the US with their range of agave spirits. Smiley and a handful of other craft distillers around the country have successfully demonstrated that agave spirits can be much more than just Tequila. US Agave spirits produced from syrup, like Smiley’s, are helping
to define the character of a new category of spirits. It will be interesting to see how the category grows as a whole, but if the history of the craft distilling industry is any indication, innovation will be the norm.

Origionally published as part of the "Defining Craft" series in Distiller Magazine (Winter 2015): 106-111.

From bark to Bourbon: The Wild Yeast of Firestone & Robertson Distilling Co.

Design by Gail Sands

Yeast is an amazing organism. It’s a fungus, one we encounter every day—not  only through the fermented beverages we drink and the bread we eat, but also in the very air we breath. For millennia, humankind collaborated with wild yeast to produce wine, beer and bread, yet with no understanding how it functioned on a molecular level. With the invention of  the microscope, we developed the skills and techniques to domesticate a few  strains of yeast suitable to our needs, but the vast majority remain wild, floating on the wind, ready to be discovered (or avoided).

In 2009, Rob Arnold moved from Tennessee to Dallas to begin a doctoral program in biochemistry. Having earned a bachelor’s degree in microbiology, Arnold was at home in the labs of the University of Texas. He spent many of his days isolating marine bacteria from samples of sea water. Yet, in his off time, Arnold began to dream of starting a distillery. His family had been in the alcohol industry for generations, and it seemed to him the right avenue for applying his skills and passion.

As Arnold began exploring the idea of distilling, he met Leonard Firestone and Troy Robertson, who were already in the process of starting a distillery in Fort Worth. As the three men talked, they realized they shared a common vision, and that each possessed skills valuable to a potential collaboration. Even from the beginning, Firestone and Robertson had known that they wanted a proprietary yeast strain for their wheated bourbon. And Arnold seemed to be the right man to make that a reality.

In September 2010, not long after the founding of the Firestone & Robertson Distilling Company, Arnold joined the  team and went to work looking for yeast. But to do it right,  he was going to need a lab. He reached out to local colleges, and Professor Dean Williams of Texas Christian University responded. Williams helped Arnold set up a lab, advised him on using equipment, and even helped him gain adjunct faculty status so he could come and go at the University as needed.

Arnold immediately began collecting samples from the distillery, which is located in a pre-Prohibition brick warehouse. He even took samples from his own home. Arnold applied the samples to petri dishes and waited to see what would grow. The petri dishes, or plates, contained a growing medium similar
to wort, intended to encourage the growth of yeast species suited to fermentation. However, when Arnold examined his first set of plates, none contained a desirable yeast strain.

Because not all yeast species are capable of fermenting the complex sugars within a bourbon mash into alcohol, the three focused specifically on finding Saccharomyces cerevisiae, a variety widely used by brewers and winemakers. Due to millennia  of selective pressure, S. cerevisiae has evolved into an effective fermenter of maltose, capable of surviving in an alcohol solution at concentrations deadly to most other bacteria and micro-organisms.

As the search for S. cerevisiae continued, Arnold headed out of Fort Worth to Rancho Hielo Brazos in Glen Rose, Texas. The ranch manager there, as it turned out, happened to have a background in botany. Arnold spent half a day with the ranch manager traversing the property, collecting samples from the dirt and a variety of plants. Back at the lab, the 20 samples he collected netted hundreds of different bacteria and fungi, including yeast.

Once again, Arnold went through the work of isolating each of the yeast strains by plating and re-plating them repeatedly. In the end, the 20 samples Arnold brought back from the ranch yielded 100 separate yeast strains. To whittle that number down to a manageable size, he used a technique  called Polymerase Chain Reaction to isolate the DNA of each strain. Upon analysis, it turned out 11 of the 100 strains were S. cerevisiae. Arnold checked his notes, and discovered that all 11 came from just three sources on the ranch: a cactus fruit,  an oak tree and a pecan tree.

Arnold then tested his 11 wild yeast strains against a couple of commercial strains in a series of fermentation trials. For a month, he pitched these yeasts into a standardized wort and recorded when fermentation began, when it stopped, and how well each strain consumed the available sugars. He noticed that almost all of the wild S. cerevisiae strains began fermenting right away, although most stalled after 36 hours. Out of the 11 wild yeast strains, only three were capable of fully fermenting the wort and able to hold up to alcohol without dying.

The team ran fermentation results from the final three wild strains, plus a commercial strain, through a blind sensory analysis. They nosed and tasted the distiller’s beer and the white  dog resulting from each yeast strain to see which they liked best. All three picked the same strain as their clear favorite, which they named Brazos.

Arnold checked his notes, and he and the team were delighted to find that all their effort had paid off—not only had they all picked the same wild yeast, but it also came from the same source: a pecan nut. Native to Texas and a number of other states, the pecan tree (Carya illinoinensis) has been the
official state tree of Texas since 1906. 

From the beginning, Firestone and Robertson had dreamed of creating a Texas bourbon that represents the home that they love. It was pure serendipity that, after all of Arnold’s hard work to find a wild yeast strain that could imbue their bourbon with the character of Texas, they found it waiting on a  Texas pecan nut. To protect all that they had accomplished, their Brazos yeast strain is now stored in deep freezers at the distillery as well as at a couple of universities in the area. If Firestone & Robertson ever needed to start from scratch, they have a number of ready samples stored for just such a purpose.

Once they settled on Brazos as their house yeast strain, they went into high gear distilling and laying down barrels of bourbon to age. Firestone & Robertson are making wheated bourbon. The wheat, corn and barley are milled, mashed, then fermented in open stainless steel fermenters using the
Brazos yeast strain. Once fermentation is complete, the wash is pumped into the stills grain and all. Firestone & Robertson stills are a pot-column hybrid, custom built by Vendome Copper & Brass Works, designed so they can distill bourbon in a single pass.

When enough hearts are collected, they pour the spirit into 53 gallon barrels from Independent Stave. Slowly but surely  the stacked barrels are filling up the open floor plan of their brick warehouse, with the oldest barrels in a loft overlooking the distillery floor. According to Arnold, the brick helps to moderate the hot summer temperatures, which can reach into the 100s, and also keeps temperatures stable through the  mild winters.

In the loft, a barrel marked “Brazos” has been quietly sitting  for three years, working its magic with the spirit inside. Arnold, using a copper whiskey thief, drew a small sample and poured it into a nosing glass. Three years in, their bourbon has a fantastic color of deep amber and burnished copper. A nice aroma of vanilla, cinnamon and caramel danced in concert with the oak just above the rim of the glass. Higher notes of floral and fruity esters lingered faintly in the background. At first taste there is an immediate impression of young wood mingled with walnuts, and a lingering maple syrup sweetness that floats on the tongue. Even at barrel strength the bourbon  was supple and smooth, without any harsh heat.

Firestone & Robertson is one of a very small group of distilleries to isolate a wild yeast strain for making spirits. The micro-distilling industry’s vast opportunities for artistry and creativity drive their passion. In the meantime, their bourbon is developing a uniquely Texas flavor born of the pecan trees
in the watershed of the Brazos River.

Originally published as part of the "Defining Craft" series in Distiller Magazine (Summer 2015): 90-92.