A Kaka‘ako shop helps you learn about one of Japan’s most famous—and delicious—exports.
Wine, beer and cocktails may be near ubiquitous these days, but learning about sake, commonly described as Japanese rice wine, still takes some effort. For Nadine Leong, who co-owns The Sake Shop in Kaka‘ako with her husband Malcolm, a foray into becoming a sake expert was a happy accident. On trips to Japan, Malcom, whom she calls “the drinker in the family,” would seek out different types of sake not found in the islands. While she would taste alongside him, it only became a full-blown passion when the pair began casting out ideas for a joint business at home in Honolulu.
“Some of the specialty wine shops carried a small selection of sake so we thought there must be a demand,” she says. “People were just starting to get introduced to sake.” And so, in 2010, the pair opened a small store on South King Street devoted not only to sake, but sake education, inviting Japanese brewers to talk to customers and have regular tastings. In 2018, they moved to a larger 1,200-square-foot location in Kaka‘ako, and have filled out the space with 150 sake selections—all in refrigeration—as well as Japanese beer, shochu, vodka, whisky and gin.
Leong says the refrigeration aspect isn’t strictly necessary, but it helps for showing and storing the sake at its most optimal state. “A lot of sakes have been heat pasteurized twice so storing it at room temperature it’s totally fine—just keep it in a dark cool space—but for longer [periods of] storage colder, is just a better method,” she says
As with the old location, sake educa- tion remains a key focus. When she gets an inexperienced sake drinker in the store, she often starts by asking what other types of alcohol they have enjoyed and then making a recommendation for something similar tasting in the sake family. “A lot of people who like white wine, they like a profile that is a little fruity, a little fresh, and we have some sakes that emulate that,” she says. “For whiskey drinkers, who like a richer, stronger almost smoky profile, there are sakes that are a little more earthy, with a more grain-forward profile. There’s really a large variety to choose from.”
There are some basic guidelines to remember if you’re striking out on your own. Sake, which is made from fermenting polished rice and usually bottled around 15 percent ABV, putting it on par with boozier wines, can be divided into three broad categories determined by how much the rice grains are polished. “The outside of the rice is where all the fats and proteins are,” says Leong. “The more you remove it, the more clean, aromatic and sweeter the sake becomes.”
Junmai is the entry-level sake. Leong considers these to be the most versatile, because it can be served cold, warm, or hot, and generally pairs well with food. But it’s the next level up, gingo, that she recommends for newbies because “it’s not too expensive break-your-bank sake.” The top tier, daigingo, are made from rice that has been polished at least 50 percent, and are quite delicate and often served cold.
Other sake terms that might be useful for sake newcomers include nigori, which refers to a sake that hasn’t been filtered and is therefore a little cloudy, and namazake, a sake that has not been pasteurized.
CURIOUS TO LEARN MORE? HERE ARE THREE RECOMMENDATIONS AT DIFFERENT LEVELS FROM LEONG:
Kamoizumi Shusen “Three Dots” A big-boned sake with surprising elegance. Shusen has a woodsy, forest- floor aroma of fall leaves and shiitake mushrooms.
Serving recommendations: First choice for duck or foie gras, and pairs well with dishes using mushrooms and root vegetables.
Fukuju “Blue Label” This fragrant and elegant bottling is brewed from the best sake rice and the well-known mineral water called “Miyamizu.” The bouquet is reminiscent of ripe apricot and it features a smooth rice umami flavor.
Serving recommendations: Seafood, light dishes, fruits and desserts.
Dewazakura Daiginjo “Mountain Cherry” This sake is reminiscent of softly melting snow. It has a mild floral fragrance, revealing notes of peach and apricot at mid-range, concluding with a light and slightly dry finish.
Serving recommendations: A natural with sashimi and seafood appetizers, this lovely sake reveals its charm gradually.
Serving recommendations: It’s subtle flavors and aromas enhance the flavor of a variety of foods. Serve cool, around 60 degrees.