If you’re a connoisseur, the names roll off your tongue as gracefully as the Japanese calligraphy ﬂowing down the labels: Kikusui, Dewazakura, Nambu Bijin. If you’re not a connoisseur—which the vast majority of the Sake Shop’s customers aren’t—it’s a little trickier. “A lot of people try sake and ﬁnd one they really like,” says Nadine Leong, who owns the shop on King Street in Honolulu with her husband Malcolm. “But when they come in they say, ‘It was a green bottle,’ or, ‘It had a pretty label.’”
Selling Japan’s artisan beverage in the United States’ number-one city for sake-serving restaurants per capita isn’t as easy as one might think. Despite Hawai‘i’s hundred-year history with sake—once a weekly tradition for immigrant plantation laborers and today a staple at local Japanese weddings and New Year celebrations—ﬁnding the one you want can be daunting.
But educating customers comes naturally to Malcolm. His passion for the nuances of ﬂavor, body and aroma and his knowledge of the interactions among different rice strains, yeasts and fermentation methods spurred the Leongs to open the shop. That was six years ago. The Sake Shop is today one of only four in the country (the others are in San Francisco, Seattle and New York). With about 150 labels on offer, it competes with Japanese-owned Marukai Market Place for the distinction of largest sake purveyor in the state. For brewers the shop is a must-stop on trips to Hawai‘i. They come bearing gifts unique to their breweries, like sake-infused curry or sake-ﬁlled white chocolates, as well as new labels to try. About once a month the tiny shop ﬁlls with people curious to sample a brewery’s line, a selection of award winners or new releases of spring and autumn sakes.
With Malcolm working full time elsewhere, it’s often Nadine who guides novices through the profusion of green bottles and pretty labels. “Sometimes I’ll ask them what else they like to drink. Is it beer? What kind of beer? Or if it’s wine, what kind?” she says. “Finding the right gateway is really important when people are new to sake. They come in really excited. If they choose the wrong one, that’s it. But if they like it, they’ll be back.”
Story by Mari Taketa. Photos by Elyse Butler Mallams