A Saké Sommelier, for Goodness Sake

Ikuko Shimizu, first in Hawaii to be certified as a Kikisake-Shi, wants to introduce you to ‘sake culture’

Susan Sunderland
Friday - December 23, 2005
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Saké Savant Menu

Suddenly sexy. That’s the word on saké, the hottest beverage trend for the new year. If you haven’t discovered the joy of sipping saké, you’ve yet to join the ranks of today’s discriminating diners.

There’s someone in town who can take you on this journey of discovery. Meet Ikuko Shimizu, Hawaii’s first certified saké specialist, who recently earned the title of “Kikisaké-Shi” from the Japan’s Saké Service Institute. Shimizu gained this distinction after extensive study of saké production, service, stewardship and sales.

Ikuko Shimizu, Kikisake-Shi
Ikuko Shimizu, Kikisake-Shi

The manager of Kacho restaurant in the Waikiki Parc Hotel worked on her certification for six months, taking 12 exams by mail and finishing up with two days of hands-on classes and a final exam in Japan that involved saké tasting.

“I want to introduce Japanese saké culture to American and Hawaii guests,” Shimizu says.

The gracious, soft-spoken saké savant is modest about her accomplishment. But she deserves the spotlight and attention of beverage connoisseurs here because there are 10,000 certified saké specialists in the world, and very few of them are women.

Now Hawaii has its own saké sommelier, who will undoubtedly blaze the trail for others in the restaurant industry. That’s a good thing because saké is enjoying newfound popularity with the growing sophistication of natural foods and Asian cuisine.

Ikuko Shimizu pours a glass of sake for Liane Okimoto
Ikuko Shimizu pours a glass of sake for Liane Okimoto

Shimizu demonstrates the proper way to pour a cup of sake
Shimizu demonstrates the proper way to pour a
cup of sake

The proper way to hold a cup of sake for drinking
The proper way to hold a cup of sake for drinking

Shimizu compares the aromas of various types of sake
Shimizu compares the aromas of various types
of sake

Shimizu gives us the basics of this Japanese beverage. She tells us that saké contains only four ingredients: rice, water, yeast, and koji, a mold spore. It is a completely natural product, containing no artificial additives, enhancers or sulfites. Like other fermented beverages such as wine and beer, saké is lower in alcoholic content (15 percent) and calories when compared to distilled liquors.

Saké has been produced in Japan since the third century B.C. when wet rice cultivation was introduced from China. Like wine, saké has a multitude of flavors. Some are smooth, rich and lush while others can be assertive, rough and tart. It can be served hot or cold, although cold is trendier.

Shimizu usually asks a customer’s regular beverage choices and translates that into a saké style. Prices can sometimes help in a selection. At Kacho, saké by the glass ranges from $7 to $31.

Like wine, saké is diverse in flavor profile from region to region. Climate, local cuisine, master brewer’s guild, and water quality all play a role in the flavor of saké, according to Matthew Pickett, food and beverage operations manager at Waikiki Parc.

“Or simply put yourself into Ikuko’s hands (for a selection) and have an open mind,” advises Pickett.

Hawaii has a special connection with saké. The first mention of saké drinking in the Western world occurred with the arrival in Hawaii of contract laborers from Japan. King Kalakaua welcomed immigrants in 1885 at a dockside sumo tournament with barrels of saké as prizes. The Merry Monarch always did things with style and panache.

An enterprising Honolulu immigrant from Hiroshima named Tajiro Sumida made saké brewing a successful business. In December 1908, he presented the Honolulu Saké Brewery’s first batch of saké to the public. The brewery became a pioneer in developing new technologies that were then implemented in Japan.

It was the first to use stainless steel, the first to develop a method to brew saké year ‘round, and the first to develop techniques for brewing saké from California rice.

Why the sudden popularity of saké? For one, there is better Japanese saké coming into the United States now than ever before. Secondly, American saké-samplers, warm cups in hands, had it all wrong in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s. Saké is served warm in Japan to heat you up in the winter or to hide the harshness of a mediocre brew. A real connoisseur (known as tsu) drinks saké cold, as so many wine-oriented, upscale restaurants are serving it these days.

So, Shimizu suggests, get into a Zen frame of mind and experience cold saké in an elegant wineglass. It will take you to a whole new level of libation.

Here’s a party menu to greet the new year. Toast it with a cheery “compai” and the love of family and friends.

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