Monday, June 14, 2010

Sake Tasting at SWAM

It's time I introduce you to my favorite little wine store, SWAM.
SWAM stands for Shiroma's Wine and More and is run by Jill Shiroma. I try to make it over to her shop on Thursdays for their weekly tasting. Each week there is a selection of wines, beers, spirits, sake, or a combination of a few to taste. You will always find a group of regulars and some lucky new comers standing around some snacks, trading great information and buzz about favorite beverages in a relaxed and casual environment.

I haven't been a huge fan of Sake all these years, so when I heard that last week was going to be a sake tasting, I figured this was my opportunity to give it another chance. The first time I tried Japanese sake many years ago, I felt like I was drinking Kerosene. Of course, that was before I had a pallet for such things, but still, it turned me off for years. Recently, a friend opened up a bottle of chilled Ume sake and poured me a dainty sip. It wasn’t so bad! I’m not a super sweet beverage lover, but at least it didn’t blast me out of the water.

Last Thursday, the gang at SWAM gave me quite a re-introduction to the world of sake, with a sampling of five different kinds of sake as well as three different Japanese beers. All of the selections were served chilled and varied from traditional style sake, such as Sho Chiku Bai Junmai, to the fancier Kamotsuru Gold Flake, to the sweet Choya plum sake called Choya Ume Blanc. A couple of them did make me feel like I could breathe fire, while others were very sweet and syrupy, and others were intense, but smooth.

I also discovered that the world of sake making is a pretty amazing process. Sake is often called “rice wine”, however “sake” is actually a generic Japanese term for alcohol. The correct term for refined rice wine is “seishu”, or “nihonshu”. I also learned that sake is it’s own breed – the brewing process somewhere between beer, spirits, and wine.

Like wine, there are regional varieties and good & bad years; and as there are good grapes for good wine, there is also good rice for good sake. And therein lies the secret. Like many things I have discovered in Japanese culture, sake is a delicate balance of quality, skill and patience. Sake production takes about 1 year, starting in winter and ending the following spring. The brew matures during the summer and is then bottled in autumn. The taste depends on a balance between sweetness & acidity and is maintained not by technology, but by skilled artisans who sense subtle changes in climate, rice & water.

Sake is another one of those magical things created by the alchemy of water, malt, yeast and in this case, steamed rice. The brewing method is called, Multiple Parallel Fermentation. This method combines converting grain starch into sugar, and then sugar into alcohol, by means of yeast to create a beverage with a higher alcohol content than any other fermented drink, with alcohol content generally around 14-17%.

All sake falls into one of two groups. The first, and highest quality is Junmai-Ginjo, literally translated as, “pure rice”. A traditional brewing method strictly prohibiting the use of additives, with 60% of the rice being refined, compared to 27% in normal sake making. The second group has additives, including added alcohol. Strangely, the more alcohol added, the cheaper the sake is considered.

The reason for sake’s reputation for being a spendy beverage is due to the finest sake-quality rice being grown only in limited areas of Japan, it’s difficult to cultivate, has a small yield & is sold at a premium. 50% of the product is polished away during the brewing process, doubling the cost. Unlike wine, an unopened bottle of sake is good for about 1 year.

After my short lesson in sake 101, I have a lot more respect for the process and the varied tastes in those dainty cups of alcohol, and I will definitely stay open to the warmth, the tradition and the care that goes into each bottle.

If you’re on Oahu, make sure to stop by SWAM in the Waimalu Shopping Plaza for either their Thursday Tastings or any other time to find a gem of a little wine shop:

98-1277 Kaahumanu Street,

Aiea, HI 96701
(808) 487-7926

This article was featured in Wine and Food Travel


  1. H, this is why I read your blog and look eagerly each day to see if there's anything new :))) That was so interesting and mind-expanding...You geeked out on sake in the best way possible :))) I don't know what kind of variety I can find in Delaware but I'm definitely motivated to seek out a sake tasting near me!

  2. Hahahaha!! Thanks Melinda! I love that YOU love when I geek out on crazy topics! I love to see your comments, and thank you thank you thank you for all of the Indian spices that you sent. Beyond thoughtful! The recipe ideas you sent only had a partial recipe tho. If you still have it you can email me at I would love to hear how you like to use them!
    Hope you find some sake soon!

  3. So, inspired by this post, I tried some sake at a local Japanese place, and it was AWESOME! It was a well-chilled 180 mL bottle of Hakushika, advertised as "fresh and light," and it was delicious. Going to another Japanese place tonight, and who knows what sake experiences await?