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An Insider’s Guide to the Joy of Sake

Here’s how to make the most of this Friday’s Joy of Sake event at the Hawai‘i Convention Center.


This year’s Joy of Sake event will feature more than 400 different sake to sample. We break down the best ways to approach what could be an overwhelming selection.
Photos: David Croxford


This Friday, sake descends upon Honolulu for the 16th annual Joy of Sake event. With more than 400 different types, this gathering of sake aficionados, brewers, experts and enthusiasts is one of the biggest sake events in the world.


“It’s such a different beverage and people don’t really understand it,” says Joy of Sake marketing director Janet Nagano. “Thats what’s great about this event. People can learn about sake, taste a variety of rare selections, and find new favorites.”


The process is simple: Arranged in tables throughout a grand ballroom at the Hawai‘i Convention Center, there will be hundreds of different sake to sample—from less refined, robust and full-bodied junmai sake to the highly refined and more delicate daiginjo—using special pipettes to pour the sake into your cup. Enjoy the evening with friends, take notes on new favorite types of sake you discover and taste an assortment of delectable dishes prepared specially for the event by acclaimed local chefs.


The Joy of Sake is a one-of-a-kind adventure—if you know how to experience it.


“It can be overwhelming. If you go in and don’t know [about the event], you’re going to do what everybody does their first year: Run to the nearest table, start siphoning sake, one after another,” says associate event coordinator Mari Taketa. “Then, when the time’s up, you can’t tell the difference. And you didn’t know you were stuck at the junmai table and you never even got to try the expensive daiginjo until next year. And then you ask, what was this about?”


Naoko DeCosta sampling one of the sake that will be available for tasting at this Friday’s Joy of Sake event.


Whether you’re a sake explorer who’s always up for trying new things, or a sake economist who’s looking to sample the most expensive sake to get the most bang for your buck, we’ve assembled this handy HONOLULU drinker’s guide to help you navigate this year’s Joy of Sake.


First and foremost, the Connoisseur. If you’re interested in tasting the highest quality sake available, seek out the daiginjo sake, especially those in the “A” category. Highly refined, daiginjo sake have a 50-percent-or-less polishing ratio, which is the percentage of rice kernel left after the sake polishing process. Basically, the lower the ratio, the higher the quality of sake. Daiginjo A (compared to B and C) is the most refined of the most refined. These have a 40-percent-or-lower polishing ratio, are only brewed in limited amounts and cannot be mass-produced. “These are very hard to make, they require a lot of rice and they’re so delicate,” Taketa says.


If you’re a connoisseur, also be sure to seek out the gold- and silver-award-winning sake, marked with stars next to their names in the Joy of Sake program guide.


Got a thirst for exotic sake that can’t be found in the United States? Or simply an interest in the strangest or most unique sake out there? You’re an Adventurer, and your best bet is to use the handy program guide to lead you to sake marked with an asterisk (*), which designates those that aren’t currently distributed in the United States. Also, look for the namazake table; these sake are unpasteurized, which means that heat hasn’t been added to kill off various enzymes and add stability to the sake. Namazake often has a sharper edge and stronger contrasting flavors, like a young wine. Brash and sassy, it's served cold and offers a more lively sake experience. And if you're curious to see if it's possible to make quality sake outside of Japan, try the one made in Minneapolis. Could there be a less likely spot for sake?


Want to maximize your return on that $100 ticket to the Joy of Sake? At buffets, are you the one who skips the dinner rolls and heads straight for the crab legs and lobster? You’re an Opportunist, and we've got you. Keep your hungry eyes open for those sake which have won gold and silver awards, marked with stars in the program guide. Those are some of the priciest and most exclusive out there. Head to those daiginjo A and B sake, too, which are traditionally expensive due to their value and limited quantities. This is that buffet lobster that you’re looking for.


For Story Hunters looking to discover the incredible back stories behind different types of sake, Nagano recommends several sake breweries: Nanbu Bijin, the seventh-generation sake producers featured in the 2015 documentary, Kanpai: For the Love of Sake; Dassai, a rural sake brewery that rose in popularity to compete with national markets; and Tedorigawa, a 144-year old brewery that was the focus of The Birth of Sake, another documentary from 2015. There will also be several American sake judges who can help guide you and answer questions, available as guides throughout the evening. Additionally, this year’s Joy of Sake will feature a “Brewer’s Oasis,” a new feature where visiting sake brewers can meet and chat with sake tasters in a special lounge area in the ballroom. Learn more about the sake process and hear the stories first hand!


For any Gourmets in the house, those drinkers who are equally interested in tasty dishes, 20 restaurants have prepared custom appetizers and small dishes to pair with the evening’s sake at assorted tables around the perimeter of the room. Selections include a crispy miso-braised pork belly by Bakery & Table, Wagyu beef tataki by Teppanyaki Ginza Onodera, Hawaiian wana (sea urchin) moco with quail egg and fried limu by Highway Inn, chilled crab and tomato chawanmushi by Kaiwa and more. “Get an appetizer and bring it to one of the tables to try with the different types of sake,” Nagano says. “When you find a sake that matches perfectly with the food, stay there! Enjoy the pairing.”


Finally, for the boozehounds and those simply eager for alcohol, the Joy of Sake has the Hedonists covered too. Look for a hashtag (#) next to various sake in the event program guide, which indicate sake bottled at cask strength with no added water to dilute it down. These are usually a few percentage points of alcohol higher, closer to 20 percent rather than the usual 14 percent to 16 percent in most sake. Kampai!


The Joy of Sake, 6:30 to 9 p.m. Friday, July 22 at the Hawai‘i Convention Center. Tickets are $95 in advance, $105 at the door. Buy tickets at joyofsake.com or at The Sake Shop, 1461 S. King St., 947-7253, sakeshophawaii.com.


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