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Bring Back Hawaiian Sake

March 16, 2021

Story: Tom Downey

art: Nick Hensley


Bring Back Hawaiian Sake

March 16, 2021

Story: Tom Downey

art: Nick Hensley

Chiaki Takahashi and Tama Hirose are reviving a century-old homegrown industry, and introducing the world to natural Hawaiian sake in the process.

Bring homegrown sake back to Hawaii. Yes, back. Islander Sake’s founders, Chiaki Takahashi, a sake researcher and educator and now master brewer, and Tama Hirose, a former sake merchant in Japan, have been working for years to build the first sake brewery to open in Hawaii in 32 years.

When Japanese immigrants first came to the islands over 150 years ago, they brought their taste for sake with them. One of the world’s most influential sake breweries, Hawaii’s first (and the U.S.’s fourth) opened in Honolulu in 1908, and over the next eight decades helped pioneer modern trends like cold sake, sparkling sake and sake cocktails. But the local sake market eventually changed: As it became easier to import from Japan, and as Hawaii’s thirst for Japanese-made sake increased, the local industry suffered. Honolulu Sake Brewery, the first and last of its kind in Hawaii, closed in 1989.

Takahashi had dreamed of opening in Hawaii ever since she saw the large turnout and enthusiastic local response at a sake convention she judged in Honolulu. Islander, her brainchild, was her first foray into making sake on her own. Islander’s sake, made with rice from Japan and from California, is junmai (made from just rice and water) and muroka (unfiltered). Hirose, who once worked as an audio engineer for radio, likens the taste of this unfiltered sake to the analog recordings he loves. “There’s something deeper, more natural, in both sake and audio recordings when you don’t try to filter everything out,” he says. [inline article="Sake's Radical Awakening"]

On March 16, 2020, Islander was finally ready to kick off a new era for Hawaiian sake. Two days later, the pandemic shut them down. While their tasting room was forced to close to visitors until just last week, Hirose and Takahashi went on to open a tiny 10-seat indoor restaurant in July 2020. They are its only employees. Six days a week, after a full workday making sake, they head to the kitchen and cook an entire prix-fixe multicourse menu, meant to accompany their sakes, then switch over to serving and bartending all night. “Normally, we would have relied on restaurants, bars and other conventional distribution channels to sell our sake,” says Hirose. “But the pandemic forced us to sell directly to consumers.”

In anticipation of reopening the brewery, quite possibly the world’s smallest for sake, the two have begun working with local rice farmers to plan future releases brewed entirely with Hawaii-grown rice. The future, as they see it, is all about learning how their sake can express something unique to Oahu. “Sake is usually brewed in cold places, so of course the instinct here is to cool everything down with AC, but for the future I’d like to experiment with wind-cooling our tanks, and also try to understand if we can push our temperatures higher,” says Hirose. “We have to learn how to adapt sake to this place.”

Current occupation:

I am making and selling sake here in Hawaii.

Current mission statement:

We want to produce the best sake for Hawaii’s climate. There were Japanese immigrants who used to make sake here, but not anymore. We want to help rebuild this local Japanese sake community by brewing here.

What do you want to be when you grow up?

Commercial pilot.

Describe your daily routine in one sentence:

Talk to the customer while also talking to the yeast.

Your greatest accomplishment to date?

Restarting the production of sake in Hawaii.

Biggest failure?

It took us so many years to get to this point. We promised that we would start making sake much earlier. But that was impossible.

The No. 1 thing you want to eradicate from drink culture?

I want to stop people choosing and judging sake by its price tag. Even cheap sake, if the situation and the people are right, can be so good.

The one adjective you’d use to describe yourself:


Best thing you ever drank:

Tosa Shiragiku, 16 years old, warmed up. I can’t forget that taste. It stays for so long in your mouth. It contains so many different ups and downs of flavor. That was what made me go into sake-making.

Worst thing you ever drank:

Wild Turkey in my college dormitory.

The one wine/beer/cocktail that best reflects you/your interests/tastes:

The Tosatsuru, junmai daiginjo. Normally at large breweries, like the one that makes this sake, the key mission is to adhere to the brewery’s taste. Everyone gets together and the brewer adjusts based on what the president tells him about how the sake should taste to conform to the brand. But this sake, called The Tosatsuru, is different: In this case the brewer is free to do whatever they want, and make the sake to their taste. This sake is always my reference when I taste our sake.

What do you know now that you wish you’d known five years ago?

That I should learn to blind-taste sake. It’s a skill that comes in very handy when you are brewing many styles and forget to label your bottles! 

Your favorite bar, and why:

The Beach Tree Bar at the Four Seasons Hualalai on the Big Island. It’s where the mountain winds meet the breeze off the Pacific. The afternoon light there is perfect. There’s no better place to lose yourself in a drink.

Best meal you’ve ever had:

My mother was very busy when I was growing up. She wasn’t a big cook. But sometimes she would make us instant noodles. The package said to cook them for three minutes. She only cooked them for two. They were too hard. But I still think of them, because they were her noodles. 

The last text message you sent:

I’m very sorry. This week we are so busy making sake that I do not have time to respond to your message.

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Tom Downey writes for a variety of publications including WSJ. Magazine, Afar, Smithsonian, The New York Times and many others. Downey studied English Literature at Princeton University, spent a semester abroad at the American University in Cairo, and taught filmmaking at a film school in Singapore. He lives in New York.