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For Goodness’ Sake: The best sake bars in Hong Kong

By Inés Fung 3 January 2020

Hongkongers love all things Japanese, so it’s no surprise that Japan’s national drink, sake, is enjoying a wave of popularity here in the 852. Whether you’re an aspiring sake samurai, want to check out some new bars, or just looking to expand your drink horizons, there’s a sake bar in Hong Kong for you. Kanpai!

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What is sake?

Although beer-ru remains the widely accessible drink in Japan, sake is still Japan’s treasured national drink for celebrations, sealing business deals, gifting, or any special occasion, really. Sake can be served hot or cold, but it’s most commonly served cold so as to properly enjoy the subtleties of the flavour profile.

Sake has a much higher alcohol content than beers and most wines as it’s made with rice (specifically saka mai, a breed of rice that’s larger and firmer than regular rice), water, and kōji (the mould used to ferment soy sauce and miso). The production process encourages the conversions of starch to sugar and sugar to alcohol to happen simultaneously. Fun fact: Temples and shrines were the primary producers of sake up until the Meiji Restoration. Today, there are around 2,000 sake breweries in Japan, some specializing in making junmai.

There are levels to this

There are heaps of varieties of sake, and if you’re just dipping your toes into the world of this fabulous clear nectar, you may feel overwhelmed. Daijoubu, we’re here to help. The flavour, quality, and price of a bottle of sake are determined by the percentage of bran polished away from the saka mai, whether sugars and/or seed alcohol is added, and other unique steps a brewery may use in their process.

Some words you may hear when tasting or shopping for sake are:

1. 酒 / shu: The Japanese word for alcohol.

2. 純米 / junmai: A sake made with no added alcohol or sugars

3. 本醸造 / honjōzō: A sake made with additional seed alcohol.

4. 特別 / tokubetsu: Indicates a special step or variation.

5. 吟醸 / ginjō: High-quality sake with 40 percent of the rice polished away and fermented at low temperature.

6. 大吟醸 / daiginjō: Top-quality sake made with more than 50 percent of the bran polished away.

7. 生酒 / namasake: Unpasteurised sake to be consumed within six months of bottling and two weeks of opening.

8. 甘酒 / amazake: Sweet rice malt liquor produced during sake brewing, commonly served with ginger juice.

Where to drink

Sake Central

Sake lovers celebrated the launch of Sake Central, a stylish retail shop and bar tucked away in the hip PMQ block. Co-founded by “Sake Samurai” Elliot Faber (celebrated beverage director at Yardbird, Ronin, and Sunday’s Grocery) and Japanese culture representatives Ken Nagai and Takashi Endo, the collection of over 200 bottles of sake (from all prefectures and beyond) is unparalleled.

The dark space is also fitted out meticulously with temperature control settings and non-UV LED lights to protect the integrity of the liquor on display. Grab a bottle or two to take home, or look for the 16-seat bar hidden behind a heavy curtain, which serves up an innovative seasonal menu of otsumami (snacks meant to be eaten with drinks) curated by Chef Lok Yan Li. Sake Central is both an educational space for sake enthusiasts and casual drinkers alike, and a great place to drink.

Sake Central, S109–S113, Block A, PMQ, 35 Aberdeen Street, Central | (+852) 2656 6552

Sake Bar Ginn

You’ll forget you’re in LKF when you visit the cosy Sake Bar Ginn, Hong Kong’s first bar to specialise in premium sake. Founded by Ayuchi Momose, a Sake Service Institute-certified sommelier and instructor of New York’s Sakagura, there are over 100 bottles of premium nihonshu (Japanese sake) waiting to be discovered in Sake Bar Ginn’s special sake refrigerators.

Around 40 of the bottles are available for single-glass pours, and the first couple pages of the menu are a friendly introduction to those of us who don’t know our junmai from our honjōzō. Momose has also gone the extra mile to source lesser-known sakes from small, boutique breweries around her home country, and the staff are happy to help you find your new favourite tipple.

Feeling peckish? Sake Bar Ginn also offers a small but delightful menu of otsumami. We definitely recommend ordering a sake tasting flight here to really experience all they have to offer.

Sake Bar Ginn, Unit 4C, Ho Lee Commercial Building, 38–44 D’Aguilar Street, Lan Kwai Fong | (+852) 2536 4355

Sake Beya Masu

You will be transported straight to Japan at Sake Beya Masu, an intimate sake pairing dining room with a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it entrance in Wan Chai’s trendy Star Street Precinct. Okay, we’re exaggerating... just look for the sugidama (cedar ball) hanging from the ceiling, a traditional Japanese emblem indicating a sake brewery or an establishment that specialises in sake.

Lightweights need not apply as the pours at Sake Beya Masu are exceedingly generous and the intimate space only seats about 15. There are two tasting menus of eight or 10 small and beautifully crafted dishes, paired impeccably with sophisticated labels handpicked from Japan. The staff are uber informative and welcoming, and will have you planning a return visit before you’ve even finished your dinner.

Sake Beya Masu, 2 Sun Street, Wan Chai | (+852) 2525 2355

Still thirsty? Read more:

Saketen

Another brilliant Elliot Faber venture, Saketen is “not your average sake bar”. Nestled behind a bustling ramen joint off Pottinger Street, the space was designed by longtime Faber collaborator Sean Dix, who has utilised pebbles to evoke the look and feel of rice on the walls and floor both inside and outside.

Saketen in Japanese means liquor store, but here it’s a play on the fact that the bar features a rotating menu of sake from 10 different producers. The pours are plenty at Saketen, and it’s the only place in town that offers sake on draft, a sake kegged in Japan then flown into our city in temperature-controlled containers. The approachable team hails from all over the world and each member is a sake expert in their own right, but they know how to keep the party going all night (Saketen is open till 2am!) while everything from the Beastie Boys to the Beatles blares in the background.

Saketen, G/F, Shop 4, Lower Block, H Code, 45 Pottinger Street, Central

Toritama

You must book ahead at famed Tokyo yakitori joint Toritama’s Hong Kong outpost, as it’s got the most limited seating out of all the incredible sake bars featured in this round-up. Watch as the chefs expertly prepare 28 different parts of 40-day-old chickens in the semi-open kitchen.

If you’re indecisive like us, the restaurant handily provides a detailed anatomical guide on the back of the menu for the uninitiated, pinpointing exactly what cut of meat you’ll be getting, as well as giving you the option of customisable yakitori set meals (seven-, ten- and twelve-skewer sets, which also include a rice bowl, salad, and dessert).

Of course, no yakitori dinner is complete without drinks, and Toritama takes pride in their sake collection of nearly 100 bottles, only a few of which are available by the glass at wallet-friendly prices. Visit Toritama for a truly authentic experience that’ll leave you in a chicken and sake coma.

Toritama, 2 Glenealy, Central | (+852) 2388 7717

Wako Sake Bar

Truth be told, our livers were truly uninitiated to Wako Sake Bar. The first- and only- bar in Hong Kong to offer a dangerous all-you-can-drink nihonshu deal, Wako Sake Bar has more than 100 kinds of Japanese sake, fruit wine, and shōchū starting at just $98 for half an hour of free flow. Yes, you read that right.

The bottles in the bright refrigerators are personally selected by manager Randy, who is also the first Hongkonger sommelier to be recognised by the Sake Service Institute. In contrast to some sake bars in Hong Kong, the vibes at Wako Sake Bar are super laid-back. Come in, grab a cup, and pour yourself a drink. As a Japanese liquor enthusiast, Randy also organises wine tastings and workshops to promote Japanese wine culture. Wako Sake Bar is the go-to choice for the most bang for your buck.

Wako Sake Bar, 2/F, South Pacific Hotel, 23 Morrison Hill Road, Causeway Bay | (+852) 3619 5358

Dry January isn't happening for you either?

Fumi

Not only does Fumi serve up Edomae-style sushi and other authentic Japanese dishes from all corners of the country, but it also offers an abundant sake menu that even includes speciality sparkling sakes. The menu details each bottle’s brewing location, type of rice used, percentage of rice polishing, drinking method, as well as texture. There are usually five bottles available by the glass, in addition to fun and fruity sake-based cocktails if you’re not in the mood to drink sake straight.

Fumi, 6/F, California Tower, Lan Kwai Fong, 30–36 D’Aguilar Street, Lan Kwai Fong | (+852) 2328 3302

Okra

Okra is a casual izakaya in Sai Ying Pun specialising in natural, unpasteurised sakes, and flavourful, charcoal-grilled small plates and sashimi that the whole team loves and eats. Whether you opt for the no-frills downstairs kitchen or the “hidden” upstairs omakase sushi bar, you are guaranteed a night of good vibes only.

Though the eatery is quirky and laid-back, their seasonal exclusive sake list should be taken very seriously. We highly recommend going for the For Okra, by Okra sakes: a cheekily-named selection of Japanese sakes specially brewed for the restaurant. Currently on the winter menu are two junmai ginjos made in collaboration with renowned director and producer Tsui Hark, both velvety smooth on the palate with flavours reminiscent of warmer days.

Okra, 110 Queen’s Road West, Sai Ying Pun | (+852) 2806 1038

Godenya

We saved the best for last. Goshima Shinya, affectionately known as Goshi-san by his regulars, chef and sake master at Godenya, closed up his Tokyo shop (also named Godenya) in 2016 to show Hong Kong what his country has to offer. Obsessed with discovering the secret of minute differences between taste and the sensations they deliver, Goshi-san has been working on the various possibilities of matching sakes with fine foods since he was just 20 years old. After training at a sake brewery, Goshi-san published his university graduation thesis, A Study of Overseas Consumption of Sake, which became the most cited article on the topic of “sake globalisation”.

We have never met a man so meticulously dedicated to sake, nor one with such a fine palate. There are only seven seats at the bar inside this nondescript restaurant, and reservations can only be made after acquiring a top-secret password on their site. Even when you visit, you may very well miss the covert door tucked into an alley that’s actually above its listed address. There is only a single sake pairing dinner menu, the contents of which are hyper-seasonal and combine the best of Japanese haute cuisine and technique as well as some familiar Cantonese ingredients.

Each course is minimal, delectable, and served with a sake in a different container and cup that is tasted and temperature-controlled by Goshi-san himself. The highlights of our visit were the strong starter of Botan-ebi, Scallops, Ikura, Yuba, and Seed of Grass that was served with the 2018–2019 Iseno Shiroki (Mie) Junmai Nama Sparkling at 10 degrees Celsius exactly, and the simple Pumpkin, Century Egg, and Beetroot dish that was paired with the Monsoon (Shiga) Junmai Kijoshu 2018–2019 served at precisely 40 degrees Celsius.

We were left full, drunk, and in awe of Godenya, clutching our daily printed menus in both English and Japanese, and a simple map of Japan that listed the origins of the breweries and ingredients used in that night’s experience.

Godenya, 128 Wellington Street, Central

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Inés Fung

Contributor

Currently based in Hong Kong by way of Calgary, Inés has always had a passion for writing and her creative work can be found in obscure literary ’zines. When she’s not busy scouring the city for the best gin-based cocktail, she can be found curled up with her journal and fur-ever friend Peanut. Don’t be surprised if you cross paths with her and she already knows all your mates.

Inés Fung

Contributor

Currently based in Hong Kong by way of Calgary, Inés has always had a passion for writing and her creative work can be found in obscure literary ’zines. When she’s not busy scouring the city for the best gin-based cocktail, she can be found curled up with her journal and fur-ever friend Peanut. Don’t be surprised if you cross paths with her and she already knows all your mates.

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