For the latest in our Sake Sommelier Secrets series, I’m excited to profile a Singapore-based sommelier for the first time. Luis Liu is the co-founder of one of Singapore’s top sake-focused Japanese restaurants, Shukuu Izakaya. As a Singaporean, not fluent in Japanese, who self-studied sake before becoming certified, he has a unique perspective to offer sake lovers.
Sitting down with him at his restaurant last week, originally profiled last year, it’s no surprise that Todo-san claimed he has “never met a local owner with such a love and passion towards sake and Japanese culture.” Luis maintains his own Drinks Blog and Instagram account to further promote his passion for sake paired with outstanding food. Luis even went as far as having his own sakazuki sake cups customer designed, with a samurai Merlion and star.
1. Since I’m not a Japanese speaker, what does “Shukuu” mean?
While most of your readers likely know “Izakaya” means an informal Japanese gastropub for casual after-work drinking, “Shukuu” gives you an understanding for how central sake is to our restaurant. Shukuu derives its meaning from two kanji characters, ‘empty’ and ‘Sake’ – almost literally meaning empty your anxiety with good sake!”
2. How did you get into this career and what keeps you in it despite the stress and hours?
Friendship and passion! Passion is a central theme of Japanese ethos, and I’m blessed to have grown up with close friends (Mario, Zach, Joseph) who share the same passion for all things Japanese. It takes a special kind of crazy to run an Izakaya with your best friends, but knowing we are all realizing our dream, it spurs us to do better.
The difference of effects to our body by different kind of alcohol drinks
Before explaining the theory, I would like to touch upon the difference of effects to our body by different kind of alcohol drinks. As I said above, every alcohol drink makes our body temperature down, which is caused from sudden rise of body temperature after drinking alcohol. The high calorie alcohol contains is very easy to burn in our body and the acetaldehyde which is produced on the way to decompose the alcohol makes our blood vessel wide and improve blood circulation, so that we feel very hot quickly.
However, this effect doesn’t last long. Moreover, the body temperature goes down rapidly after several hours and it is sometimes lower than what it was before drinking alcohol.
Is the said that distilled alcohol is easier to make our body cold than brewed alcohol does. Since distilled alcohol such as Whisky, Vodka and Tequila normally have higher alcohol content than brewed alcohol like Wine, Sake and Beer, its higher calorie burns more quickly and make our body temperature up more instantly.
3. As a Singaporean, why Japan and Sake?
Japan is a mystified wonder, often observed only from the outside. Wade into the river, and you’ll find so much history, culture; and I’m sure most of these themes resonate strongly with Singaporeans and other foreigners alike! Just like how Japan won my heart, my love for Sake stems from the culture, dedication, a ceaseless pursuit of perfection, how history has shaped it; and above all – the human stories! I could write a whole book about why!
4. Do you ever think Sake will receive the global prestige and appreciation of fine Bordeaux wines?
Bordeaux wines have two millennia of history, predating the Roman arrival. By sheer numbers alone, the region has about one hundred world acclaimed producers, and 20,000 others all making 850 million bottles a year. Japan has never “competed” on quantity, and Sakes have a way of changing people’s lives if they’ll take the sip of faith.
As tastes pander to the less mainstream, and experiences become readily shared online – Sakes are gaining that quiet appreciation among fine dining circles. So yes, Sakes are slowly gaining a global prestige worldwide and may someday take center stage. For example, the International Wine Challenge (IWC) has a new department for sake only. I believe strongly that the fine spirit of sake deserves a position on the global stage.
5. What more needs to be done around sake sommelier training to make it more common/effective, or is there just not enough demand versus wine sommeliers?
There are not as many sake sommeliers as compared to wine sommeliers because volume is not the typical Japanese way. Sake sommeliers need to raise the awareness for sake, and continuously immerse themselves into the culture of Japan by visiting more Japanese breweries. Upon completion of Sake sommelier training, we should organize targeted sake events and join meet up groups to further develop and improve sake knowledge. I would also recommend anyone interested in sake sommelier training purchase a good aroma kit.
6. What are your top five favourite sakes personally?
My passion for sake actually started when I finally drank a good bottle of Dassai 23 Junmai Daiginjo while in Hong Kong. However, I do not have a specific favourite sake as it all depends on why I am drinking, what I am pairing it with, and even who I am drinking with! I personally think ones mood during drinking contributes to the choice of the “best” sake for the night.
7. What sakes that you serve at Shukuu have been the most well-received by customers?
Unpasteurized sake is one of the favorites of our customers, including I know Ben himself! Our commitment to delivering the best for our customers means we are very particular about the refrigeration of any namesake we carry throughout the supply chain. We only supply from Japan directly or with local suppliers that keep sake with -5 degree Celsius condition, as sake “ages” almost like the spoiling of milk.
I’m so passionate about delivering the best sake to Shukuu’s customers that I’ve developed my own formula to calculate the sake spoiling rate: Example of Sake Days vs Temperature Sake Age = Storage temperature X Time (Taking time constant at 30 days)
· Super Chiller -5 and below = 0 sake days
· Normal Chiller 5 degrees Celsius = 150 sake days
· Room Temperature 20 degrees Celsius = 600 sake days
8. Do you have any food/sake pairing principles that you live by at Shukuu as an Izakaya?
The quality and preference of Sakes, like most alcohols, isn’t determined by price. Rather individual taste, and through the right introduction, one can discover their preference. Even though there are certain common rules for sake food pairing, as a sommelier, I believe understanding the palate and the need of our customer is more critical, as everyone has different preferences. We advise our customer on what style of sake should be paired with what kind of food in line with their palettes, which is why we have so many repeat customers.
9. What do you think needs to be done for Sake to be more appreciated outside of Japan and Japanese expat enclaves like Singapore?
I learnt from a seasoned bartender that two types of people come to a bar – Those looking to quell their woes, and those looking to celebrate. We can enrich the experience of the sake drinker by sharing the history and culture behind sake, and best way to appreciate it. This is our mission at Shukuu!
10. Besides of course eating a meal at Shukuu with you, what would you recommend to Sake lovers looking to enjoy fine Sake in Singapore?
For the beginners, it will be that not all good Sakes has to be expensive. If you ask a sake novice what’s the best sake, he or she will reply, Junmai Daiginjo but those in the know will tell you that there’s so much more to the best type of sake.
I became a sake sommelier because I had the right introduction and fell so deeply in love I made sake my life! If you want to open doors in your life, just ask the guidance of one of my sake sommeliers in my bar or any restaurant in Singapore!
For lovers of great Izakaya cuisine and sake, I would highly recommend all our readers visit Shukuu Izakaya … and introduce yourself to the passionate Luis telling him Sakemaru sent you! The food and service were excellent and Luis carries some excellent, hard-to-find sakes you likely won’t be able to get anywhere else.