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How the Japanese beverage sake became an Osceola man's obsession

LaMonte Heflick always enjoyed a good cup of tea.

He’s taught the Japanese language. So it’s been green tea, the common drink in that Asian country where an entire ceremony is constructed around preparing the proper cup.

He didn’t like wine or beer. They gave him headaches.

Friend Dale Donat saw movie characters drinking sake, a fermented rice beverage made in Japan. “He and I just kept talking about it,” Donat said.

Heflick started doing research. That led to a sip and then a lot, lot more.

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“I just got into it more and more,” he said.

He went to one education event in Texas. That led to another in Japan. Now he’s a certified sake professional by the Sake Education Council. He’s tasted 259 kinds. He’s an expert who doesn’t have a restaurant or distributorship.

“I’m not working for anybody,” he said. “I’m not selling. I’m not supplying. This is a hobby.”

Heflick admits he’s more than a little excited about this hobby. He’s almost giddy as he explains how one brewer has been making the beverage since 1505 or another doesn’t press the liquid away from the rice, but lets it drip away.

Heflick is a former speech pathologist and teacher for Elkhart Community Schools. He was married to a Japanese woman and lived in Japan for two years.

His home along the St. Joseph River in eastern St. Joseph County reflects the love for the country with its simplicity and displays.

In the basement is the man cave.

This man cave, however, has shelves lined with sake bottles and photos of a brewer. The refrigerator is stocked with bottles of sake that start at $20 and go up. For his birthday, he shared a $180 bottle with Donat and his brother.

“What I also found — it’s not an inexpensive hobby,” Heflick said.

Their hobby is unique for this part of the country. The closest shops dedicated to sake are on either coast. Chicago has a bit of sake, but not much. What the men sip is rare here.

Why they do it isn’t.

On Wednesday nights, they gather in the man cave.

They open a bottle and sip it out of small cups.

“It’s more fun if these guys are here for me,” Heflick said.

Sake has become the reason they gather. For some, that reason is a piece of pie at a diner or a regular meal together. For them, it’s a Japanese drink that over the years became something bigger.

“It’s been a great trip. It’s brought me closer to my brother,” V.R. said.

Donat said he’s spent more time with his two dear friends over the last three years because of this shared interest than he had in the 20 before.

If there were a chance to pair sake and food at a local restaurant, Heflick could do it. He’s been trained that way. His brother and friend could help because they’ve been along for the ride.

More than anything, this single thing became something around which they bonded. That’s why it’s important and why it makes them happy.

They keep learning and searching together.

Heflick loves those things and the other two. He loves sake. But truth be told, he still favors another drink.

“I love tea more than sake,” he said.

A sake primer
As told by Lamonte Heflick

How do you make sake?

Certain varieties of rice are polished to change the composition. The rice is steamed and then, in most instances, a mold called koju is added to water and rice to break down the starch to sugar and then alcohol.

It’s a craft that’s slowly diminishing in Japan, where 1,200 sake makers are still at work.

What’s it taste like?

It depends on the process and variety, but good sake has a clean flavor. Some have citrus, pear or melon notes. Some are a bit earthy.

What makes it different?

The varieties vary greatly on how much the rice is polished and whether alcohol is added. Premium sake is the best 10 percent made and the rest is classified as table sake.

It’s kind of like the difference between craft beer and mass production beer, he said. “That’s why it’s a good hobby. There are all these different levels,” V.R. Heflick said.

Can you get good sake in northern Indiana?

Rarely. Bar Louie in Mishawaka serves a Hananomai sake that’s decent, Heflick said. Woochi and other Japanese restaurants locally have sake, but Heflick said he struggles to find sake that’s younger than a year old (it doesn’t age well).

“We’re in the middle of Indiana. We’re not going to get great sushi and sake,” he said.

Are there words I should look for?

  • “Junmai” means the sake only has rice, water, yeast and Koji.
  • If you see “shu,” that’s a suffix that means alcohol in Japanese.
  • “Ginjo” means that the rice has been milled or polished down to at least 60 percent.

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Marshall V. King is community editor for The Elkhart Truth and food columnist for Flavor 574. You can reach him at 574-296-5805,, and on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. For more dining news and commentary, subscribe to the Dining A La King email newsletter.

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