Article By: Aimsel Ponti
Although sake has been in the US for decades, it was, until recently, a fairly one-dimensional beverage consumed almost exclusively with Japanese food. Typically served warm, people either loved sake or hated it. But nowadays, sake is chic. For a number of reasons, sake - particularly chilled sake - has surged in popularity over the last couple of years and its growth continues upwards. While Americans still don't consume nearly as much here as on a world wide level, sake is increasingly becoming part of the vernacular of both serious wine aficionados and people looking to expand their cocktail horizons. In some instances, it is even competing with vodka - being used by bartenders in a myriad of cocktails from martinis to Bloody Marys. There are also a number of flavored sakes, from hazelnut to pear and many more, which have become part of the cocktail culture as well. Additionally, from a health perspective, sake is causing people to wake up and take notice. Most premium sakes are free of sulfites, not to mention additives and preservatives. It also has half the acidity of wine, amino acids and, for what it's worth, is less likely to cause hangovers. Chilled or hot, sparkling or fruity, sake is versatile, readily available and only becoming more popular.
UP, UP and AWAY Has sake seen significant growth in Massachusetts lately? In a word: absolutely. "There's definitely been an influx in sake," says Rich Daly, the manager of Andover Liquors. Daly attributes it in part to the increase in the number of Thai and Japanese restaurants. Standing in the sake section of his store, Daly pointed to the Gekkeikan 75Oml as his number one seller, indicating that he sells about a case a week of it. At $5.99 a bottle, this is one of the less expensive brands and often his customers will graduate to brands such as Momakawa, a domestic sake that comes in five flavors and sells for $12.99. Lloyd Foster, Marketing Director of Classic Wine Imports, also paints a positive picture, saying, "Things are rosy. We're growing over a good base and we grew another 2O percent last year. I never would have imagined we'd be where we are today." Foster sees the growth stemming from two places: the increase in the number of Asian restaurants, and the increase in people buying sake at the retail stores to have with their takeout food. Some of the celebrity also can be traced to sake's television exposure. "The media, such as high profile chefs and cooking shows using sake, brings notoriety that can wake the public to the delight of sake," says John Bottcher, Assistant to the President at Ruby Wines, Inc. On the restaurant front, Sarah Livesey, manager of Blue Ginger restaurant in Wellesley - where they specialize in Asian fusion cuisine - has also seen an increase in sales. She contends that consumers are getting wise to the wonders of sake. "I think as the general population becomes more sophisticated in their tastes across the board and exposed to more things, some of the mystique is being taken out of it. People are more used to seeing sake, more used to drinking it and tasting it, and then it just becomes more familiar," she says.
Once you get a taste for sake, you can start spending some serious money on it. Classic Wine Imports, for example, carries a Daiginyo-style cold sake that comes in a 72Oml bottle and retails for between $9O and $1OO. But who is the customer buying this level of sake? "There's a pretty good bet that the person has been to Japan. The other potential customer is someone who's really interested in wine and figured out that sake is more than one thing," says Lloyd Foster, adding, "That opens the door to get people to try more and different sake. They want to show off; they want to take their friends to a restaurant that has a good sake list."
COOLING THINGS DOWN Although Japanese and other Asian-style restaurants continue to sell large quantities of warm and hot sakes, it's the cold stuff that is really winning consumers over. Essentially, sake is treated as wine, despite its brewery origins, and often when the temperature goes down the flavor goes up. Chilled carafes or bottles along with small wine glasses are the norm for serving it stateside, and restaurants' sake menus continue to grow along with customer interest. What dictates whether sake is best served warm or cold depends on what kind of sake it is. A good rule of thumb is that the higher the quality, the more likely it is to be better enjoyed cold. Here's an example. If you're dealing with a basic Junmai (pure rice sake), then you're much better off serving it warm. But once you get into the higher quality Junmai Ginjos and certainly the Junmai Daiginjos, then chilled is the superior format. So while James Bond may have liked his sake warm in the 1967 classic You Only Live Twice, these days, it's the cold stuff that is consistently winning wine drinkers over. However, virtually all research done on the topic revealed that it is the consumer who should best decide, according to his or her own preference and taste, what temperature works best.
THE LEARNING CURVE Of course, as more people seek out sake in restaurants and stores, the more important it is to have knowledgeable staff selling it. Until recently, the majority of sake-educated people would have been those working in Japanese restaurants. "It's a little bit different because obviously you're dealing with rice instead of grapes and the whole process is very different. There is some overlap but it is a lesson in (and) of itself in teaching it," says David Singer from Libation Education, a professional consulting group that offers wine classes and consulting services for restaurants, corporate clients and private events. Singer also comments on the importance of training restaurant, bar and retail store staff: "Most importantly they should be tasting. Education is huge and having it so your staff is comfortable is more than step one," he explains. "If they're not, they're not going to recommend it; they will never recommend something they are not familiar with." Meanwhile, a shift is afoot in terms of packaging and this should help those intimated by some of the more traditional Japanese labeling. "Sake producers are promoting to the new generation of fine wine consumers by updating the product package while adhering to the unique tradition they value so much," explains John Bottcher. Many labels aren't in English and can be difficult to pronounce, which can sometimes be a barrier. "Producers are making labels with much more color and easier to focus on and read. It is art. The Japanese believe that making sake is an art form and the beautiful, artistic bottles reflect the quality and art of making sake," says Bottcher. Another way to educate customers is by way of a simple handout. Classic Wine Imports uses a two-sided sheet. The first side gives an overview of the different kinds of sake and the second side goes into the brewing process. Lloyd Foster says these have been invaluable for teaching restaurant and bar staff as well as retailers and their customers.
David Singer notes that most people experience their initial rites of passage into the realm of sake via the hot stuff served in Japanese restaurants. "They are introduced by the hot sake which is probably some of the worst sake you'll find. It is absolutely the tip of the iceberg, and like serving white wine too cold; serving sake too hot will hide the faults that are in it," he says. While Singer thinks that in some cases, it's not always the highly discerning customer ordering some of the standard issue hot sakes, he does concede that this is not necessarily a bad thing. "They're enjoying it and that's the important thing. In time they might learn to explore some of the other sakes," says Singer.
TINY BUBBLES How about a little carbonation to jazz things up? Kaze, a recent addition to Boston's Chinatown shabu shabu restaurant scene, has sparkling sake on their menu and it's proven to be quite popular. It is called Puchi Puchi (puchi translates to "small" in Japanese) and Kaze's floor manager Sue Hu says that it "tastes like soda and doesn't have a lot of alcohol in it". Hu also added that women tend to opt for it more frequently. In addition to the Puchi Puchi, Kaze carries 12 other sakes, with Chobei being their number one seller. It comes in 11 ounce bottles and Hu says that some like it hot, while others prefer it chilled. Kaze also does well with Hakushika's extra dry Chokara sake which pairs well with meat dishes. Hu notes that most customers tend to order the most popular one and she hopes that as people get more education on sake that they'll expand their horizons onto some of Kaze's other sake offerings. "Not a lot of people know about sake," says Hu. As for other sparkling sakes, the Gekkeikan brewery, which is one of Japan's largest, also produces a naturally carbonated sake called Zipang. Could sparkling sake be the next hip thing? We'll have to wait and see what bubbles up.
SOMETHING WASABE THIS WAY COMES Grand Island Beverages, out of California, recently launched a 75/25 blend of Dutch vodka and Japanese sake they have named WasabE. It has made its way to the Washington, DC area and should be available in the northeast fairly soon. According to Grand Island Beverages founder Richard Cutler, Wasabe's goal is to be an east-meets-west fusion spirit brand that was inspired in part by the growing interest mainstream America has with all things Japanese. WasabE uses sake brewed in Japan that is then sent to the Netherlands where it is blended with premium Dutch vodka with no additional flavorings added. For more information visit www.wasabeworld.com
The SKY'S the LIMIT The price ranges and varieties of sake are copious and one could spend a lifetime trying them all. "You could probably fill a whole aisle with sake, there's that much out there. A lot more wholesalers are having a larger selection to choose from," says Rich Daly. His sentiment underscores the fact that indeed, there are countless kinds of sake out there already being enjoyed and just waiting to be discovered. In Japan, there are about 17OO sake breweries, better known as kuras. These kuras produce nearly 1O,OOO types of sake. There are also seven producers here in the US. The key ingredient to success with sake is education through reading up on it and certainly through tasting. Also, a little bartender experimentation could easily result in the next hip sake cocktail to hit the scene. Educate yourself, your staff and your customers and see what happens. From the novice to the connoisseur, there's a sake for every person in every price range.