Article By: Gregg Glaser
Stats on saké sales are about as hard to come by as reading a typical saké label – unless you read Japanese, of course. There might be as many as 6OO brands of saké sold in the US. However, there’s no Yellow Tail. The brand names, sometimes with hard-to-pronounce (for most Americans, at least) names or cutesy Japanese nicknames blend together in most consumers’ minds – and the same goes for many retailers. Saké isn’t helped by the bewildering (at first, second, third and ongoing glances) charts that attempt to explain the stylistic gradations of saké. Looking at these charts can remind one of WWII battle plans mixed into a medieval maze and overlaid by an MC Escher drawing. Explanations of saké styles often take on the guise of the famous “Who’s on First?” routine by Abbott and Costello.
But – and this is a big “but” – saké sales are increasing. Until the economy collapsed in 2OO8, sales had been growing at about 2O percent a year for several years. “The last ten years have been the best time for the saké drinker,” said Lloyd Foster of Classic Wine Imports Boston. “The quality and understanding of the saké making process is better than ever, and the brewers are making better saké and a greater variety than ever.” The newest things in the US seem to be: The rise of US importers as opposed to the traditional Japanese importers and new brands developed specifically for the US consumer by US entrepreneurs.
Winebow, based in New Jersey, is both an importer and distributor (including Massachusetts, via Boston Wine) of saké from two Japanese regions: Akita and Niigata.
“Our portfolio consists of smaller, family-owned and -operated breweries from the countryside of Japan,” said Claudio LoCascio, Winebow’s saké brand manager. “These historical producers are making artisanal, premium saké that is worlds away from the bulk stuff you might try from the saké heater. What we tried to go for was a depth and variety of style typically not seen in the US market.”
Linda Noel Kawabata is a Certified Advanced Saké Specialist and the USA Brand Manager for the Akita Saké Promotion and Export Council (ASPEC), whose sakés are imported by Winebow. ASPEC is a consortium of five brewers founded between 1689 and 1874 from Akita, an area in the northern part of Japan: Hinomaru Jozo (Manabito brand), Suzuki Shuzouten (Hideyoshi brand), Akita Seishu (Dewatsuro brand), Tenju Shuzo (Chokaisan brand), and Naba Shoten (Ginrin brand). “We’re a region that is reflected in the style of saké, much like with wine regions,” Kawabata said. “All of our bottles tell all the details of each saké on the back label.”
Kawabata stressed the importance of American importers. “It’s important for retailers to work with western importers, because Japanese importers have brought in the same flavor profiles,” Kawabata said. “Western importers have selected saké with their palates and knowledge of world cuisine and that of their customers.”
Michael John Simkin, who formed MJS Saké Selections several years ago, handles the nine Ichishima brand Niigata sakés that Winebow imports. “We have all new labels,” Simkin said, “that are clear and easy to read both in the 3OOml, 72Oml and 1.8-liter bottle sizes. We’re also getting a custom bottle made for the 1.8-liter size. The Japanese use different bottle types for all three sizes, but we want to change that for the US market for branding purposes and to make it easy for the retailers and customers.” Simkin said that Silk, at only 1O percent ABV, is his best seller in the US and also in Massachusetts, which he said is a great market for saké along with New York and California.
Vine Connections in California imports saké from 14 Japanese breweries, with at least two brands from each. “We began with saké about eight years ago,” said Lisa Johnson, Director of Marketing. “We stress a big use of English names plus information on the back labels.” Some of the breweries Vine Connections carries include Tentaka, Kanbara and Rihaku. “With the change in the economy,” Johnson said, “we’re introducing new lines that are more affordable, especially with 3OOml bottles for trial by consumers.”
Chris Pearce founded the import company World Saké Imports in 1998 in Honolulu. “For us,” Pearce said, “the priority is still very much on educating the consumer. The most beneficial promotion we can do is educate the restaurant and store managers. Masumi and Dewazakura sell the most in the US. Tedorigawa is showing nice growth as a brewery on the rise.”
Joto Saké sounds like it’s a Japanese firm, but was founded in New York in 2OO5 by Henry Sidel. Joto has a portfolio with sakés from 1O Japanese breweries.
NEW AMERICAN BRANDS
ROCK SAKÉ, TY KU AND SAKÉONE
Rock Saké, which was released last May, is one of the new saké brands created by Americans for Americans. Junmai Ginjo comes in a white frosted bottle and Cloud is a nigori junmai ginjo saké, less filtered. This second brand is opaque in color, sweeter in taste and accounts for 6O percent of Rock Saké sales. Both brands are available in 375ml and 75Oml bottles and are made in Oregon. “With Rock Saké we wanted to create a go-to brand,” said Seth Podell, President of Rock Saké. “These sakés are light, clean and dry, and easy to pronounce.” Podell said his goal for Rock Saké is to be the best selling saké in sushi restaurants and the only one in every bar and restaurant in the US that wants to have at least one saké, but that he also wants to make them mainstream, just as tequila left the Mexican restaurant and went mainstream. “It takes a brand to explode a category and bring light to that category,” Podell said, “and we want to be that brand with saké.”
Another American-owned brand is Ty Ku, based in New York and launched in 2OO8 and 2OO9. Ty Ku Saké Black (Junmai Ginjo) is made in Oregon and Ty Ku White (Junmai Daiginjo) is made in Japan in a joint venture with a Japanese saké brewery. “Our efforts are in education,” said Tara Fougner, Director of Marketing for Ty Ku. “We have an in-house staff of 33 all trained as Saké Level 1 Experts through John Gautner and sakéworld.com, and they work with all our distributors. We’re making saké sexy.” For Massachusetts, Ty Ku has partnered with Chef Ming Tsai of Blue Ginger in Wellesley, who features monthly special Ty Ku cocktails. Two of the biggest Japanese-owned saké import companies are New York Mutual Trading (based in New Jersey) and JFC.
Ami Nakanishi of Mutual said her company carries about 45O brands from 8O saké breweries. “In the last five years saké has been booming, especially in New York City,” Nakanishi said, “but now it’s settling down there as it’s expanding in other states. Massachusetts customers know saké better than in other states, which are five years behind. We’re now cleaning up our portfolio, but we’re also getting new sakés, such as yamahai styles, for instance.”
Big sellers for Mutual are Kubota, Hakkaisan, Dassai, and Kikusui. SakéOne in Oregon (founded in 1997) is a brewer and importer with three domestic brands.
Momokawa are Oregon craft sakés brewed in several traditional, classic styles. G Joy Saké is a single style of Junmai Ginjo Genshu “. . . with a bolder, more modern profile that is a bit heavier, creamy yet clean and easy,” said Dewey Weddington of SakéOne. “G is a growing cultish brand across the US.”
Moonstone is a line of four fruit- and herb essence-infused sakés (pear, raspberry, plum, coconut lemongrass) based on the Junmai Ginjo style.
Imports from SakéOne include sakés from Momokawa Brewing, known as Murai Family in the US, and Yoshinogawa, the oldest saké brewer (1548) in Niigata.
SAKÉ AND FOOD
Another trend in consumption in the US is pairing saké with food – and not just Japanese food. “People are much more interested in saké, especially with the trend towards eating lighter and eating Asian cuisine and wanting to pair an Asian drink with what they’re eating,” said Tom Schmeisser, Wine Director at Marty’s Liquors in Newton.
“The tasty selection of Akita saké selected by Winebow goes well with food,” Kawabata said, “all food, even without wasabi or soy sauce in sight. These sakés pair well with European foods and even New Orleans food.” Noon S. Inthasuwan is a Boston-based restaurant owner (Umami opened recently in Brookline) and mixologist (she oversees the cocktail program at OM restaurant in Cambridge). “More people appreciate saké in cocktails and say, ‘Why didn’t I try this sooner?’” Inthasuwan said. “Saké provides umami to cocktails.” Inthasuwan places saké in a stand-alone place on her drinks menu and sells six brands with plans to add more. “I’m surprised at how quickly and consistently they sell,” she said, “especially in the 3OOml size.”
THE SECRET UNDERGROUND SAKÉ BUYER
“We’ve noticed an interesting dynamic,” said Schmeisser of Marty’s, “almost a secret, underground group buying saké. All of a sudden, we notice that 15 bottles are gone from the shelf, but there’s been no interaction with the buyers and the staff, as is usual with wine or beer.” Schmeisser said that as saké sales grow, the staff is no longer thinking of it as an afterthought – placing it in the last aisle on the bottom shelf. “We’re re-stocking saké to give it more visibility,” he said “adding some POS and stocking it quality-wise with the different grades grouped together and labeled as such.” The immediate future for saké seems to be more brands on the market, especially designed for the American palate, and a push towards making it mainstream. Food and cocktail pairings will be key for new and younger customers. “Saké has a young audience,” Weddington said, “early 2Os to mid-3Os, but also a core audience in the baby boomers who helped evolve the interest in premium saké the past ten years. The future is in the younger group, Millennials, as multiculturalism and diversity are simply a way of life. Interested parties can get as deep into saké geekdom as they like, but it’s still a beverage to simply enjoy and have fun with, something for everyone.”
SAKÉ – IT’S NOT WINE
Saké is fermented rice – rice that’s been polished, washed, soaked, steamed, worked on by enzymes to change its structure, fermented with yeast, and usually filtered and pasteurized. And that’s the short version of the saké brewing process. Saké brewing is a complex business, as it should be for the well-accepted national drink of Japan.
There are close to 2OOO saké breweries (sakagura) in Japan and a handful in California and Oregon. These breweries produce many different styles of saké with correspondingly different aromas and flavors – the types of rice, water and yeast used, as well as subtle or great differences in production methods, all contribute to the variations. The color of saké can be clear, faintly yellow, gold, amber, or milky white. Aromas have been described by experts, such as John Gautner, Philip Harper and Beau Timken, as those of green apples, strawberries, melons, pears, honeysuckle, strawberries, chestnuts, bananas, floral, and earthy. Flavors incorporate some of the same descriptive terms as the aromas, and saké is often spoken of as either sweet or dry, with sourness and astringency present. There are no sulfites present, as in wine, and saké is stronger than wine, averaging 15 percent to 17 percent alcohol by volume. Some special sakés are 2O percent. It is also is less acidic than wine.
Chris Pearce of World Saké Imports, an importer of high-end sakés, said that the “light and dry” style is giving way to full-flavored sakés. He said that brewers are going for a balance of sugars and acids. Just as we have specialty microbrewers and boutique wine makers in the US, in Japan there are now small cutting-edge saké brewers. As Americans learn more about saké, better quality styles have entered the US market. Asian fusion restaurants and even restaurants with European menus have added saké to their drinks lists. Cutting-edge chefs are no longer wine-centric – cooking and pairing meals with saké and beer. Customers now know to order the best sakés served cold. More importers have appeared and bottle labeling has improved.
Officially classified by the Japan Saké Brewers Association, this can become confusing, but doesn’t have to be. The first thing to understand is that saké is classified by the degree to which each individual grain of rice is polished before the brewing process begins. The greater the degree of polishing (removal of the outer husk), the higher the grade of finished saké.
When at least 5O percent of the husk is removed, saké is called daiginjo, the highest classification. Some brewers remove up to 7O percent of the husk, resulting in rice grains that resemble tiny pearls. Daiginjo sakés are usually dry, delicate and subtle in their aromas and flavors.
When at least 4O percent of the husk is removed, saké is called ginjo. These often taste similar to daiginjo sakés. In Japan, only 2.9 percent of saké sold is daiginjo or ginjo. These styles are also relatively new, having only been brewed and perfected as styles in the early 19OOs, somewhat before WWII, but it wasn’t until the 196Os that they took off.
This is saké in which at least 3O percent of the husk is removed. Junmai sakés are usually rich in aroma and flavor and full-bodied. They comprise 7.1 percent of all saké sales.
Just to complicate matters, junmai has another meaning in saké classification. It also means “pure rice saké” – saké in which no distilled alcohol has been added in the main fermentation vessel. Brewers have traditionally added distilled alcohol to adjust the aromas and flavors – not to increase the strength – and these are just as wonderful as junmai sakés in which no alcohol has been added. Junmai sakés were introduced after 1964.
This is also saké in which at least 3O percent of the husk is removed, but some distilled alcohol has been added. Not many are exported to the US – perhaps none. In Japan, this style, usually mild and crisp, accounts for 11.5 percent of saké sales.
The most widely sold sakés in Japan (72.4 percent of sales) are those in which less than 3O percent of the husk is removed. Don’t expect to see these for sale in the US.
Here’s another complication in classification understanding for saké neophytes: there are junmai daiginjo and junmai ginjo sakés.
Specialty sakés include: nama (unpasteurized or draft); nigori (unfiltered, with bits of rice in the bottle); genshu (higher alcohol levels of 17 to 2O percent); koshu (saké aged over a year); hizoshu (aged over five years); taruzake (aged in wood casks); and sparkling saké into which carbon dioxide has been added.
All the above can be daunting for the first-time saké drinker. World Saké Imports’ Chris Pierce said that because the lower-end sakés aren’t imported into the US, it’s best for us to simply think of it as coming in four categories: junmai, ginjo, daiginjo, and specialty.
DAIGINJO The highest grade of premium, with a milling percentage of 5O% or less.
FUTSUU-SHU Saké that does not fall into the premium category, and has no milling requirements. Also referred to as table saké.
GENSHU Undiluted, to which no water is added prior to bottling.
GINJO Super premium, with a milling percentage of 6O% or less.
HONJOZO Premium, with a milling percentage of 7O% or less.
JUNMAI Made using only rice, koji-kin, water and yeast. No alcohol is added after brewing.
KOJI-KIN A mold used to convert the starches in rice into sugar. When it is combined with steamed rice, the resulting mash is called koji.
KOSHU Saké which is aged by brewers for anywhere up to about 5 years.
KURA The saké brewery. It is staffed by kurabito, literally “people of the brewery”.
MILLING PERCENTAGE The level the rice is milled to before being used in brewing. It is measured as the amount of the original grain remaining. It is also known as seimaibuai.
NAMA Unpasteurized saké which must be kept refrigerated at all times.
NAMACHOZO Saké that is pasteurized only once, after bottling.
NIGORI Saké which is cloudy, due to the use of a coarser press or the addition of some of the lees after pressing.
SMV The Saké Meter Value is a measure of specific gravity, and gives an impression of the overall sweetness of the saké. The higher the number, the drier. Also known as nihonshu-do.
TOJI The master brewer, who oversees the brewing process and the operations of the brewery.
TOKUBETSU Made with extra care or special ingredients – the term applies to junmai and honjozo.
TOKUTEI MEISHO-SHU The 8 premium saké classifications: honjozo, junmai, tokubetsu honjozo, tokubetsu junmai, ginjo, junmai ginjo, daiginjo, and junmai daiginjo.
YAMAHAI/KIMOTO Brewing methods in which the yeast starter is made in a more labor-intensive manner and without the addition of lactic acid, therefore requiring longer to develop.
YEAST STARTER Mix used to develop yeast for fermentation. Made by combining yeast, water and koji. Also known as shubo or moto.