|Most Americans have their first sake experience at a local sushi bar, usually sipping bulk sake poured from a box and heated in a coffee urn or a microwave. But in recent years the array of premium sake available in the U.S. has exploded and the traditional Japanese rice wine (rice beer, actually) is finding a place in arsenal of beverage directors everywhere.
Yoshi Yumoto, vice president and national sales manager for Gekkeikan Sake from Sidney Frank Importing Co., Inc. says, "Sake has been around in the U.S. for 30 years. And in the past it was always served hot and only in Chinese and Japanese restaurants. But cold sake and premium sake are very popular and fast growing."
One of the biggest trends fueling experimentation with premium sake, which is almost always sipped chilled like white wine, is the popularity of Asian fusion restaurants. "The popular Asian fusion places like Sushi Samba and Tao are great showcases for any brand. Many consumer who never tried premium sake have their first taste here. And many consumers who used to think Japanese food is only sushi and sake is always hot, now realize there are many different dishes and many different types of sake," says Yumoto.
Not Just For Sushi
Other top toques who have taken to sake include New York’s David Bouley, who offers sake at his Upstairs and Bouley Market Locations, and Thomas Keller’s Per Se, which offers a drink list in their lounge including four sake by-the-glass, outnumbering the cocktails and almost matching the wine by-the-glass.
At Chanterelle, Tribeca’s famed French restaurant, master sommelier Roger Dagorn frequently offers sake paired with a course from the chef’s tasting menu. And, he recently led diners through nine courses of food paired only with sake as part of his eighth annual sake dinner, featuring artisanal sake. "I find these sakes are great with a variety of foods," says Dagorn. “They are another plane from wine, with their characteristic fruitiness.”
According to Dagorn, there are many wines that pair well with oysters, but he believes the bivalves are even better with sake. This year’s Sake Kura included several fish courses, but Dagorn also recommends serving sake with beets and has no hesitation about pairing sake with red meats, including venison, squab or duck.
But for all its progress, many American chefs and restaurant goers still associate sake with sushi. "People always say to me, ‘Why would I serve sake when I don’t serve sushi?’" says Sidel, who in turn explains that sushi is just one small part of Japanese cuisine, and is more often enjoyed with beer anyway. In order to break such misconceptions, Sidel has been conducting paired tastings, like sake and cheese, in cooperation with Murray’s Cheese in New York. "At Murray’s they work with every Port wine, every whisky, but they truly love sake with cheese. The flavor profiles are similar: fruity, nutty, sometimes spicy. They complement but don’t overpower each other," says Sidel.
Inciting Consumer Interest
With few parallels to wine or beer, many wine directors find the quality levels, like ginjo and daiginjo, which actually refer to the amount of polishing the rice undergoes (or the seimaibuai), to be very foreign. "I do feel people exaggerate the difficulty of sake," counters Sidel. "There is so much difficulty to understanding French and Italian and German wine; sake is really no more difficult."
A growing variety of available sake, both traditional and innovative, are also bringing tastemakers and experiential drinkers to the beverage. Gekkeikan Sake recently introduced a Nigori style, which is unfiltered and looks like the Mexican rice drink horchata, as well as Zipang, a sparkling sake.
Understanding the Language of Sake
JUNMAI DAI GINJO SAKE (Extra Premium Rice Wine)
• Highest Class
• Using Certified Sake Rice
• Polished away 50% or more
• Fruity or flowery aroma
JUNMAI GINJO SAKE (Premium Rice Wine)
• Second Highest Class
• Using Certified Sake Rice
• Polished away more than 40%,
less than 50%
JUNMAI SHU (Classic Rice Wine)
• Using sartified Sake Rice
• Polished away more than 30%, less than 40%