When a cold trend is good
By Tyler Colman
January 12, 2005
Take a warm drink mostly confined to the fringe of restaurant menus, dress it up and cool it down–and the result is one of the trendiest drinks this past year: premium chilled sake.
"In my 13 years in the drinks business, I have never seen a category as hot as premium chilled sake is now," said Andy Pates, partner at Cream Wine, a Chicago-based wine distributor.
Sales of sake, an alcoholic beverage made from fermented rice, have been brisk.
"Over the past year we have seen sake sales rise 400 percent," said Aaron Vint, sake buyer for Sam’s Wines & Spirits stores. He has added 40 premium sakes the past year to what had been a list of just 10 sakes, all non-premium.
An image problem
Driving the trend is a greater emphasis on quality sake. Often misleadingly known as "rice wine," sake is made more like beer. As with beer, yeast must be added for fermentation to occur. And it is food friendly and has an alcoholic content not much higher than some wines (about 18 percent).
The initial reputation of sake in the U.S. was made with low-grade versions to which alcohol had been added. It was served warm or even in a cedar cup, both of which reduce aromatics. Low-grade sake still accounts for about 75 percent of all sake made. But as Japanese food in the U.S. has moved upscale with the arrival of sushi, sake has followed the move toward quality.
"Wonderful, artisanal sake is now making its way to the U.S. It is expressive, like a single vineyard wine [because] variations in water and rice make it almost like terroir in wine," said Sue Kim-Drohomyrecky, wine director and co-owner of Spring restaurant.
The rise of quality sake, also known as junmai grade, is not the result of new producers in Japan. The key has been importers working with producers to get better quality sakes.
"Premium sakes have existed in limited quantity here in the U.S. for decades, but only through supply houses, such as rice purveyors. What has changed is who is looking for high quality and how it is getting to them," said Ed Lehrman of VineConnections, a sake importer.
Premium sakemakers emphasize purity of ingredients. The rice is polished to such a high degree that as much as half of each grain is milled away, leaving only the starchy core and no impurities, also known as congeners.
"Premium sake is the cleanest alcohol you can drink," Lehrman said.
Along with rice, only water, yeast and a mysterious mold called koji are the ingredients. Many breweries have their own springs as water sources and isolate and develop specific yeast strains. The all-important koji is meticulously cultivated in sterile conditions and tended to around the clock.
Although the Japanese have a rich tradition of serving sake in ceramic vessels, serving it in a wine glass captures more aromas and is more popular in America. "Premium sake has wonderful fruit aromatics, and in [traditional vessels] you miss them–or you get your nose very wet," Lehrman said.
The growth of sushi bars also has contributed to the sake sensation, importers and retailers say. The beverage’s low acidity levels make it a good choice.
"Sake is a flavor enhancer that complements low-fat foods ranging from vegetables to chicken," Pates said.
Matthew Skoller of Chicago learned to love the combination at his favorite neighborhood sushi spot, Paradise on Montrose. "I’m a really big fan of sushi, and I got into sake through sushi," Skoller said.
Masato Takai, liquor department manager at Mitsuwa market, a mall of Japanese stores in Arlington Heights, agreed. "Sake is delicate and goes well with many foods that are not heavily flavored."
But just as Asian-influenced cooking is not limited to sushi bars, sake now appears on the beverage list of many restaurants, including Charlie Trotter’s, Trio and Moto.
Kim-Drohomyrecky includes several sakes on her menu. "If it’s good, it’s good and deserves to be on the list. I try to have three contrasting styles to jolt and provoke questions about why they are different," she said. The Asian influences on Spring’s largely seafood menu have made sake a good seller.
But the demand for sake is not just in restaurants, as the sales at wine shops demonstrate.
"People are more adventurous and acquiring a taste for sake," Vint said. "[They] have sake in a restaurant and then they come looking for it here."
Vint said there is a more direct relationship between quality and price in sake than there is in wine. "Price is indicative of quality," he said. His premium sakes start at $12 for a 720-milliliter bottle.
Takai has more than 100 sakes in stock at Mitsuwa. He recommends the crisp, dry Otokoyama at $19.
The popularity of takeout food helps because people buy sake to drink at home, Lehrman said. In California, he sells more sake through wine retailers than through restaurants.
"At first we were wondering whether this was a fad like cigars that would peter out. But this trend has a lot of support," said Lehrman, who has seen his sake sales double over the past year.
With only 1 percent of the world’s sake consumed in the U.S., there is potential for further growth.
"It’s my feeling that we have a few more years to go," Pates said.
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Learning by tasting
Navigating premium sake may appear daunting but experimentation will prove rewarding.
Spring offers a flight of three 1-ounce pours, each in a contrasting style.
Japonais offers at least 10 such flights.
Heat has three sakes by the glass and about 20 by the bottle, organized by category: fragrant, light and smooth, rich, and aged. The restaurant also offers sake tastings, usually once a month, depending on interest; for information, call 312-397-9818.
Rio’s sake list includes 10 by the glass and close to 70 by the bottle. It plans to reintroduce its bimonthly sake tastings and classes starting 2-4 p.m. Feb. 19 at 504 N. Wells St. Cost is $60; to register, call 312-595-2300.
RA Sushi Bar Restaurant offers sake flights at $20 for three 2-ounce pours. Customers choose which ones they want to try.
If a full 720-milliliter (24 ounce) bottle seems too intimidating or expensive, a half bottle (actually 300 milliliters, or 10 ounces) may prove appealing. "We have several half-bottles on the menu, and they are selling very well," said Chad Lynd, drinks manager at Marai Sushi.
But a useful guide of last resort is an informative back label on
many bottles that has a "sake meter value," which rates sakes on a scale of acidity and briskness. Bottles are also stamped with the production date to ensure freshness.
All sakes come with screw tops, so bottles can be resealed. "In about three days most of the delicate aromas will be gone but it can last in the fridge up to a month," Vint said.
Some sakes to try
(Retail prices for 720-ml bottles, unless otherwise noted.)
Mizunoshirabe: light in style, a good place to start. $17
Otokoyama: crisp clean flavors. $19
Rin: freshness and zippiness give it a real flavor blast. $16 (500 milliliters)
Fukuchu: Light, smooth with notes of anisette. $38
Sato No Hamare: fruit-driven aromas and
very fresh taste. $43
Kaishu: oily with notes of shiitake mushroom. $13.50 (500 milliliters)
Kamoizumi: so full-bodied that it is milky and has rice particles in the glass; viscous, creamy and nutty. $33