Sake: With and Against The Grain

Sake isn't just one of Japan's national spirits. Its complex, crafted production is a centuries-old tradition that's a source of national pride. Just ask the tojis (master brewers) producing the many expressions of the fermented rice libation across Japan. However, those producers, as well as bartenders, distributors, and aficionados in Japan and the U.S., recognize even the oldest and most revered traditions need to be adapted and expanded to ensure sake will be adopted by future generations. 

In the bars and restaurants of both countries, the “traditional” way of serving sake hot is giving way to cool (figuratively and literally) new ways to enjoy, understand, and try a variety of expressions of it.

In Tokyo, Shangri-La Tokyo bartender Jun Ohkubo says it’s not only the global rise in popularity of Japanese food that’s garnering curiosity about sake elsewhere. “Japanese whisky, craft beers, and sakes [are getting] more and more attention [through their] winning awards in competitive exhibitions worldwide. As a result, recognition has increased,” he says. “In addition, the Cool Japan Project, organized by The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, has helped spread the Japanese sake culture in Europe and the U.K.”

Will the U.S. be next to put sake on their bar maps in places beyond sushi bars?

Things are certainly looking that way, according to Gary Min, the Las Vegas-based “sake expert” and beverage director at Sushi Roku, a restaurant group originating in Los Angeles. He cites a thirst among younger consumers to not only try something new, but learn more about it to fully appreciate it.

“Millennials are becoming more educated in the world of sake, while the popularity of Japanese cuisine is also helping in the reintroduction of sake,” says Min. “As consumers become more comfortable with a certain beverage, the popularity increases, which I’ve seen in the case of sake. Sake has delicate flavors that work well in cocktails.”    

Other bartenders—including Juyoung Kang, lead mixologist at Delmonico Steakhouse at the Venetian in Las Vegas—hope the convergence of sake and Western bartending will help bolster the category back in Japan, as he revealed some sake houses have closed due to a major decline in sales. 

“It takes tremendous skill, talent, and patience to create sake, and the people involved in making it have been training generation after generation on how to create this spirit/wine,” he says. “I don't want it to disappear. It's like Italian grappa starting to show up in cocktails now. I love that we are expanding, but I don't want it to be a trend. I want it to be a constant growth.”

Indeed, tradition is being turned on its head because of changing tastes, even at such old-school establishments as Hollywood, CA landmark Yamashiro.

“We see the trend with our Yamashiro diners, they often comment that they normally drink hot sake but would like to try one of the sake cocktails,” says bartender Christian Coronel. “Our sake-based cocktails, like the Hiromasa, incorporate flavors of ginger and sweetness that mirrors the flavors of our sushi rolls and the sauces paired with our sashimi selections.”

Inspiration from Sake’s Origins

Small, family-owned sake producers, such as Ima Komachi in central Japan’s Tokushima Prefecture, are presented with the dual challenge of maintaining generations of brewing traditions while responding to the changing demand for sake in Japan and beyond. Owner Morihiko Nakamura says that because of his brewery’s excellent domestic sales, it will be a while before he considers importing. He may look to the U.K. before the U.S. because of its production yields.

Nakamura says some observations have prompted the brewery to increase its offerings. “Young women are one of the fastest growing markets for sakes in Japan,” he says (through a translator). “They enjoy the sweeter and sparkling styles, plus daiginjo and higher grades. They like the flavors and aromas and prefer them ice cold.”

Nakamura walks me through the brewing process, which typically begins in November. It starts with the proper treatment and storage of the essential koji mold, which is sprinkled onto steamed rice. After allowing this to ferment for 48 hours, Kobo malt is added for further fermentation over a 30-day period. He points out one machine to squeeze rice to extract the liquid, and cooling tanks that will chill it to the right temperature; sometimes an added cooling jacket or pipe is wrapped around the tank.

The degree to which rice is “polished” determines the quality of a finished sake. The more polished it is, with a lower percentage of each grain remaining, the better the sake will be. Junmai Daiginjo, made with more refined rice, is at the top end of the “premium” spectrum, while Junmai GinjoDaiginjo, and Ginjo grades make up much of what is brought into the U.S. and other western markets.

Kobe’s Nada neighborhood, which constitutes the city’s “Sake Trail,” is another destination for bar professionals looking to bring sake into their program. This area, the largest sake production region in Japan, has several advantages: Its location between the sea and Mt. Rokko; mountain waters used to polish the rice; the ‘Rokko Orashi,’ a cold wind said to optimize the process; and Yamada Nishiki rice, prized by sake brewers for its ability to absorb water and dissolve easily.Sake3

The free-of-charge Kiku-Masamune Sake Brewery Museum serves as a primer to its production and integration into Japanese life via displays, videos, and tastings in its shops. The other must-visit place for bar pros is the Sakura Masamune Brewery. The building, highlighted with design elements from the original brewery destroyed in the Great Hanshin quake of 1995, houses several displays, a restaurant, and a bar with an intriguing loyalty program that encourages repeat visits among local and international customers. It is also noteworthy for being a pioneer importer of sake to the U.S. through San Francisco, since 1882.

According to the brewery’s former toji, who mans the bar, its purpose is to encourage people to enjoy sake. One-time visitors are allowed to pick three sakes of their choosing with some coaching from the bartender and a small trio of “umami” snacks that will bring out their choices’ unique qualities. Regulars work through a card listing available sakes (there are five “chapters” in all). When all the listed sakes are sampled, they receive a premium ranging from a collectable ceramic sake cup to a full sake set to other gifts a connoisseur would prize.

Sake: Rocking in America?

A few decades back, American rock bands, from arena rock acts to indie artists, took pride in the way legions of screaming fans packed venues in Tokyo and other major Japanese cities. Today, one could argue there’s similar phenomenon happening with sake stateside.

According to master sommelier Bob Bath, professor of Wine & Beverage studies at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, millennials [I]are[I\] the future of sake and, thanks to their influence, the category is “happening in America,” extending its presence beyond specialized sushi and ramen restaurants.   

“At 83 million, they represent a dynamic part of the marketplace,” assessed Bath, during Mutual Trading Company’s annual October restaurant show in Pasadena, CA. “Their presence in the market is something we have to acknowledge. Do you want to change the opinions of baby boomers raised with sake’s old image (i.e., average quality sakes served heated), or do you want to reach out to a generation looking to discover something new?”

Steve Tindle, sommelier at Chicago’s Roka Akor, believes there is a sake movement, and cocktails are helping the category gain popularity in the restaurant scene—even as the traditional way to enjoy sake is on its own and paired with food. He also credits social media as a big part of the exposure. 

“Sake, simply put, is a fun and exciting ingredient for a variety of different cocktails because there are so many diverse styles,” says Brandon Wise, corporate beverage director for the Sage Restaurant Group in Denver. “If you look at rum, there's a whole spectrum of expressions, and the same is true with sake. When it comes to millennials pushing sake beyond [the category's] past image, cocktails are a great way to do that, providing a gateway for customers to enter the world of sakes by the glass and by the bottle.”

As Sage’s Departures restaurant is known for dishes with bold flavors, Wise finds incorporating different sakes into several cocktail recipes provides a bright, refreshing counterpoint to the spices, seasonings, and “umami” recipe elements.

“This is my starting point, and from there, I think of a range...a palate of colors to paint with,” says Wise. “I love the texture of nigori [unfiltered] sake as something with texture that adds a creamy mouth feel to a cocktail. The creaminess also allows me to create pastel hues when creating drinks. In Japanese bartending, color theory is really important, and we want to have a diverse color palate on our own cocktail menu. Herbs play well with junmaidaiginjo and daiginjo sakes, and they work well as a co-base alongside vodka or gin and with lighter spirits. Depending on what kind of sake you are using, there will be nuances of stone fruit, citrus, passion fruit.”

Sake is commonly a base spirit for cocktails at traditional Japanese restaurants, yet Wise says bartenders can expand their options by using sake as a modifier for stronger spirits like gin. For example, it can be an excellent substitute for vermouth. Julia Momose, head bartender of GreenRiver in Chicago, recommends genshu sakes for cocktails as their extra proof helps them stand up to water and other ingredients, while she appreciates the color, texture, and flavor nigori lends to cocktails.

“I currently have four sake cocktails across two menus,” says Momose, who came of age with sake in her native Japan. “The fun thing about sake is that there are many different types, beyond the milling and classification based on the amount of the grain that remains. You can have nigori, nama [unpasteurized], koshu [aged], kijoshu [dessert], taru [cedar], and genshu (undiluted), to name a few. The flavor profiles that can be achieved using sake are practically endless. While [sake] plays well with other ingredients without overpowering them, a key when choosing a sake to mix with is that you don’t want it to be so delicate that it gets lost, even as you want it to be true to its nature.”

Momose says that while there are good quality sakes that can be served hot, and it is still common in Japan for parties to enjoy a bottle of sake that works with all the courses of a meal, premium sakes are best enjoyed chilled so they retain their delicate flavors and aromatics. If customers are planning to go the cocktail route, however, she recommends building the drink recipes with a light touch, keeping it on the lower proof side of things, with subtle additions of flavor in the form of juices, vermouth, and liqueurs.

“I think that people should be encouraged to drink sake as they like it,” she says. “That said, I think cocktails are a fantastic way to introduce people to sake who wouldn’t typically order it on its own. I have already seen more guests at GreenRiver ordering pours of sake at the bar after seeing a variety of sakes used in cocktails that they enjoy. I think that the more we make delicious sake available, the more people will start to order it. In this instance, perhaps supply will lead to demand.”

Behind the Scenes…and the Bar…in Tokyo

Back in Tokyo, Western style bartending has gained steam and inspired bartenders from the city’s niche craft cocktail bars to posh lobby bars of the Shangri-La, Conrad, Peninsula and Mandarin Oriental Tokyo properties. Even with that, however, many bartenders want to make sure sake and other Japanese spirits won’t get lost in their translations.Sake2

Several top Tokyo hotel and craft cocktail bars (Bar Trench and Codename: Mixology) feature cocktail menus where “classics” dominate, but original creations also have a following. Infusions are big at these spots as they ensure the cocktails will be one-of-a-kind experiences. Gen Yamamoto, meanwhile, has transformed his mix of western techniques, fine sakes, and ultra premium spirits into theater in his reservations-only, eight-seat venue. While his performance is dramatic, his resulting sake cocktails are masterpieces of simplicity.

“Western-influenced cocktails are popular in Tokyo, although adding Japanese whiskey and sake gives them a fresh twist,” says Yukiyo Kurihara, Manager of Bars at the Mandarin Oriental Tokyo. “Furthermore, as there are more Japanese bartenders working overseas and winning global competitions, you’ll find more cocktails with that important twist/performance in technique. To ensure consistency, the most important thing I do is train my staff until they truly understand the vision, balancing east and west.”

“In my recent trip to Japan, I found many drinking shochu [distilled sake] mixed tall with Oolong tea,” agrees Kang, who appreciates its having a higher proof and an ability to hold its own against other spirits and ingredients. “I found it to be very pleasing to my palate as I love tea. Shochu particularly pairs well with flavors of stone fruits like plums and peaches, complex flavors like ginger and cloves, and street food like tacos, buns, skewers, calamari, and ramen.”

By Elyse Glickman

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