Can Sake Transcend Beyond Japanese Concepts?

By Kerri Adams, Editor-at-Large

Before there was craft beer, hand-crafted cocktails and aged bourbon­– there was sake. Sake originated from Japan and has been around for 2,000 years, but it took a while for the beverage to reach the US shores.

In the 1990s, America experienced somewhat of a sake boom when premium grade sake, often served chilled started to be offered more at restaurants. Hot sake was no longer the only option.

Prior to sake, another beloved Japanese tradition started to gain momentum in the US around the 1970s–Sushi. And these sushi concepts, often served sake. While sushi in the US has been heavily” Americanized,” sake has yet to fully transcend beyond Japanese restaurants.

But, the Consulate-General of Japan in Miami and the Sake Export Association are on a mission to introduce the beloved Japanese beverage to the non-Japanese market. Together the two organizations set up an event to introduce 10 sake breweries to local vendors, distributors and operators in the Miami area.

How it’s Made

This Japanese “rice wine” is unlike the wine made from grapes that Americans all love and know. Although the beverage shares several of the properties of wine, like that it is smooth bodied and aromatic, it isn’t technically a wine at all. A wine is defined as alcohol fermented from sugars in a fruit.

The way that sake is processed is much more similar to the brewing process of beer. The rice starch is converted into sugars and that sugar is then converted to alcohol by yeast. This production process is different than how any other alcoholic beverage is made, making sake in a category of its own.

The Alcohol by Volume (ABV) is higher than both beer and wine. Undiluted sake is as high as 18-20 %, but it is diluted by water before being bottled and sold.

Sake grade levels are determined by the percentage the rice is milled before the start of the brewing process. There are six commonly accepted sake categories. But the most premium grades are those above futsuu-shu, these three classifications are unmai-shu, junmai ginjo-shu, junmai daiginjo-shu. Daiginjo sakes are the best quality due to having the lowest rice milling rate.

Does Sake Belong in your Restaurant?

Americans will often have their first sip of sake at a Japanese steakhouse or sushi house, but this doesn’t mean this is where the beverage belongs.

For example, margaritas are no longer offered at just Mexican joints, even though it is a traditional beverage of Mexico. Cinco de Mayo would never be complete without this zesty cocktail, but American steakhouses across the country feature margaritas on their cocktail menus.

The Japanese saying: Nihonshu wa ryori wo erabanai translates to "Sake doesn’t fight with food.” But, keep in mind when developing pairings that the beverage is much subtler with lower acidity and has higher concentrations of amino acids than wine.

Umami (translated as a "pleasant savory taste") is a category of taste in food. It is a taste sensation that is meaty or savory and is produced by several amino acids and nucleotides. This fifth basic taste plays an important role in pairing sake with food.

Like wine, it depends on the flavor of the sake to make an appropriate pairing. Here are some basic tips.

  • Food that is too spicy or rich will often over power sake.
  • A dryer sake pairs well with salty dishes.
  • Leafy green salads (which don’t pair well with wine) are often an excellent sake pairing.
  • Sweet sake pairs well with tart or acidic food like a salmon.
  • Earthy, rich, heavy sake pairs well with grilled or stewed meat, especially pork.
  • Textured sake pairs well with light textured foods like tofo and raw oysters.

There are so many different sakes to play with. “One thing that people don’t think about when it comes to sake is that there are a hundred different varieties of rice out there, not just one and hundred different varieties of yeast out there, not just one– and the combination of those leads to a huge range of sake and flavor profiles out there,” said John Gauntner, while leading the sake tasting event by the Consulate-General of Japan in Miami and the Sake Export.

Sustainable and Healthy

For the health-conscious consumer, sake is appealing due to the several health benefits. It’s made with only rice, wine, yeast and koji. So it’s a cleaner beverage, making it a great beverage option to those with dietary restrictions. It’s 80% water.

Since it’s only made with four ingredients, it is also more sustainable than other alcoholic beverages.

Not to mention, the amino acids in the beverage help to prevent cancer, the ferulic acids prevent skin aging and it has been scientifically proven to prevent osteoporosis, diabetes, high blood pressure, Alzheimer’s and allergies.  

The Previous Challenges in Attracting Consumers

Changing the perception of consumers who think sake is only a complimentary beverage to be had with sushi, isn’t going to be easy. This will only change when the beverage starts to be more available at restaurants.

But first it has to be more available at stores and that’s where the distributors come in. In order to corner the American restaurant market, distributors need to be reaching out more to the restaurant operators. There also should be more of an effort in advertising.

The other issue is that sake tends to be much more expensive, but also served in smaller portions than a glass of wine. This often causes consumers to order another beverage that is much more cost effective.

Ultimately, sake has a ton of potential in the American market– especially with the Consulate General of Japan in Miami and the other organizations making an effort to introduce the beverage to the non-japanese industry.