Friday, June 5, 2009

Why Not Sake?

I was in Paris last night visiting my friend Barbara, who recently returned from a trip to Japan. We were drinking a delicious bottle of sake that she had brought back with her, and she asked, un-rhetorically, "Why don't people drink more sake?"

Honestly, I was stumped. I naturally have an opinion about the subject—personally I think that people should drink more sake—but putting that aside and looking at it objectively, I really don't know why more people don't drink sake.

It can't be an issue of alcohol. Most sakes are between 15 and 16 percent alcohol, which is only a touch higher than many table wines these days. Is it a perception that it only goes with Japanese food? Sake is exceptionally food-friendly, and it can be argued that it's even more widely versatile at the table than wine is. I suppose the fact that all the labels are written in Japanese can be intimidating, but in the United States, back labels carry a great deal of information printed in English that's enormously helpful to the consumer. (All of you guys who complain that champagne houses don't print enough technical data on the label, check out the back label on a sake bottle sometime.)

Perhaps its simply that sake is unfamiliar. Not only is there alien terminology such as junmai and ginjo, but even the flavors and aromas of sake can often lie outside of the range of typical Western experience. But honestly, if you can say ramen and sashimi, you can say junmai.

I'm curious—do you drink sake? If so, do you drink it with non-Japanese cuisine? Do you share it with friends? If you don't drink sake, is there a reason?


ned said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
ned said...

My experience with saké started in the early 80s at sushi bars. You know, served hot, and that was it for many years. In more recent times I often have Champagne with sushi. Also, until recent times the only saké available was the mass produced stuff. One really had to look for quality saké. The newly opened Santa Cruz Whole Foods has a surprisingly large saké section.
I've been curious but my ignorance of what's what has kept me from purchasing blindly. I probably would not have boldly started trying it with other cuisines, but I'll feel licensed to do so now.

Peter Liem said...

Yeah, I suppose that cheap, hot sake is the introduction for most people, unfortunately, and they never venture past that. Can't say I blame them. If I were introduced to the wine world by drinking mulled wine made from Gallo Hearty Burgundy, I might have opted for beer instead.

Sake distribution in the States is better than ever. Here in France, not so much. But yes, sake is great with lots of non-Japanese foods, and it can easily handle salty, briny or vegetal things that are wine-killers.

TWG said...

Lack of interest is a matter of exposure. Most everyone has exposure to a wide range of beer or wine even in a store with a small inventory. Most liquor stores have a few selections of sake. In the US there's a large proportion of people who think Japanese food is something exotic, when it's probably the Asian cuisine most similar to what Americans are used to.

I've only had sake with Japanese food and the only merchant I trust has a limited selection. Some other merchants have a wide selection but I don't know how fresh the bottles are. Any idea what the "shelf" life of Sake is?

Is there a good source for drinking vessels in the US?

Director, Lab Outreach said...

There's no question exposure is a big part of the answer. Even in LA (a major sushi city), most Japanese restaurants have only a few (and usually none very good) to choose from.

But I also think there's an umami quality to sake that takes some getting used to. It's the "hints of porridge" element that's present even in sparkling sake -- which is a good "gateway" choice, especially if you like grown-up kool-aid like Bugey Cerdon and Brachetto d'Aqui.

Not to chase your readers elsewhere, but Alder Yarrow has some very succinct and helpful primer materials on sake at Vinography. If you search "sake" on his site, I'm sure you'll find them.

I believe it's there I learned that sake does not age. But having not tested this claim at the Lab, I can only report it as hearsay.


Cher Hawrylow said...

Sake is an acquired taste. For the sake of comparison, let us say it’s like the Pastis of France- not everyone likes it. It is a taste to be developed over time. Japanese cuisine is something nouveaux in Europe. Europeans are traditionalists and it is only lately that they have started to stray from the comforts of what they know and are familiar with. After all, who can beat mama’s cooking, right?! Japanese cuisine and sake are definitely in the ‘exotic’ category and for the average European quite an expensive indulgence to partake in for an every day affair. I spend at least USD 300 for 4 persons when I go out for a Japanese meal including sake and several rounds of Sapporo at one of the local 4* hotels in town (where I know the sushi chef!). If one wants to prepare Japanese food at home, it is difficult to find the ingredients, most especially the fish/seafood- and costly! I always bring my supplies back from Asia whenever I am there for a trip. This includes my Sake!
I’ve had Sake with pizza, steak and cheese grinders, pasta- yes bizarre- thanks to a Japanese friend back in University. He used to bring back numerous bottles of Sake when he went home to Japan for holidays. Being poor, uni students…we had what was in the fridge!
But since I have ‘grown up’ and my taste buds have moved from the University student’s classic fare, I’ve experimented cooking w/sake. I’ve used it in marinades, in stews, and even in salad dressings! Sake has numerous possibilities. It is up to you to discover it.

Peter Liem said...

You're right about the exoticism for the general public. I guess in the places I've lived in the US, real Japanese food has been so ubiquitous that I've taken it for granted. Regarding shelf life, sake should be as fresh as possible, for the most part (koshu, or deliberately aged sake, being an exception). Having said that, I've enjoyed some slightly older, mellower bottles, but storage needs to be impeccable, and even then I find aging to be unpredictable. Better to drink young. The US is full of excellent, reasonably-priced Japanese porcelain-ware, on the coasts, anyway. I have high hopes for the new Japanese Culinary Center in NYC, but we'll see.

That umami quality is exactly what makes sake so food-compatible, I find. But yes, "hints of porridge" is a good call—often my tasting notes include things like oatmeal, wheat, and other grainy things, along with a range of savory flavors that would make grüner veltliner envious.

You bring up good points—sake is certainly much less appreciated in Europe than it is in the US, and by extension, Japanese cuisine as well. The quality Japanese restaurants here in Europe do tend to be very expensive, and they focus mainly on sushi: the izakaya/Japanese pub food (the best food for sake) that is becoming more available in the US is virtually unknown here. And Japanese ingredients are expensive and often mediocre. Issé and Kioko in Paris have managed to keep me alive, though.

Samantha Dugan said...

I'm with everyone else with the reason, and I too had the same feeling about sake, until the store where I work started bringing in some of the good stuff...but it took a couple of years, and to be honest, it's still not my favorite. For me it's an acid thing, I find them to be quite soft and I am an acid freak.

I can tell you that we have seen a tremendous increase in sales, (mostly on the internets) in the past two years. We even made a joke, when things were deathly slow, that sake saved our lives, as it was the only thing selling in big volume there for a while.

The one place I will drink nothing but sake is when we hit up one of the tiny, "sticks" restaurants, small plates of salty, grilled foods and sake....perfect!

kevin said...

My mind turns to sake after the fall harvest... when the weather turns crisp, the air is filled with the scent of fires burning in the rice fields, and there is a pot of boiling water on the table for the first shabu shabu of the season. Because, good sake needs to be fresh. It should taste like water from a mountain spring. And, in my experience that means consuming within three months of production. Selling all your rose within twelve is hard enough. After that, it begins to loose aromatics, the mid-palette goes hollow and it takes on bitter notes.

Also, I'm not so sure it pairs well with western foods. Sake is subtle and it lacks the acidity to stand up to fatty fare. Fried mozzarella sticks... anyone?

kalimama said...

Hello all,

I just that I would jump in and add a few scribbles... As a sommelier, I have worked with sake for about six years. In the US, as we have already seen, there is a pretty decent selection of quality sake. I am now in Europe and it is a bit tricky - I have to go to London or Paris, or get my friends in the US to bring some back for me. Recently, I was in Japan and had some sent over. I have paired sake with non-Japanese food preparations, including dessert. I don't do it to offer something exotic - my philosophy is, as a sommelier being asked to offer a wine pairing, my job is to choose the best beverage (in my opinion) to dance with the course. Sometimes wine just doesn't work - for acidity, tannins and a whole host of other reasons. Sometimes beer works. And sometimes sake works. Recently we had a lovely dish of leeks with razor clams. There was absolutely no wine that could match the subtlety of the dish - everything was overpowering and the dish was lost. Where I work now, the desserts are never very sweet so it can sometimes be tricky to offer a wine with dessert. We have other beverages such as water-based distillates, but sometimes I use a slightly sweet sake. I have also used 30-yr old mirin.

As for "shelf life" of sake - try to buy it as fresh to bottling as possible. I am still confused on the shelf life after opening. Initially I thought it was like wine, but out of experience, I have found that it is quite a lot more stable than wine. In Japan, it is not uncommon to walk into a sake bar and be served a glass (or small serving carafe) of sake from a 1.8 litre bottle. These are left open until they are finished. Some move faster than others - but all sakes (at least where I went) were available by glass or to share. No one seemed to be worried about it and we tasted some amazing gems.

What I learned from my time in Japan is that I had to forget my "wine brain". Everything in the way I tasted, read, talked about sake prior to that trip was always with the perspective of "sommelier" or "wine person". Take that away and try to immerse myself in the culture and history of sake and try to approach it as I approached my first wines, and it completely opened my eyes.

As for sake reference - there is a lot of information "out there" but John Gauntner will always be my "go to" guy.

And Peter - meet you at Issé some time? It, along with Hermé, Aoki and Rasa Yoga, is an obligatory stop no matter how little time I have in Paris!

Hmmm... I'm feeling a little thirsty.... time to check my sake stock!

Peter Liem said...

I understand about the acid thing, but I live in Champagne—I have all the acid I could ever want and more. It's almost a relief to drink something that's both good AND low in acidity (because I'm not about to switch to merlot).

Water from a mountain spring is a good call. But I would disagree with the Western food pairing. Not all Western food is fatty, and not all fatty food needs high acidity. Subtlety, though, is an issue—sometimes western foods are simply too powerful.

Leeks with razor clams sounds like great sake food! Agree with many things: sakes last a little longer after opening than wine (but not that much); forget the "wine brain"; John Gauntner is the man. I'll see you at Issé...

Gabriel said...

I feel like I am one of the problems with sake's popularity in the U.S. because I am a retailer that does not yet get it. In the northwest there is a great selection, and I have tasted through many, but have a hard time yet assessing and accessing sake. Most customers only know the heated stuff, and it is often difficult to tell how fresh it is from the distributor. Also, it is always the last thing I taste at a wine tasting, making it extra difficult to assess.
I think there needs to be better education of and by the retailers and restaurateurs. I want to learn more, but it's admittedly not on the top of my pile.

Peter Liem said...

Education is undoubtedly lacking in most places, and I understand how it's not exactly your highest priority. I think that most people feel that way, even in the trade. Tasting sake is very different from tasting wine, and I'm still not sure how much crossover potential there really is. Sake seems destined to be a relatively niche item for a long time. At least in the NW you have plenty of access to the good stuff, if you ever want to explore.

Gabriel said...

If you have any suggestions, I'm all ears. I guess I would need the what and the how.

kalimama said...

Gabriel and Peter,

Agreed, education is lacking. I have to admit that I thought that I knew what I was talking about until I went to Japan. And then, it was like starting all over. That said any reference - online or in print - by John Gauntner rocks. BUT, also, for the first time this year, John is hosting his sake intro course (check out in North America - in NYC in July. In terms of people that actually work the market, I have never met anyone more knowledgeable than Marcus Pakiser, who is with Young's Columbia in Oregon. Not only has he worked as a brewmaster (in a US brewery), but he has worked with a brewery in Ibaraki (and continues to visit there every year), and speaks fluent Japanese.
Also, in terms of tasting, as I mentioned before, lose the wine brain. Taste it apart from wine.

Best of luck!


V. said...

I think the approach to pairing sake with food is almost the polar opposite of wine - with wine, if the flavours are complementary, great, but I'm as much looking to avoid dissonance.

With sake, I find it's greatest power is the ability to cleanse the palate, not to complement the flavours. Sake very rarely clashes with food, especially oily foods. O-toro is a good example, kurobota pork is another. Japanese pubs are not short on fried snacks to serve with sake either, I'm thinking of some crispy deep-fried chicken cartilage I had recently. I'd also argue that the stronger the flavour (for example, calves' liver sashimi or sea urchin roe), the better sake performs as a palate cleanser. It's like an invisible superpower.

If perceived acidity is the problem, you might simply be choosing sake that isn't dry enough. Look for sake with a higher sake meter value (SMV - a measure of residual sugar - often printed on the label), say +5 or more. I also highly recommend trying a namazake - unpasteurised - a great, great pairing with fried chicken.

A couple of other thoughts - John Gauntner, well worth taking his courses if you are in the U.S. or Japan. Somewhat tangentially related to taking his course, I got to participate in an amazing sake brewing "internship" just this past spring, spending a week working in a brewery outside of Osaka. I believe there was a Parisian who participated in the session previous to mine, and I think he's got a sake blog going, I think it is, not sure what additional insights he might have on the European sake scene.

Re: the wine-brain, I don't feel you need to lose it, and I don't believe sake tasting is all that different from wine tasting. What it requires is a bit of palate recalibration to sake's "quieter" profile.

The question of "how can the crossover between wine and sake happen" is a topic of conversation I've had with my sake+wine loving friends - I think fans of lean, mineral driven white wines are the easiest candidates for "sake conversion". Die-hard OTT red wine fans? Probably not so easy.

vinosseur said...

Hello Peter,

Yes, I have often asked the same question. I love sake. I spent three weeks in Tokyo last year and was in a different Sake pub almost every night. There are so many styles ranging from unfiltered to sparkling. Its extremely versatile going with foods ranging from Asian to simple finger foods.
I wish more people would appreciate this beverage and dispel the notion that it's just a hot alcoholic beverage you drink with sushi.

Anonymous said...

Upfront disclosure. I am a partner at Vine Connections in the U.S. We are national importer specialists in fine Argentine wine and Japanese sake (why these two is a tale for another time)--our web site is at We have been importing and selling Japanese sake across the U.S. since 2001 and from our original 12 states, we managed to convince distributors in 49 states to help alert Americans to this great drink (North Dakota still holding out, but...). There is no lack of people interested in sake, though true that it is still a small sliver of the food/wine interested population. There are signs, however, that sake is getting deeply embedded in the drinking psyche of Americans. We spent the first few years explaining that it was served cold, then the grades, and it comtinues to evolve into a conversation more akin to wine geekdom (regionality, brewing techniques, yeast selection, etc.). So at least in the U.S., we consider the guinomi half full as far as acceptance. The posts above address pretty well many of the possible reasons that it is not more widespread. I would wager that for Americans, perhaps our habit of drinking strongly flavored beverages (big reds, high-acid whites, oaky Chardonnay, Coca Cola) is keeping us from being "wowed" by the more subtle, lower-acid sake. The chefs I run into all the time say they love it because they find it a better match for their food, rather than something that "cleanses the palate" that they have worked so hard to make dirty with their fine flavors.

All we can do for not is continue to raise awareness and get Japanese sake into the mouths of anyone we have been able to ensnare in the topic. At least my experience shows that the rate of acceptance for people who taste it is very high.

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