Most designated days celebrating a specific food or drink originated as a marketer's ploy. Not so with Sake Day. In Japan, the first day of October marks the official beginning of the sake brewing season — a tradition that dates back more than 1,000 years.
Outside of Japan, Oct. 1 has become the day to acknowledge the increasingly popular beverage — and perhaps discover a new kind of sake (blueberry sparkling, for one), a new way to drink it (sake is in many a bartender's tool kit), or go very traditional and taste the craft of the toji, or artisan brewer, in a rarefied and aromatic daiginjo sake.
Even after 1,000 years, there's still something new to learn about sake, and varying ways to taste the gluten-free, sulfite-free but definitely not alcohol-free beverage.
“Americans are drinking more and better sake,” sake expert John Gauntner declared at a seminar earlier this year at Yamashiro. Every year premium sake imports are up. “Sake is better than it ever has been,” he says — and definitely much more available, with broader distribution.
The restaurant industry's respect level is changing for the brew, which is essentially a byproduct of cooked fermented rice. “The wine world and sommeliers are taking it more seriously,” Gauntner says, and the popularity of Japanese restaurants in the United States, where most people are introduced to sake, is not waning.
Even for sake aficionados, immediately understanding a restaurant's sake offerings isn't a given because most labels, even those for export, are in Japanese. Urbansake.com's Timothy Sullivan has some suggestions. The New York City–based expert was in L.A. in late September to conduct a sake seminar sponsored by JETRO, the Japan External Trade Organization.
“If a sake on a restaurant menu is under $30 per bottle, chances are it was made in this country,” Sullivan explains. In fact, most sake consumed here is made stateside, predominantly in California. The Berkeley-made Sho Chiku Bai is the domestic best seller.
Imported sake tends to be more expensive. And on a menu, “The higher the price, the more refined, lighter, elegant, smoother you can expect the sake to be,” Sullivan says. Sakes that are more affordable tend to be more full-bodied and have a rice-ier flavor profile. He recommends ordering sake that has the word ginjo in the name (daiginjo or junmai ginjo, for instance) as ginjo sakes are in the top four categories of sake, meaning the rice was milled away at a higher percentage before brewing. (Catch up on sake knowledge via Top 5 Things to Know About Sake for International Sake Day.)
One restaurateur has simplified the decisionmaking process. At each of the 26 Nobu restaurants (whether on La Cienega Boulevard, in Malibu or Dubai) and in the guestroom mini-bars at Las Vegas' Nobu Hotel, Nobu Matsuhisa's own Nobu sake is the only brand available. Nobu met the brewer 26 years ago, and since then he has stocked the Hokusetsu Shuzo brewery exclusively. “I only use their sake all over the world; it is made to pair with my food,” Nobu says of the Sado Island brewery. Choices range from an ethereal, lightly filtered nigori to a 10-year aged sake.
But ultimately, the best way to learn more about sake it to taste what's out there. Upcoming at the Wine House on Oct. 20, the fifth annual sake festival will bring 12 craft sake breweries to Los Angeles. Taste and learn!
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