Say Hello to Sake, Japan’s Trendiest Cultural Export

The bottles sat side by side across the bar at Koi Asian Bistro in Bourbonnais, each wrapped in labels of Japanese characters and basic descriptions in English. The manager, doubling as my personal bartender on a slow afternoon, poured almost shot-sized samples into small, plastic cups. Three down and, if I’m up to the challenge, several to go.

“Want some more?” she asked.

This was my baptism by sake.

Forget karaoke and anime. Japan’s trendy cultural export to the U.S. today is best served chilled.


If sake has a Bordeaux or Tuscany, perhaps it’s Nada, a 20-square-mile slice of the port city of Kobe, Japan. Electronics giants Panasonic and Nintendo are both headquartered within an hour’s drive, but here TVs and video games take a back seat to breweries. No one knows the drink quite like Nada: Thanks to an ideal combination of ingredients, brewing techniques and location, the region accounts for more than a quarter of Japan’s sake production.

But sake is in a bit of trouble. Long the king of drinks in Japan, it’s in danger of being dethroned. Beer, available at vending machines for about $2, and a distilled liquor called shochu have passed it in terms of consumption, and the nation has focused on exporting it to make up for decreased interest at home.

Japan’s loss, however, has been America’s gain. The U.S. now accounts for about 35 percent of Japanese exports, and sales are up 25 percent in the last five years, according to data from Gomberg-Fredrikson’s annual wine market survey.

Sake’s rise in the U.S. has been helped by the increasing popularity of Japanese cuisine. The number of restaurants serving Japanese food has more than doubled from 2000 to 2010, according to the Japan External Trade Organization. And as Americans have embraced Japanese food, they have embraced sake.

Education and promotion by both Japanese manufacturers and American importers have played a role. So has a beauty queen. A new pageant in Japan now crowns a Miss Sake, and she even reigned over the 11th annual Joy of Sake event in New York, a one-night festival that celebrates the drink.

Now represented by grace and beauty, sake has piqued the curiosity of foodie nation.

“There’s no limit to learning about it,” said John Gauntner, author of the book “Sake Confidential.” “There are 1,200 breweries in Japan, and there’s such a wide range of styles. It’s just as interesting to study as wine. People are starting to realize that, and that’s why it’s continuing to grow.”


Sake (actually pronounced SAH-KEH in true Japanese) is brewed kind of like beer and can taste similar to wine, and yet it’s neither. It’s made from rice rather than barley or grapes and has an average alcohol content of 15-16 percent, which is slightly higher than most wines and two to three times higher than most beers.

Still, the adjectives used to describe sake are the same ones used to describe wine — sakes are dry, light, sweet, full-bodied, mellow, crisp, smooth — and consuming the drink can be simple. Yes, the industry is nuanced, and connoisseurs study the aroma, acidity and texture, as well as the effects of climate, terrain and brewing techniques. But a master’s degree in sake isn’t a prerequisite for enjoying it.

In fact, one of the beauties of sake is its accessibility. It’s not difficult to find, it pairs well with nearly all types of cuisine, and just a few pieces of information will earn you expert status in your social circles. Here’s one, for example: Because the core of rice kernels produces the best sake, the more the rice is polished (i.e. milled), the more the undesirable part of the rice is removed and the better the product.

This is the basis for how sake is graded, and a few simple guidelines will have you on your way to sommelier status.


Even with sake’s popularity on the rise, Asian restaurants like Koi sell more beer and wine than sake. In fact, owners James Zhang and Tina Li say they even serve more martinis than sake.

Still, restaurants like these can offer newcomers the best way to sample a variety of sakes. Koi, for example, offers about 10 different types, including a house sake that is served warm, an unfiltered nigori sake that has a cloudy appearance (more popular in the U.S. than Japan) and sparkling, carbonated sake. The restaurant has hosted two sake tastings and plans on doing more.

Other recommended sampling spots in the south suburbs include Yucca Asian Cuisine, which boasts a perfect Yelp rating (out of 89 reviews) and about 15 sakes, including several premium varieties. Mizu Sushi House has 4.5 stars on Yelp (out of 29 reviews) and offers premium sake as well. Both are located in Orland Park.

If you prefer to try sake at home, your local liquor store likely has at least a few types to choose from. A sampling of stores in Kankakee and Will counties turned up at least three varieties at each location. (Unlike wine, there is no universally accepted glassware for sake, so if you’re serving at home, wine, sherry and tumbler glasses are all perfectly acceptable. And while the label will often indicate ideal serving temperature, most premium sakes should be served slightly chilled, like white wine, at around 50-60 degrees.)

How do you know you’re buying a good sake? Or how do you avoid a mediocre one? Gauntner offers two simple suggestions: Let price be your guide, and if the word ginjo is on the label, it’s in the top 10 percent of all sake made. Simple, right?

“Some sake is a deal and some is overpriced,” Gauntner said, “but 90 percent of the time, you get what you pay for.”

Finally, whether at a restaurant or hosting at home, how do you pair food with sake? Sake rarely clashes with anything, and traditionally, pairing food with drink is less important in Japan than in the Western world. There are no hard-and-fast rules, like drink red wine with red meat and white wine with seafood. Feel free to drink sake with non-Asian cuisine, too. When serving vegetables, fish, chicken and pork, it’s hard to find a bad pairing.

In general, find common aromas and flavors, or ones that contrast nicely, but personal preference is more important than what’s written on the label. Ultimately, let your taste buds be your guide.

Sake pairings: Use your imagination

Recommendations from John Gauntner’s “Sake Confidential”:

  • Nigori, the cloudy, creamy sake served with spicy Thai
  • Namazake (or nama), a fresh, unpasteurized sake served with raw veggies
  • A rich, full-bodied junmai served with creamy pastas
  • A clean, simple ginjo served with white-fleshed sashimi
  • Yamahai, a richly flavored sake served with grilled lamb

 Looking for Japanese in Chicago?

While it perhaps doesn’t have quite the sushi reputation of New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, Chicago has no shortage of top-shelf Japanese dining options. Curated from a variety of sources, here are some of the best:

• Not a budget option, Japonais (River North – 600 W. Chicago) is sleek, chic and, according to this year’s Food Lover’s Guide to Chicago, a “sultry hot spot.” Features perhaps the city’s best Japanese fusion.

• The former owner of Japonais runs Mirai (Wicker Park – 2020 W. Division), which locals like for sushi, cocktails and its modern lounge.

• Sushi Dokku (823 W. Randolph – West Loop) was a Michelin Bib Gourmand winner this year, which is probably the only endorsement it needs.

• Highlighted by a number of travel and food guides, Arami (1829 W. Chicago – Ukrainian Village) was chosen as one of Bon Appétit’s top 10 new sushi restaurants in the U.S. when it opened two years ago.

• Simple and unassuming, Itto Sushi (2616 N. Halsted – Lincoln Park) claims to be the oldest Japanese restaurant in the city. Chicagoans who have lived in Japan claim it’s also the best.

Bombs away

Next time you have a reason to celebrate, order a sake bomb, and the bartender will pour a shot of sake and balance the full shot glass on chopsticks placed on top of a beer. Then, start pounding your fists on the table while your friends chant “sake, sake, sake!” until the shot falls into the beer.

Drink and enjoy. Then buy a round for those friends.

Wine, beer still king of imports

Yes, sake is growing in popularity in the U.S., but it has a long way to go to catch its grape and barley cousins.

According to U.S. Department of Agriculture data, the U.S. imported $5.3 billion worth of wine and $3.7 billion worth of beer in 2013.

At the same time, Japan’s sake exports to the U.S. in 2012 were about $30 million, according to Japan’s agriculture ministry data.

In other words, if you added U.S. wine and sake imports together, sake would make up less than 1 percent of the total.

This story was originally published in the November 2014 edition of Yes! Magazine. A PDF version can be found here.

Richard Nixon: ‘I Do Know Something About Wines’

“Sometimes, for an important state dinner, I’ll pick a wine,” Richard Nixon said. “I do know something about wines.”

From “The Food Lover’s Guide to Wine” by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg:

In the early 1970s, Richard Nixon is said to have his favorite French wines secretly poured for him at state dinners, in spite of White House policy of serving only American wines.

“Sometimes, for an important state dinner, I’ll pick a wine,” Nixon said to Time magazine in 1972. “I do know something about wines.”

5 Things Foreign To France

McDonald's prints a restaurant code on customers' receipts for access to the toilets — at least the ones in working order.
McDonald’s prints a restaurant code on customers’ receipts for access to the toilets — at least the ones in working order.

During my trip to France this month, I was reminded of the many things the French care little for. Here are five examples:

Automatic transmissions

In all my time in France, I’ve yet to ride in a vehicle that doesn’t have a manual transmission. I know automatics exist in France — you can rent one, for example — but I’ve never seen a French person drive one.

Window screens

They don’t exist. Get over it and enjoy the flies.

Complaining about gas prices

The French don’t partake in one of America’s favorite pastimes. Or maybe they do and I’ve just never heard them. I saw prices of more than $8/gallon but never heard one person blame the government or suggest gas stations are conspiring against them.

Free public restrooms

I paid $0.70 to an attendant to use the restroom in a train station outside of Paris. The restrooms in what I was told is the largest shopping center in Europe weren’t free, either. Even McDonald’s prints a restroom code on their receipts to give you access to their toilets.

Restroom privacy

Speaking of restrooms, doors are often situated so that, with the right angle and enough initiative, passers-by can often see you doing your business. Even in modern airports. There’s even less privacy in some restaurants and bars. I’ve seen urinals placed back-to-back with a sink shared by both men and women. Attention!

“9 Innings: The Anatomy Of A Baseball Game” by Dan Okrent

I first came across Dan Okrent in Ken Burns’ “Baseball” documentary (in which he’s brilliant) and again while reading about the history of fantasy baseball (he invented it).

He was also the best at chronicling the fall of Detroit, which now seems to be behind Time magazine’s paywall.

His 1985 book “9 innings” is a insider look at baseball through analyzing a single regular-season game between the Brewers and Orioles in June of 1982. The beauty, of course, is that he uses the seemingly random game as a platform to examine more macro baseball ideas: the amateur draft, scouting, labor relations, broadcast rights, journalism, team ownership, etc.

Also weaved in and out of the narrative is a long list of facts I either never knew or had once known and since forgotten. Also, some great anecdotes:

  • Paul Molitor played just 64 minor-league games — all in Class A — before debuting in the majors in 1978, when he was named the AL Rookie of the Year. (Robin Yount played the exact same number of minor-league games before becoming the Brewers’ starting shortstop at age 18.)
  • Luis Tiant once said that Milwaukee outfielder Gorman Thomas was so ugly he “could be anything in the jungle [he] wanted to be, but not the hunter.” (Proof.)
  • The Brewers’ iconic logo from the early 80s was chosen in a fan competition. The fans got that one right.
  • Hall of Famers Eddie Murray and Ozzie Smith were high school teammates.
  • In the attempt to lure a major-league team to Milwaukee, Bud Selig‘s ownership group convinced the White Sox to play 10 “home” games at Milwaukee County Stadium in 1968. (Selig eventually got his team when the group bought the Seattle Pilots in 1970.)
  • Baseball actually went 80 years without a major rule change, from the time the pitcher’s mound was moved 60 feet, 6 inches from the plate until the designated hitter was instituted in 1973.

The Brewers won the game and continued to win in 1982. They went on to advance to the World Series that year, where they lost to the Cardinals in seven games. As Okrent notes, the franchise fell off quickly from there (and actually didn’t advance to the playoffs again until 2008).

There was one move, however, that could have prevented that. At the 1981 winter meetings, Brewers general manager Harry Dalton declined a trade that would have sent 33-year-old starting pitcher Mike Caldwell to the Phillies for Ryne Sandberg, who at the time had just six major-league plate appearances under his belt.

Caldwell pitched just three more (sub-par) seasons while Sandberg, of course, won an MVP with the Chicago Cubs and has since been inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

A dozen seasons with Yount, Sandberg and Molitor in the infield would have likely changed the landscape of the American League.

Hey, Kris Bryant, When Are You Coming To Chicago?

Kris Bryant

Last night, at the Southern League All-Star Game in Chattanooga, after his team had finished its pregame team picture taking, much-heralded Chicago Cubs hitting prospect Kris Bryant walked along the field’s right-field brick wall, signing every autograph requested of him, except for those coming from the outstretched arms of obvious collectors.

While Bryant, 22, made his way down the line of those holding out baseballs, baseball cards and prospect guides, I jokingly asked him when he was coming to Chicago. After dominating Southern League pitching over the first half of the season — he leads the league in all three Triple Crown categories — Bryant and his promotion is something Cubs fans have been calling for.

Bryant laughed and answered, with a genuine tone, as if he was already tired of answering the question. “I don’t know,” he said.

Today, he was promoted to Triple-A Iowa. That’s one step closer to Chicago.


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