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.
SAKE’S RISE IN THE U.S.
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.”
WHAT IS SAKE?
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.
HOW TO FIND AND DRINK SAKE
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.
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.