A Big Change Just Hit the World of Sake. Here’s What You Need to Know
Earlier this month the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced a change in international policy that will change the way American consumers drink and buy sake.
From now on, in the U.S., “Japanese sake” will be protected under the Geographic Indicators laws—the same ones that say Champagne can come from only one region in France, and Parmigiano Reggiano can be labeled as such only if it comes from one specific area of Italy. In exchange, Japan will similarly recognize the terms “Tennessee Whiskey” and “Bourbon Whiskey.”
These distinctions are important because of whiskey’s popularity in Japan and sake’s increasing prevalence in the U.S. At the moment, an estimated 70 percent of the sake sold in the U.S. is made domestically, thanks to California-based producers such as Ozeki and Takara as well as newer, small-scale operators such as Dovetail, in Massachusetts, and Oregon’s SakeOne. But you may not know it, because all sake that’s sold in the U.S., whether it comes from Japan or not, has been labeled simply “sake”—until now.
A Transitional Moment
Naming aside, sake has been undergoing a change on both sides of the Pacific as brewers experiment with the rice-wine fermentation process to get a broader variety and depth of tastes.
It’s all about doing less to get more, says Beau Timken, owner of San Francisco-based True Sake, the first sake-only store in the U.S. when it opened in 2003. “They’re getting bolder, bigger, more prominent flavors, and more layers of flavor” by letting the sake do what it wants to do. For most breweries, that means pulling back on additions such as lactic acid and water and doing things the way their great-grandfathers did.
Producers such as Shiokawa, Born, and Dassai are creating richer, more complex sakes that add new layers of spice and textural interest to their sakes. Such venues as San Francisco’s Nara, New York’s Momosan Ramen & Sake, and Sosharu in London are offering chances to see a the new, wider range of today’s sake.
Premium sake—not the hot stuff served at your sushi takeout joint—is mostly junmai, pure rice sake, as opposed to honjozo, which includes a small amount of brewer’s alcohol to lighten the texture and the body, or futsushu, the mass-market value buys that make up nearly 80 percent of the market.
In the junmai category, taste can vary significantly as well, depending on how much the rice is milled. Straight junmai is the least milled and is typically earthy and full-bodied; daiginjo is the most milled and often floral and silky. Ginjo is somewhere between those two.
The Terms to Know
A label may not have words like “natural” or “no added alcohol,” but sake brewers like to let you know what they’re doing. So here are four terms, besides “Japanese sake,” to look for:
“It’s one of the oldest styles of sake,” says Toshio Ueno, vice president at the Sake School of America. It’s as close as you can get to unfiltered sake, hence its milky white color. Nigori sakes today are typically fruity, simple, and somewhat sweet and are more popular here than in Japan. Try the Kikusui Perfect Snow for a classic example, or if you want something with more pop, the Dassai 50 Junmai Daiginjo Sparkling Nigori ($20/360 ml) gives it a fun spin with bubbles.
Kimoto sakes rely on indigenous, airborne bacteria to create lactic acid, a preservative, rather than simply adding it directly; it was the normal practice until the 20th century. The Taiheizan Tenko Kimoto Junmai Daiginjo ($72/720 ml) is dry and fuller-bodied, with a yogurt-like tang from those acids—rare in sakes, which usually have only about one-third the acidity of wine.
Genshu sakes are stronger, as they aren’t diluted with water before bottling. “Only in the past 40 years did brewers start diluting sake to give it a different taste,” says Timken. The Cowboy Yamahai Ginjo Genshu ($30/720 ml) from Shiokawa combines that added heft with more pronounced acidity from the Yamahai process, which is similar to that of a Kimoto, described above. “This one is very appealing to red wine drinkers and is designed to go with meat, including beef.”
The Born Mokura Junmai Daiginjo Nama Genshu ($45/720 ml) can make its way to U.S. shelves only by the mercy of refrigerated shipping. Until a dozen years ago or so, Namazakes were available only at the brewery because they’re not pasteurized and thus don’t travel well. The upsides of the freshness include pleasant grassy and vegetal aromas. “Namazakes are more raw and alive,” says Eiji Mori, resident sake expert at the dining group behind Sushi Roku and Katana restaurants. Mori says the Born is fruity and rich, the latter owing in part to being Genshu as well and therefore higher in alcohol.
This aged sake style is tawny-colored and intense, with similar aromas found in madeira or oloroso sherry. It was highly prized in Japan until 1880, when the Meiji government started taxing sake in storage rather than when it was sold, which discouraged aging at the brewery. Daruma Masamune ($160/720 ml) ages its Koshu for 10 years; Natsuki Kikuya, founder of London’s Museum of Sake, describes it as soft and smooth, with aromas of spice, cedar, and nuts.