Posted on | September 26, 2013
Written by | Richard Auffrey
This October 1st, raise an ochoko of saké and toast “Kanpai” as it is the 35th anniversary of Nihonshu no Hi, Saké Day. The date was partly chosen to coincide with the beginning of the saké brewing season. This is also a perfect time to introduce saké to your customers.
Selling saké is similar in some aspects to selling a more obscure or unusual wine style. The more you know, the better able you will be to sell it. This is just common sense. And, fortunately it is not as difficult to learn about it as you might think. Here are some points to get you up to speed on this wondrous, increasingly popular Japanese beverage.
1What It Is. Though often referred to as rice wine, most experts agree that saké is neither a wine nor a beer, and constitutes its own category. Saké is brewed more like a beer, but drinks more like a wine. Under U.S. law, saké is treated as both: For production and tax matters, it is classified as a beer but for labeling and advertising matters, it is classified as a wine.
2 Sake´vis a` vis Wine. How does saké compare to wine? First, saké is generally between 15% and 17% alcohol, which is higher than wine, but saké usually has lower acidity. Saké has about 400 flavor components, aromatic esters, compared to only about 200 for wine. Unlike wine, saké is generally free of any sulfites. A 5.5 ounce glass of saké has about 180-240 calories as opposed to 110-130 for wine. Saké, like wine, does not possess a singular taste but instead comes in a wide diversity of flavor profiles, including sweet, dry, bold, subtle, fruity, herbal, earthy, full-bodied, and more.
3 Base Saké. Nearly 75% of saké is futsu-shu, ordinary saké, which is often made from table rice, has various additives, and is the type you commonly see heated. It is generally cheap, simple and isn’t going to impress anyone. You will find customers who enjoy heated saké, and want cheap futsu-shu, and it is worth carrying a single brand for them.
4 The Good Stuff (It’s All in the Rice). Wine stores should concentrate instead on carrying premium saké, the top 25%. These are the sakés which will impress people, which can be complex, diverse and exciting. These are the sakés which will earn you repeat customers.
Just as finer wine starts with better grapes, premium saké begins with the better rice. There are approximately 100 different varieties of saké rice, which is larger than table rice, and the starch is more concentrated in the middle of the kernel. Quality depends on a large degree on how much the rice is milled, or polished, prior to production. Milling eliminates undesirable minerals, fat and proteins from the outer layers of the grain. Brewers want to reach the starches at the center of the kernel. The higher the milling rate, generally the higher the quality of the saké, and most premium saké has a minimum polishing rate.
Different from futsu-shu, premium saké may contain only four or five main ingredients, and no additives are permitted. There are six categories of premium saké, divided into two main styles, Junmai and Honjozo, and those two styles are primarily differentiated by the number of ingredients they contain.
5 Higher Quality Grades: Ginjo & Daiginjo. A Ginjo must have at least 40% of the rice grain milled away while a Daiginjo requires at least 50% to be milled away. A Ginjo tends to be lighter, more fragrant and complex while a Daiginjo is even more so. The higher the quality of the sake, the higher the price, so Daiginjo will be the most expensive type, commonly over $50 a bottle. However, there are exceptions, such as the Gekkeikan Horin Junmai Daignijo, which can be found for $35 per bottle. (One curious quirk is that a Honjozo Ginjo or Daiginjo does not have the term ‘Honjozo’ listed on its label as it would if it were a Junmai.)
6 How to Enjoy. One common preconception about saké must be corrected: Premium saké is usually best drunk slightly chilled, like white wine, rather than heated. Heating a Ginjo or Daiginjo saké could ruin its more delicate and subtle flavors. Though the traditional small saké cups, referred to as ochoko, are visually appealing, drinking premium saké out of a wine glass will best show its aromas and flavors.
7 Saké with Food. Another misperception is that saké only pairs well with Japanese food, and primarily sushi. In fact, saké is widely food-friendly due to its large amount of amino acids, more than any other type of alcohol. They give saké its strong umami flavor—that fifth taste which is often referred to as meaty or savory. Those amino acids also help saké mute the strong flavors of some food, such as gamey meats, fishy seafood or even vegetables like asparagus. Saké will work with Italian cuisine, grilled meats, Spanish tapas, spicy Thai and much more.
8 Selling Saké Stateside. Saké exports constitute only about 2% of Japanese production, but the U.S. is their most important market, accounting for about 25% of those exports. The years 2010 and 2011 were record years for the amount of saké imports here, a direct indicator that saké is growing in popularity; and now is the time to take advantage of that. Among the excellent artisan saké producers which export to the U.S.: Dassai, Manabito, Nanbu Bijin, Ichishima, Wakatake, Watari Bune, Dewatsuru, Kamoshibito, Okunomatsu and Yuki No Bosha. Ask your distributors about more than the technical stats of these sakes; seek out their stories, which can become a big selling point.
Saké packages can be beautiful but intimidating to consumers, especially due to the wide use of kanji (Japanese characters). Several brands, notably Momokawa and Ty-Ku, have developed distinctively non-traditional looks. Stocking them can help attract attention. Shelf talkers—with basic descriptions of saké type and flavor profile, maybe some food pairing suggestions—can also help reward curiosity.
Besides educating your customers about saké, and telling them the stories behind the breweries, let them taste! It can be an mind-opening experience and will lead to far more saké sales. At those tastings, be sure to have a little food as well, to show how it interacts with food. Saké and cheese is an excellent pairing and will surprise many.
9 Made in the USA? The first saké brewery in the U.S. was actually established in Honolulu over 100 years ago, and remained in business until 1988. More than a dozen saké breweries opened in California during the early 1900s but none of them lasted too long. It wasn’t until 1979, that new saké breweries started to open in California, the first ones being outposts of major Japanese breweries such as Ozeki, Gekkeikan, Takara and Yaegaki.
Currently, there are at least nine saké breweries in the U.S., including SakeOne in Oregon, Texas Saké Company in Texas, Moto-i in Minnesota, Blue Kudzu Saké in North Carolina, Blue Current Brewery in Maine and Oktopusake in Connecticut. The quality of U.S. made saké continues to improve, and it often provides a good value proposition—not to mention drink-local appeal. SakeOne, which is readily available across the country, produces a full line of sakés, including a couple organic ones, most retailing under $15.
10 Timing & Shelf Space. Saké does not possess a vintage, and usually is intended to be drunk within a year or so of the date it is released. (The tiny category of aged saké, Koshu, is the exception.) Store owners need to ensure that the saké they carry is not past its date, though that is not always easy to do. Saké should generally be kept where it is cool and dark, as heat and light are saké’s enemies. Once opened, saké will usually last at least a week, if not longer.