How New York’s Sake Scene Got Serious

How the city went from offering a small handful of mass-produced labels to the approximately 800 types that are now available is a story unto itself.

Whether you find it amid the rustic glow of a sake bar Shigure in TriBeCa, in the red velvet embrace of the Meatpacking District’s Cherry or behind the convivial 12-seat bar at Sushi Tsushima in Midtown East, jizake, small-batch artisanal sake, is suddenly everywhere.

You can taste brash, lively unpasteurized sake in the West Village at En Japanese Brasserie, a bottle brewed from a revived varietal of heirloom rice at the East Village sake specialty shop Sakaya or, at 15 East near Union Square, sip a blend of four different aged sakes.

How the city went from offering a small handful of mass-produced labels like Gekkeikan and Shochikubai, served okan style, or (sometimes scalding) hot, to the approximately 800 types that Keita Akaboshi, national sales manager for importer Kuramoto U.S., Inc., estimates are now available, is a story unto itself.

By all accounts New York’s sake awakening began when a fearless young Japanese entrepreneur name Bon Yagi opened Hasaki in the East Village in 1984. There was no such thing as refrigerated sake in New York at the time, and what was on offer, mostly at sushi bars, lacked the distinctive qualities that sake connoisseurs seek: the flavor and aroma imparted by yeast and rice varietal; differences in body, texture and acidity; and the talent of the individual toji, or master brewer, who created the sake.

In other words, there wasn’t much sake in New York, and what was here was mass-produced and mediocre.

Then one day in 1992 Yagi’s brother brought him a bottle of sake brewed in the mountainous prefecture of Niigata, famous in Japan for, among other things, its high-quality rice, pure water and many ancient sake breweries.

“I drank it and said, ‘Oh my goodness, this is the future for New York,’” Yagi recalls. For the first time, he felt able to offer a sake that could go head to head with wine.

In the late ’80s Yagi had opened a whiskey bar called Decibel, also in the East Village, pouring from then-novel dispensers that measured out single shots from an upside-down bottle. But sake was in his family’s blood. For generations they had been both sake and soy sauce brewers in Chiba Prefecture. So in 1993, sake epiphany fresh in his mind, he transformed Decibel into an underground sake bar and began stocking every quality bottle he could get his hands on. He carefully monitored the freshness, saying sakes are perishable and “delicate like wine.” He offered tasting flights and educated his customers on the differences between the 40 or so sakes on his list. Patrons, mostly Japanese, drank it up.

Three years later Yagi unveiled Sakagura, a Midtown East basement sake bar designed to evoke a speakeasy vibe and cater to expat Japanese longing for a taste of their native prefecture. Yagi chose the location to be near the Manhattan hub of Japanese business activity and because Japanese consulate employees told him they wouldn’t travel to a “dangerous place” like the East Village. His sake library numbered about 100 bottles and has since grown to 250, the largest in the city.

Yagi’s two establishments marked the start of the brewed beverage’s remarkable growth in popularity in New York. Yet while sake was trending on our shores, it was plummeting in popularity on its native soil. Sake fell from its peak era of consumption in Japan — in 1975, when 1.7 kilo-liters (over 400 million gallons) were imbibed — to less than 600 kiloliters (160,000 gallons) in 2010. By then it was considered an old man’s drink: cheap, undistinguished and far from sexy.

Instead of sake — especially when Japan was flying high in the late 1980s, riding the arc of a frenzied economic bubble — affluent young Japanese went crazy for wine, impatiently awaiting the arrival of the first Beaujolais nouveau of the season and, recalls Akaboshi, who is also a wine and sake sommelier, drinking it in sometimes palate-punishing pairings (red wine, raw tuna).

Little did New York sake fans know, during those early days of Decibel, that their embrace of sake was a small shot in the arm to an ailing Japanese tradition. As Hiroshi Sakurai, president of Asahi Shuzo, maker of the wildly successful Dassai junmai daiginjo, has said, “Unless we can sell globally, there is no future for sake.”

Luckily for sake makers, sushi was all the rage in America’s trend-conscious capitals, and adventurous diners discovered that sake could greatly enhance the experience of eating their raw fish on rice. Sushi and sake, after all, shared a common grain — they were built for each other.

Thanks to passionate sake lovers like Yagi, New Yorkers began to appreciate that the premium bottles they were sampling represented a time-honored tradition. (Sudo Honke brewery in Ibaraki Prefecture, for example, was founded in 1411, and the current president is the 55th generation to head up the business.)

Sommelier Roger Dagorn, who arrived at TriBeCa’s Chanterelle restaurant in 1993, recalls attending a tasting of high-end jizakes about two years later. He loved the ginjo and daiginjo sakes, and noticed that with most of the proteins and lipids washed away, the sakes “didn’t have that starchy rice quality on the nose” that those of lesser quality might. He was intrigued by the more floral characteristics that emerged, reminiscent of certain grape varietals.

In the late ’90s Dagorn begin designing entire sake-pairing dinners that mirrored the winemaker dinners he was doing at the time. Marrying French food with Japanese sake was not only unusual for New York, it would have been unheard of in Japan.

One of Dagorn’s favorite pairings: steamed stuffed zucchini blossoms with a mousseline of lobster and shrimp served with a lemongrass butter sauce paired with the clementine-and-peach-scented Tsukasa Botan junmai daiginjo, a type of drip-pressed genshu, or undiluted sake. For red meat, he favored a rich, dry, unpasteurized Narutotai ginjo.

Interest in the sake dinners was so great that Dagorn and chef-owner David Waltuck created 11 of them over the years.

Sake sommelier and consultant Chris Johnson, who created the sake list at Cherry in the Meatpacking District and its scruffier Williamsburg cousin, Cherry Izakaya, returned from teaching English in Japan in 1996, the same year that Sakagura opened. He remembers the era as an exciting time when New Yorkers began embracing quality sake. Importer Japan Prestige Sake Association had started introducing serious sakes; a young woman from Hyogo Prefecture named Hiromi Iuchi began importing premium sakes in 1997, and another important player, World Sake Imports, was launched by Hawaii-based Chris Pearce in 1998.

Johnson’s followed the trends since then: saketinis, sparkling sake, frat-house-type “sake bombs” that involve dropping a shot of sake into a beer and chugging it (the latter can make professionals a little “tense in the shoulders,” he confesses), but in the years since he returned to New York, he’s seen a gratifying growth in both the number of premium sakes available here, and the level of interest and expertise among customers.

Those who grow to know and love sake, explains sake bar Shigure manager Takahiro Okada, learn that the complexity and natural sweetness that rice imparts to sake, even to very dry sake, can mean that it doesn’t go well with everything. But a spot-on pairing, whether with cheese or the many dashi-based dishes at Shigure, can be a revelatory experience.

While most American wine drinkers ask for a dry sake, Okada points out that “90 percent of sakes on the market are dry, especially their aftertaste.” His response is to ask whether the customer would like a light or full-bodied, rich sake. For wine lovers, he’ll offer a fragrant sake, light bodied with a dry finish, such as a Mizubasho daiginjo from Gunma Prefecture.

Johnson, a fan of natural wines, touts sake’s pure nature, which attracts wine drinkers with similar tastes: “It has no preservatives, no sulfites, no histamines, no congeners [a by-product of fermentation that can cause hangovers], no gluten and is low in acid,” he explains.

Many of the sakes showing up in New York are extreme small-batch varieties. Importer Henry Sidel, president of Joto Sake, says, “In America and in the wine world, when we think of a small winery, we think of them doing 30,000 to 50,000 cases a year. In Japan, we buy sake from people making 10,000 cases a year. These are like micro-micro breweries,” which survive, he adds, by virtue of an intense level of labor, care and attention.

Akaboshi, the sommelier and sake sales manager, says that the 20 breweries his company represents each produce on average 7,500 cases a year, and the smallest, Harada brewery in Gifu Prefecture, produces fewer than 850, a tiny drop in the bucket by winery standards.

Now beverage director at 15 East and Toqueville, Roger Dagorn has built an 80-bottle list at the former, and holds blow-out sake pairing dinners at the latter. The trend in sake Dagorn sees is that “people are looking more for quality.”

They’re in luck: In 2005, Sidel opened Joto Sake, becoming the sole sake importer in New York state and the only importer in the country to specialize in just sake. Two years later, Rick Smith and Hiroko Furukawa opened the East Village’s Sakaya, the only premium sake and shochu shop east of the Rockies — the West Coast, with its larger Asian-American population and closer proximity to Japan, was ahead of us on this count — carrying approximately 140 bottles. The store offers top-shelf sakes from every region in Japan, a sight unthinkable 25 years ago.

Among the city’s sake sommeliers, Akaboshi is Dagorn’s younger Japanese counterpart when it comes to advocating for pairing sake with Western food. Drop by Sushi Tsushima’s sake bar on a Thursday or Friday when he’s there, and he’ll dazzle you with his favorite pairings, which he lays out on the bar like card tricks.

There’s the shock of discovering that Valdeon Spanish blue cheese pairs beautifully with the acidity and umami of an unpasteurized Aiyu Shiboritate junmai, or that Greek honey yogurt was destined to find its mate in the lychee and white peach notes of the Madoka honjozo (a bit of added distilled alcohol smoothes its edges).

In addition to selecting the 70 bottles at Tsushima, Akaboshi has created a well-rounded sake list for Midtown’s Empire Steak House. He loves a simply grilled steak with an earthy yamahai junmai, served either warm or cold, and is such a believer in pairing sake with Western foods, in fact, that next year he plans to open an Italian restaurant in Tokyo that will feature sake, cheese and Italian food.

“Spaghetti and sake is very good,” he says.

Takahiro Okada, manager of Shigure, is a veteran bartender who’s poured sake at Decibel, Sakagura and at a second-wave arrival on the scene, En Japanese Brasserie in TriBeCa, which opened in 2004. He opened the TriBeCa izakaya in 2013, featuring a well-selected list of 40 to 50 sakes.

“Fifteen years ago,” he says, “nobody wanted a $20 glass of sake. Now that’s not that difficult to sell.”

Among his own customers, Sakaya’s Rick Smith notices more people getting into nigorizakes (cloudy with flecks of unfermented rice solids) and unpasteurized namazakes.

“Although it’s not something we push too much,” he says, there’s also a steadily growing in- terest in sparkling sakes, “an easy point of entry for people who haven’t tried sake before.”

Namazakes, says Okada, are appealing for their fresher taste and good for beginner sake drinkers because “they taste like draft beer, are easy to understand and tasty.”

At En Japanese Brasserie, general manager Michelle Hand says, “Every spring we get excited about the namas when they come out.” Tasting this year’s Masumi Arabashiri junmai ginjo (arabashiri is first-drip, rough-around-the-edges sake that runs through cotton filters before the pressing process), for example, is part of the fun.

As with wine, many sakes today are made for consistency. Namazakes are appealing because they vary, says Hand: “Every year it’s different, it’s super fresh and it’s kind of like you never know what to expect.”

Japanese chef Shinji Mizutani of 1 or 8 in Williamsburg recommends not drinking unpasteurized sake with food, especially fish, because it’s too heavy. At 1 or 8, he likes to offer a small taste of namazake before the meal. He’s placed a dozen sakes in three different sizes on his menu starting with two-ounce pours, which encourages diners to mix, match and learn.

Another trend among Japanese sake makers, explains Okada, is a growing interest in that prized winemaking element: terroir, the characteristics expressed by the soil, climate and topography of a specific region. In Japan, it’s not uncommon for sake makers to use rice grown in different prefectures, and certain varieties have traditionally been favored for sake, such as Yamada Nishiki, grown mostly in Hyogo Prefecture but shipped to sake brewers all over the country. While many praise it as the best, most delicate, rice for sake and Okada enjoys it as well, he acknowledges it “is kind of like white bread,” and he’s happy to see regional varieties emerging.

Some breweries have started growing their own organic rice and certain prefectures have started making regional sake using only locally grown rice, like Niigata’s Koshitanrei, which produces a bright, clean yet rich sake, or Yamagata’s Dewasansan, used to make a sake called Dewa 33, which Okada describes as having a “soft touch and lively long finish.” The latter is made not only with local rice, but also local yeast and proprietary mold from Yamagata, used to innoculate the rice.

And just as in America, where heirloom produce and grains have become increasingly prized, some sake makers have hunted down Japan’s lost varietals. In Ibaraki Prefecture, Huchu Homare Brewery owner Takaaki Yamauchi discovered 14 grams of Watari Bune, a local, defunct rice seed, and with a team of farmers began growing it. After six years of experimentation, his Watari Bune junmai daiginjo won a gold medal at the Japanese National Sake Competition. It’s become a cult favorite in Japan, says its importer, Henry Sidel, and sparked “incredible interest in re-cultivating old rice strains.”

To Johnson, what’s exciting is that the sakes available in New York keep getting better and better. When sparkling sakes were first introduced, for example, they tended to be on the far side of sweet. Just recently, though, one of his suppliers brought him a brut rosé sake that was so good that he might just replace the cava rosado on the menu at Cherry Izakaya with it. “I can offer this to almost anybody and they’re going to like it better than a Champagne or a prosecco,” he says. “That’s a statement.”

Photo credit: Eric Medsker

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Nancy Matsumoto is a freelance journalist who writes about health, food, arts and culture. Her advice to other food-loving parents: Think twice before you introduce your 12-year-old to Kobe beef burgers. Photo Credit: Jennifer Rowsom