A decade ago Rick Smith was the associate publisher of Food & Wine, with the wine-loving credentials and biases to go with the job. The mention of sake conjured up unpleasant taste memories of a hot, jet-fuel-like liquid dispensed by machines in Japanese sushi joints: good for putting on a buzz, but not much else.
So when he was offered a taste of premium sake during an advertiser’s dinner at the then-hot new East Village restaurant Jewel Bako, Smith’s conditioned reflex was to decline. Curiosity prevailed, though, and he recalls, “I was astounded by how good it was.” A few months later, Smith met the woman who would become his wife, Hiroko Furukawa, and found they shared a passion for sake, food and cooking. Japan-born Furukawa, who moved to New York City in 1994 to attend Hunter College, had even written a paper on the growth in popularity of sake in the United States.
The two began taking detailed notes on their sake preferences and pairings and dreaming of opening a store. Before taking the plunge, though, Smith and Furukawa traveled and tasted widely in Japan. They also attended a professional certification course led by Tokyo-based expert John Gauntner, considered the world’s leading non-Japanese sake expert. The couple opened their East Ninth Street store, Sakaya, in December 2007, the third sake-only specialty shop in the country, after San Francisco’s True Sake and Seattle’s Saké Nomi. (A fourth, the Sake Shop, recently opened in Honolulu.)
In the States, many people know only the sweet, lower-grade sake, but what Smith and Furukawa discovered en route to becoming sake experts is that over the past 40 or so years, advances in brewing techniques have spawned a growing jizake, or independent, regional sake movement in Japan akin to the small-batch craft beer boom in the West. The “ginjo” (premium sake) era began when the first of that type emerged, far lighter and drier than the mass-produced product.
At Sakaya, Smith and Furukawa sing the gospel of premium sake seven days a week. The serene shop is a perfect pulpit: Created by restaurant designer Hiromi Tsuruta (Momofuku Ssäm Bar, Jewel Bako), it’s lined with cedar-plank shelves and a map of Japan, and stocks about 150 sake varieties from 30 of Japan’s 47 prefectures.
Henry Sidel, president of Joto Sake, a Manhattan-based artisanal sake-importing company, credits Smith and Furukawa with playing a large part in schooling New Yorkers in the secrets and subtle pleasures of sake. While the average vino drinker might know a little about how wine is made and what the broad categories are, he says, most Americans are blank slates when it comes to sake. Smith and Furukawa “spend a lot of time giving people the ‘101,’” Sidel says. “Sake is much easier to understand than wine,” he continues. “It comes from one country, has no vintages and it’s made to taste the same way the previous year’s batch was made.”
Still, for people who haven’t studied Japanese, sake bottle labels can be daunting, even when accompanied by English translations. Here’s a primer: Although premium sake, like wine, can range from sweet to bone dry, from earthy to fruity or floral; it is a drink that has more in common with beer. Like beer, it is brewed from fermented grains—in this case rice—a process that requires the specialized skills of a brewing master.There are two essential categories of premium sake: Junmai is brewed using rice, water and a yeast starter called koji, while honjōzo also includes a small amount of distilled alcohol to draw out flavors and aromas. Both types come in varying levels of refinement, measured by how much of the rice grain is left after the milling process. The less grain that remains, the more refined the sake.
New Yorker Tim Sullivan, the founder of UrbanSake.com who runs sake tasting seminars and restaurant-staff sake training sessions, says fine jizake sake and craft beer are both brewed to high standards in small batches with lots of attention to detail, but points out an important difference: “Artisanal sake is tied intrinsically to Japanese culture and history in a way that beer is not.” Many of the approximately 1,400 sake breweries in Japan have hundreds of years of history and are often run by the same family for generations.
Sakaya’s selections range in price from $7.99 for a 200ml can of a zingy, good-quality unpasteurized honjōzo to $179 for a special-occasion 720ml bottle of super-premium junmai daiginjo. Customer Rob Price, a jazz guitarist and Sakaya regular, says he usually spends between $30 and $40 for a 720ml bottle of sake, though his favorite is an $83 bottle of Ken Daiginjo. He says turning friends onto good sake is like introducing top-quality craft beer to people who have only tasted Budweiser.
Like parents who don’t play favorites with their children, Smith and Furukawa have a hard time coming up with their own personal “best” list. They mostly dine at home, and pair sake with whatever they’re cooking, whether Asian cuisine or Western standbys. Recent mouthwatering posts on the store’s Facebook page have included fried blowfish dredged in chickpea flour paired with Kiminoi Yamahai Junmai Ginjo, an orange-and-fennel-roasted cod that harmonizes perfectly with Zaku Junmai, and chili con carne with Chiyomusubi Tokubetsu Junmai.
But their knowledge goes far beyond how to drink the stuff. In the spring of 2009, Smith jumped at the opportunity to learn how to make it, too; he spent 10 days at Daimon Shuzo sake brewery outside Osaka, where he worked alongside brewery employees, or kurabito, who sleep in brewery dorms and work in shifts, and performed every part of production except bottling. Luxury agritourism it wasn’t. “It’s backbreaking work done at a very cold time of year [traditionally late October to late March], and involves a lot of carrying and shoveling,” says Smith. A particularly grueling task involved cleaning sake lees out of a huge hydraulic accordion press, which required a lot of bending, twisting and bagging. (Known as sake kasu, the lees are sold in grocery stores and used as a marinade, or to pickle fish or vegetables.)
But he also got to experience the most magical parts of the process—after being chilled to the bone in the other parts of the brewery, Smith loved working in the hot, humid, cedar-lined room where the koji starter is made. The crew works shirtless, turning and breaking up the rice before the master brewer seeds the steamed rice with koji-kin mold. “He creates this little cloud that very gently rains on the rice,” explains Smith. The entire experience was invaluable and deepened Smith’s understanding of the secrets and subtle pleasures of sake. “Every brewer does it a little differently, so it gives you a frame of reference, some sort of benchmark,” he says.
While sake has steadily gained cachet in the United States in the past decade, its popularity in Japan peaked in the early 1970s and has been on the wane since. Among the myriad reasons, says Smith, is that many young Japanese also have access to alcoholic beverages their parents didn’t, such as wine and the especially trendy shochu (distilled from sweet potatoes or barley and frequently mixed with fruit juice or used as the base for a highballlike mixed drink called chuhai). But reports of sake’s rising popularity in the West are having what Smith calls a boomerang effect that’s making it cooler in Japan. The Japanese media have covered Sakaya and other sake spots in the States, Paris and London, as well as the appearance of a few sake breweries in the States. Smith applauds American brewers’ interest and efforts, but so far he says the best of the best are still all made in Japan.
New Yorkers who are just discovering the drink include Asian ex-pats. On a recent afternoon, two young Japanese entered the store seeking an interesting bottle to take to an event at Columbia Business School. Smith says he’s noticed more Japanese customers coming in. “They’ll even say, ‘I’m Japanese, but I don’t really know much about sake, and my friends expect me to.’” Smith and Furukawa have conducted tasting events at NYU, gallery openings, Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall and at Japanese and American corporate events. He wants to boost sales, of course, but beyond his bottom line, seeks to win fine sake the reputation it deserves.
“There is a small universe of us who are really kind of fanatical [about sake],” says importer Sidel, “kind of like in Lord of the Rings—we’re all on this mission together.”
The community may be tight-knit, but it has few accreditation channels. According to Smith, the anointment of so-called “sake sommeliers” is less regulated than in the wine world. “There are a lot of people who just go around calling themselves sake sommeliers because they took a course, or studied on their own,” he says. “There’s no really strong leading authority.” Gauntner, the Tokyo-based expert, is trying to remedy this by forming an accreditation body called the Sake Education Council, an alternative to the one other organization in the field, the Sake Service Institute, a for-profit company that historically has promoted certain brands over others.
When they do go out for sake, Smith and Furukawa’s tastes range from the polish of the Midtown sake bar Sakagura to its sister establishment, the izakaya (Japanese drinking and snacking establishment) Decibel in the East Village. The city’s izakaya, they lament, tend to run to either overly formal, requiring reservations and catering to Japanese businessmen, or to youthful grunge, a category they don’t fit into, either. Articulating what one can only dream might become the couple’s next venture, Smith confides, “Our big hope is that somebody will open something in between, an izakayathat’s more like a casual wine bar.”
Photo credit: Elizabeth Leitzell