Is Saké the Wine of the Future?
© Grif Frost

Saké Summit
The International Saké Institute will sponsor the first annual Saké Summit on Friday and Saturday, May 3-4, at the Rhiga Royal Hotel in New York City. For more information, click here, or go directly to the Institute's Website, http://www.sakes.com.

"Good saké is always served ice cold, mediocre saké can be served warm and bad saké should be boiled!"

This is a message I preach to Americans at over 100 saké seminars around the country each year, but I find that still most Americans have only tasted the lowest grade sickly sweet, hot saké typically served in Japanese restaurants, which is usually not a pleasant experience.

On the other hand, premium sakés, which are always served ice cold in a wine glass, to highlight their purity and freshness, are deliciously complex, sulfite free rice wines which are always an exceptionally enjoyable imbibing experience!

Once Americans have enjoyed premium saké, they never go back to the hot stuff! In fact, many Americans are beginning to make their wine of choice, premium rice wine better known as saké.

Sake is a 6,800-year-old beverage, originating in the Yangtze River Valley in China in 4800 B.C. In fact, experts suggest that nomadic man settled down to cultivate rice due to their desire to make and enjoy saké. In the 1960's, there was a technological revolution in the world of saké-making which led to the production of much higher quality saké that is actually damaged by heat.

These premium and ultra-premium sakés, known as "Ginjo" and "Daiginjo" sakés in Japan, are extremely smooth, subtly scented and a wonderfully complex new experience for the wine enthusiast's palate.

Riedel Crystal now makes a specialty wine glass for saké called a "Daiginjo Glass".

Saké naturally ferments to 21% alcohol, but is then diluted with water for a finish around 15% alcohol, a bit more than wine. Sake is made from specialty saké rice, which is polished down to anywhere between 35-70% of the original rice kernel's size. The rice is then steamed with a magical enzyme called "koji" which converts the starch in the rice to a sugar. The "koji rice" is then fermented, filtered, aged and then blended to create the specific saké profile desired. The entire process takes nine to twelve months.

Saké is a big business worldwide with about $30 billion in retail sales, versus $100 billion for the wine industry.

Amazingly, one out of three glasses of wine in the world is rice wine. In the United States, the ratio is one out of fifty glasses of wine is rice wine. But that ratio is changing quickly. Saké sales in the U.S. quadrupled in the 1990's reaching $240 million in retail sales in 2001. Saké sales are expected to continue this rapid growth in the U.S. due to two major trends.

The first trend is the growing influence of Asian cuisine. When people enjoy Asian influenced cuisine they naturally want to enjoy an Asian wine such as saké.

The second trend is the increasing awareness of the benefits of a healthy lifestyle. Saké, which pairs best with lightly prepared cuisine, such as vegetarian or seafood dishes, naturally enhances a healthy diet. Saké unlike wine, has no sulfites. Over 25% of all Americans perceive that they are allergic to sulfites, which makes saké, a sulfite free rice wine, their wine of choice. Saké also has only a third of the acidity of wine, so no sour stomachs. Finally, premium saké, compared to other alcoholic beverages, is virtually hang-over free due to its purity. At SakéOne we enjoy testing this claim daily!

Randy Caparoso, a professional food and wine writer who visited SakéOne's sakery wrote, "When I visited SakéOne in Spring 2000, one whiff of a slowly fermenting vat of premium saké---smelling, for all the world, like a giant bouquet of fresh, sweet honeydew, pineapple, passion-fruit, jasmine and vanilla beans---and I was definitely convinced that the new style of saké are both refined, complex and perhaps the wine of the future".

There are 1800 sakeries worldwide in countries as diverse as Brazil, Korea, Australia, Thailand, Japan, China and of course the United States. In the US, there are six sakeries, five Japanese owned and managed in California and one American owned sakery in Oregon.

Worldwide there are about 14,000 labels of saké, with about 350 available in the United States.

There are two broad categories of saké, distilled alcohol added (Honjozo) and distilled alcohol free saké (Junmai). In Japan, 84% of all sakés produced have distilled alcohol added since the distilled alcohol is much cheaper than saké rice. In the U.S., it is illegal to add distilled alcohol to saké, so all American made sakés are 100% pure.

Under the "Pure" (Junmai) category you have a variety of different qualities of saké. The highest quality is the ultra-premium sakés (Daiginjo), then the premium sakés (Ginjo) followed by the economy sakes (Futsu).

Each quality level of saké has different styles of saké. For example, one of the most popular styles of saké are the roughly filtered sakés (Nigori) which has a third of the rice still remaining in the saké. You need to shake the bottle of saké in order to blend the saké so that it looks like a saké milk shake when you pour it into your wine glass. This type of saké is wonderful with spicy foods such as barbeque ribs or Tex-Mex cuisine.

Another style of saké is the refined saké, which as the name suggests will be a very clear saké, free of any rice, which will look like a glass of fine white wine.

A style of saké which was invented in the United States by SakéOne (and which has the traditionalist sakemakers in an uproar in Japan) are the infused sakés, which have a fruity aroma more appealing to American consumers. Infusions such as Asian Pear, Citron, Ginger, Raspberry and Hazelnut are almost always more popular with the first time saké drinker compared to the more traditional sakés.

I believe that enjoying premium saké promotes a sense of harmony within oneself and with others---harmony which is certainly desirable in this complex world we live in.

But don't take my word for it, please organize a premium saké tasting party this week-end! Simply organize the saké tasting just like you would a wine tasting. Enjoy experimenting with different food and saké pairings---you will be amazed at the wide range of new and powerful flavor experiences you will enjoy.

Grif Frost is chairman of the International Saké Institute; founder of the only American owner sakery, SakéOne Corporation; and co-author of Saké Pure+Simple, best-selling saké book in English. For our readers, Grif has made available the 10-lesson E-mail Sakémaster Certification course for FREE. Simply contact Grif at griffrost@sakes.com for Lesson One.

April 17, 2002

Grif Frost's report on buying saké.

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