Rick Smith fell in love with premium saké one night at a party. A longtime wine lover, he was amazed to discover the range of aromatics and flavors in what he’d previously dismissed as jet fuel. It was his first step on the tipsy path of discovery that led him and his partner Hiroko Furukawa to open Sakaya, New York City’s first saké specialty store, last year.
Smith isn’t the only saké convert. Once reviled as the cheap, alcoholic accompaniment to sushi, the Japanese beverage is fast gaining an international reputation. Exports spiked between 2006 and 2007 and rose to a new high of 12,151 Kk in 2008. The U.S. leads the world in saké imports, followed by Taiwan. The U.K., where sales have doubled in the last two years, represents the biggest emerging market, but a significant following is growing places like Amsterdam, Berlin, Stockholm, and Beijing.
Today’s saké drinkers run the demographic gamut—from well-traveled businesspeople and retirees to young urban hipsters. Many come from a wine background. Sommelier exams in the US now include saké questions, and in Europe, where all things Japanese have a trendy cachet, young sommeliers are leading the way, according to Swedish saké importer Ake Nordgren.
Nordgren, whose saké business has seen yearly sales increases of 75-100% since 2003, cites sake’s pairing potential as one of its advantages: "Wine keeps getting bolder and doesn’t really match the food well all the time, while saké invites the flavors of food to linger."
Although saké owes much of its success to the rise of Japanese cuisine abroad, high profile restaurants like WD-50 in New York and the Fat Duck in the UK now feature saké on their menus in unconventional pairings.
Thanks in part to the purported health benefits of Japanese food, premium saké’s image of purity has also bolstered its popularity.
"Consumers are looking for real, sustainable, natural, healthy products," says Chicago-based distributor Andy Pates of Cream Wines. "We’re seeing lots of growth and opportunity in upscale natural grocery stores such as Whole Foods."
Saké sales are still far from those of wine and beer, but Pates and other industry professionals feel confident that the market share will continue to increase as consumers gain more knowledge.
Rick Smith puts a finer point on it: "Saké is where wine was in the US twenty years ago. People are just beginning to discover the pleasures of it and are eager to learn more."
Top Places to Buy and Sip Saké Around the World
Saké lovers are spoiled for choice, with more places than ever before to buy and drink premium saké. It all began in 2003, when America’s first saké store, True Saké, opened in San Francisco. The trend has since taken off in New York and is spreading across the country and beyond.
Raw Sake and Sushi Lounge
Akaoni (2-15-3 Sangenjaya; 81.3.3410.9918)
Shusaron (4-10-18 Takanawa, Wing Takanawa West 2F; 81 3.5449.4455)
Want to sip saké at the source? These breweries near Tokyo and Kyoto welcome visitors to tour, taste, and more. Reservations are necessary.
· You can view the brewing tanks at Fujioka Shuzo behind the bar of this boutique brewery.
· Serious about taking the saké plunge? Apply for the Mukune International Saké Brewing Internship at Daimon Shuzo.
For personalized brewery tours around Tokyo and other parts of Japan, contact bilingual guide Etsuko Nakamura.