Although the first mention of saké production dates to the third century B.C., the rice-based beverage has been slow to gain broad appeal in the U.S. However, a slew of breweries have taken style cues from wine with the hopes of bringing saké mainstream.
Régis Camus, the former chef de cave at Piper-Heidsieck and current cellar master at the house’s prestigious Maison Rare Champagne, turned to Japan for Heavensake, a project he’s embraced as he nears retirement.
Unlike traditional saké that’s bottled by the batch, Camus calls upon his Champagne blending skills to calibrate an ideal balance from different batches of saké. To create Heavensake’s initial bottlings, Junmai Daiginjo and Junmai Ginjo, Camus works with two established breweries, Dassai and Urakasumi.
The line’s newest bottling, Heavensake 12, is made in collaboration with Konishi brewery. While most saké is 15% alcohol by volume (abv), Heavensake Junmai 12 comes in at 12% abv. Its soft texture and creamy mouthfeel make it reminiscent of a buttery Chardonnay.
Other breweries want their sakés to mirror the same joyful fizz associated with Champagne.
“I believe at the dining scene, a carbonated drink such as Champagne, sparkling wine [or] beer is a good starter drink because carbonation stimulates the stomach for eating, as well as [a] celebratory toast,” says Jiro Nagumo, president of Hakkaisan, based in the Niigata Prefecture. “I started to think, ‘Why don’t we create [a] saké version of the same drink?’ ”
The addition of sugar is forbidden in saké production. Hakkaisan’s toji, or head brewer, adds a moromi (mash), a mixture of rice koji, steamed rice and water, to finished saké. It creates a second fermentation in bottle.
“Unlike wine, saké can control sugar contents during fermentation,” says Nagumo. “Therefore, there is no need to add sugar to start second fermentation to create carbonation. Without adding sugar, strong gas can be created naturally.”
This sparkling saké, called Clear Sparkling AWA, is then disgorged like traditional Champagne, which results in mousse-like, tongue-teasing bubbles.
With Amabuki’s Gin No Kurenai, rosé season never has to end. This innovative brewery in the Saga Prefecture eschews traditional rice varieties. Instead, this saké is brewed with saga no hana, an organic black rice that provides a delicate pink color. It also skips commercial yeast strains in favor of flower yeasts, which offer floral and fruity characteristics common in pink-hued wines.
While many wines age in the bottle, most sakés develop minimally and need to be enjoyed within the first year. But at Yuho brewery in Ishikawa Prefecture, Miho Fujita, a former Tokyo marketing executive who returned home to take over her father’s brewery, ages her sakés in bottle before release, to develop character and complexity.
Her junmai spends one year in the bottle. She also crafts a kimoto junmai, an older, low-intervention method where lactic acid develops naturally in the moto (the fermentation starter). That ages for three years before release.
Like an aged white Rioja, her sakés display a golden tint and delectable tertiary aromas like bread pudding, hazelnuts and baked apple. Fujita, the brewery president, works alongside the toji, unusual in the saké industry, to create Yuho’s signature high-acid and umami-driven style.
“If people want to learn about saké, people shouldn’t come here,” she says. “It’s backwards from what you learn in a book. It’s more instinctive.”
Instinct also drove former sommelier Kazuki Usui, senior managing director of Senkin brewery, back to the family business. His education gave him an appreciation for the terroir-driven wines of Burgundy, as well as realization that his family’s saké “wasn’t very good,” he says. Usui returned home to revamp production with an eye toward wine qualities he had grown to appreciate.
Burgundy fans will applaud the singular approach he takes to rice selection. He focuses on local grains sourced from the brewery’s estate rice field and eight local farmers. He tries to limit the number of varieties used, much like how Burgundy producers focus on Chardonnay for white wines and Pinot Noir for reds.
“If [you] buy saké rice from far away, you don’t know who the farmer is,” Usui says.
That philosophy extends to yeast selection. Usui works with Delta yeast, developed in his prefecture, for his Classic and Modern sakés. Like Yuho, he wants to bring a higher level of acid to his sakés and prove they can stand up to any grand cru.