Why should you know about SakÃ©? Because in our contemporary marketplace, your potential customers are interested in a wide range of products. And regrading SakÃ©, there is an increasing interest in all of its styles. To say that SakÃ© is a beverage made from rice is as superficial as saying that wine is a beverage made from grapes. SakÃ© can be very complex, and you need to be familiar with the different types.
Many producers refer to SakÃ© as a ‘rice wine,’ but since it is brewed from rice, which is a grain, it is technically a beer. Much of the process is the same as with beer. An enzyme breaks down the starches into sugars, so that the same yeast that makes beer can also make SakÃ©. Where it differs from a beer, however, is that SakÃ© is colorless, clear, has no CO2 and no head, and also has a higher percentage of alcohol (12% to 20%). It certainly looks like a wine.
As with any product that can range from ordinary to premium, much depends on the amount that is discarded, versus the amount used. With SakÃ©, this is determined by the amount of polishing the long grain brown rice gets ‘ sometimes all the way down to the kernel. Premium SakÃ©s include Junmai SakÃ©s, made solely from soft water, rice, mold (the enzyme) and yeast, and Honjozo SakÃ©s, which may have 10% of the weight of the rice of alcoholic distillate added, to increase the alcohol content. Within those two premium qualities, Daiginjo has at least 50% of the grain polished away. Ginjo has 40% of the rice grain polished away. When the milling rate gets down to 30% or less removed, the SakÃ© is simply called either Honjozo or Junmai. The difference is that with Junmai, there is no minimum milling rate required, but whatever has been milled away must be printed on the label. These are all in the top tier. Another word to learn is Tokubetsu, which is a sub-category, and denotes ‘special.’ This can mean special attention to the brew, or the use of a special, or more highly milled, rice. Most SakÃ©s are clean and slightly fruity, with a range of sweetness from rice.
Three other words in this Japanese ‘vocabulary primer’ are: Taruzake, or ‘barrel’ in which SakÃ© spends a brief time, resulting in a cedar flavor; Koshu, or ‘aged’ (can be up to five years or more), which can have a more pronounced and pungent flavor; and Nigori, or ‘cloudy,’ which contains rice solids in suspension. The common misperception is that these SakÃ©s are unfiltered. According to Michael John Simkin, importer of MJS SakÃ© Selections in N.J., they are filtered, but then the ‘clouds’ of rice get through the screen of the press. Occasionally, 15% of unpressed liquid is added to SakÃ© that has been pressed. These SakÃ©s have become very popular in the U.S. ‘Silk’ is another word that turns up on the labels of premium SakÃ©s, to describe those with an elegant mouthfeel.
Peter Panayiotou, manager of Grand Wine and Liquor in Astoria, NY, www.grandwi.com , boasts over 200 different SakÃ©s, available on a lengthy 50-foot shelf in the front of the store, with prices ranging from $5.99 to $79.99. He is responding to his customers’ willingness to try new products, and new pairings for fusion cuisine. One of his biggest suppliers is Golden Eagle Trading Corp., www.GoldenEagleTrading.com . Aaron Shu, a sales rep, does staff training by holding tastings of about eight different qualities, discussing food choices and market preferences.
SakÃ©’s shelf life is at least six months, and can go to a year if stored in cool conditions. Your customers will appreciate learning that open bottles of SakÃ© can keep six months more in the refrigerator. Speaking of the refrigerator, most people are now drinking SakÃ© chilled, which may account for its newfound popularity. Michael Simkin suggests 60®º F for premium bottles. Fruity flavors (green apple or quince) are retained this way. Screw caps also contribute to their popularity.
Aside from the 1,200 breweries in Japan today, of which Gekkeikan is the largest, there are five in the U.S. that are produced by brewers from Japan, mostly in California. There is a large source of short grain rice in the Sacramento Valley. The biggest seller in the US is Sho Chiku Bai, which is well-priced, fresh, and also kosher, www.takarasake.com. The #1 Japanese brand is Kurosawa Kimoto. Miyanoyuki Junmai Daiginjo is a consistent medal winner. Snow Beauty is a popular Nigori, with hints of anise and fennel.
A good way to introduce your customers to SakÃ© would be with Sichi Hon Yari’s artisanal ‘Junmai,’ with its notes of citrus and melon, www.jotosake.com. A personal favorite of mine is the woody and slightly peppery Kiku Masamune Junmai Taruzake ‘ perfect for smoked fish and light meats. For an aged (Koshu) SakÃ©, try Ichishima, which has a slight tinge of color, a slightly nutty taste, and would be fine with rack of lamb or pungent cheeses. TY KU, whose liqueur has a SakÃ© base, has recently released a pair of superpremiun SakÃ©s: TY KU Junmai Ginjo, in a dramatic black bottle, and Junmai Daiginjo, in a companion white bottle. It’s Junmai Ginjo has notes of peach and spice, and is a good companion for grilled white meats. The Junmai Daiginjo, a big step up in price, is delicate and creamy, with hints of truffle and spice, www.trytyku.com. Said TY KU co-founder Trent Ulicny, ‘Even over the last two years that we have offered TY KU Premium SakÃ©, we have seen a tremendous growth in the category in terms of support and education in the off-premise sector. Most recently, Costco and Whole Foods have begun regional distribution of TY KU’s Junmai Ginjo and Junmai Daiginjo SakÃ©s, showing their increased belief in both the category and consumer awareness and desire.’
Be aware that Japanese SakÃ© bottle sizes do not match those of U.S. wine bottles, and are usually a few ml smaller. Further, do not disdain SakÃ© that comes in a can ‘ it is handy, and protected from light.
Altogether now, ‘kanpai!’ (which means, ‘To your health and prosperity!’)