Sake Moment - The Ten Truths About Sake
I don't know what it is - perhaps the advanced stages of altitude sickness - but I do some of my best (and worst) thinking when flying 40,000 feet in silver cigar tubes known as commercial airliners. My brain soars and if lucky I can have a profound thought or two. These thoughts double or triple if I am in business class, but rest assured I am rarely in the land of wide seats and flight attendants who smile and giggle with you.
In Mid-September I was on a flight back to San Francisco from Germany when I started doing some thinking. I was smashed-packed in the caboose - in the middle seat of the middle row - when I felt the "thought wave" coming. I had a pen but no paper, and when I reached for the puke bag suddenly I felt more room around me. Barf bags are not round, which would make more sense, rather they are rectangular. And if one were looking for a piece of this rectangle to write on (think, think, think of all of those geometry classes that you took so long ago) you would deconstruct the bag into two writing surfaces. Which I did - to the sighs of the folks around me.
I do not know what possessed me - again please refer to the advanced stages of altitude sickness - but I wrote the following title on one of the two sheets of "air sickness" bags:
THE TEN TRUTHS ABOUT SAKE IN THE WEST
- WE ARE NOW SERIOUS!I for some Bill Clinton-like reason always look for validation and love from others when it comes to the "respect" value of sake. I dunno why! But I feel as if I have a chip on my shoulder about getting sake its due! For lack of a better word I want "respect" for this sacred and soulful beverage. In this regard, I am here (at 40,000 feet) to tell you that sake is no longer a "novelty" or worse yet - a fad.
Sake has entered into a new stage of its "overseas" life cycle that can best be described as "serious." There are enough educators, restaurateurs, bar tenders, importers, distributors and merchants out there pushing enough rice juice that we have moved up from just being a curiosity to being a sought after libation that has a "serious" following. As I like to say - sake is not the Macarena (dance) or the cigar bar - it is a legitimate alcoholic beverage that has carved out a "serious" niche that has raised some eyebrows in Japan. We are serious!
- QUALITY COUNTS!When I opened True Sake five years ago it is safe to say folks didn't know good sake from bad. They knew putrid sake! They knew steaming hot yuk-brew! They knew little jugs of over-heated rice- based rubbing alcohol. But they didn't really know bad sake. And when I say "bad" I say that in all of my snobbishness possible. Quite frankly our basis was so low that almost every sake tasted better than what we had before. As we tasted more, the more the sakes tasted better. And so on and so on and so on.
I didn't get a returned sake to the store until year #3! Meaning even if a bottle was off (and that does happen on occasion) people still accepted it as good. Why? Because we didn't know better. Well, it is safe to say, that today we do know better. And consumers can now discern between good sake, okay sake, average sake and of course bad sake. The good news is that the quality of sake coming to the West is outstanding. We are truly blessed to be exposed to a majority of the most prized and quality sakes in Japan. It's not like they export the garbage. Our benchmark for quality is very high, and the result is that most new sake drinkers have no clue as to what bad or inferior sake tastes like. Exported sake is quality personified. Thank God
- SUPPORT THE MARKET!The sake industry in Japan is still not doing well at all. There is a very large vacuum in the sake drinking market between the vast majority of drinkers - males over the age of 40 - and the new generation of drinkers. The void is not being filled. Coupled with the multitude of other alcoholic beverages out there and soon brewers will have nobody drinking their products. As I wrote on my barf bag "if you like sake then drink it, because the Japanese are not."
I have a strong feeling in my bones that the "export market" will stimulate the industry long enough and substantially enough to keep the brewers going until they find love once again in Japan. Granted we represent - in some cases - only 1% of sales for a larger brewery. That said some breweries see up to 60% of their sales coming from abroad. So keep doing your part and support the greatest industry on earth - drink more sake. (Responsibly)
- DEMAND BETTER LOCALLY MADE PRODUCT!If we are ever to get "$2 Chuck" in the US it won't come from Japan. The costs of exporting are too inflated to ever bring the price of sake down to levels on par with what they pay in Japan. It won't happen. In this regard, if we ever want "local" prices as in "local" to Japan we need our domestic producers to raise their quality bar even higher than it is now.
The brewers in California, Oregon and elsewhere need to pull closer in quality to their counterparts in Japan. They have a hard task at hand to make even better quality sake at lower prices. But they will do what the market demands. That said - as drinkers we must be more discerning! If we accept sake in a massive box then we get what we deserve.
- THERE IS LIFE BEYOND SUSHI!Again - as I have said countless times - nine out of ten times people's first sip of sake occurs in a sushi restaurant. And where there used to be 1 sushi restaurant every ten blocks, now there are 2 sushi restaurants on every block. More sushi = More sake. People are exposed to more sake at these Japanese restaurants than any other eating establishments and for that I am grateful. But the time to divest sake from sushi is at hand. Sake need not the confines of a sushi counter, in fact sake goes better with non-sushi cuisine. Is that irony? Me thinks so.
In this regard, as you are an "advanced" sake drinker it is up to you to start traveling with bottle in hand to your favorite non- sushi restaurants (is there such a thing?). Or start demanding that other "themed" restaurants that serve wine offer at least one sake on their wine menu. If it comes from the sea sake goes with it. If it comes off the grill it goes with sake. If it comes from the ground sake wants to go with it. Plain and simple - it's time to get sake out of the prison known as Spicey-Tuna-Roll.
- SMACK THY SOMMELIER!Along the lines of #5 there is a group out there that is resisting the sake "movement" to legitimacy. Of course I speak of the sommelier set. These o' wise and profound few have purposely ignored sake, or have painted sake into a "fad" corner for a reason. Ahhhh! And what may that reason be? Ignorance my dear fellow - ignorance! Why speak about something that you do not know? Sommeliers are part illusionists and part entertainment directors and their job is to make you feel not so goofy about paying $95 for a split of Oregonian Pinot Noir. As such - they speak to what they know! No know - no speaky!
The faster we bring the wine-juice snake oil salesmen on-board the faster we shall see sake on many wine menus. As they represent boots on the floor - they command a front-line exposure to customers and would be the perfect cadre of folks to be preaching the gospel as per sake and food pairings. So smack your local sommelier and tell them to bone-up on sake, so that you may enjoy an earthy Junmai to accompany your mushroom risotto. (you can start by recommending that they buy my book (LINK)
- GAUGE THY GRAPE!Let's talk about "sake equality." I mean it's all about equality right? Equal rights! Is sake treated equally? I dare you to order a sake and a glass of wine at a restaurant. (More than likely this will be a sushi restaurant - see #5) The wine will appear as a five ounce pour and the sake will come in around three ounces in a shot glass or a small fluted vessel. The price will be about the same. Quantity versus quality? I think not! This small pour is fueled by the concept that sake MUST be served in a small glass, which is great news for restaurants and bars, but a bummer for us.
Although sake and beer have more in common for storage and freshness factors, wine and sake are more thought of in terms of being similar beasts. Anybody ever hear about the "Wine of Japan." So if sake is being thought of as wine, then why the short change in pours?
- KNOW THINE ENEMYThe Corleone Family in the Godfather had it right - keep your friends close, but your enemies closer. Let's not kid ourselves - wine is sake's enemy! "We" are totally different and completely thought of as "in different ball parks." Most see sake as a hard alcohol similar to vodka or gin. I like the separation. I like the niche-ness of sake! It's our domain and I do not want any similarities or "likenesses." That said I compare sake to wine! "If you like this style of wine, you will "naturally" like this type of sake" etc. If you have a wine vernacular then use it on sake, the nose, the body, the impact.
I want to use the wine world, because the wine world is "safe" to many. And if these "un-brave" masses need a wine-walking stick to "get into sake" then so be it. I believe the term is "by hook or by crook" and that includes being in bed with our natural enemy - grape wine. But my final objective or end game is to have consumers think of wine and sake as separate entities.
- IF YOU "BOMB-IT" THEY WILL COMEBy now we all know and love (tongue in cheek) the term "Sake Bomb" - dropping a sake shot into a beer and chugging it! My great fear was that "sake bombers" would stay "sake bombers" and not graduate to enlightenment - or move on to really drinking sake as it is supposed to be consumed. But alas, there is movement in that direction. I have seen a trend of drinkers who have come into the shop and admitted to being only "bombers" but actually prefer "drinking the stuff."
This period of sake enlightenment is a dicey at best. But with exposure comes appreciation for the fakers of an industry. If tequila drinkers can move on after the "upside-down shake-your-head" margarita then we can move on past the "sake bomb" generation.
- TELL A FRIENDIt's really quite this simple - the more consumers the better the products. So if you want more and tastier sake offerings then tell a friend about sake. Talk to your local wine-pervert and say, "Give sake a chance" or in many cases a "second-chance." Bring a brew to a Bar-B-Q! And for the more advanced missionaries of sake take a case to your next tailgate party!
The future of sake could very well be in your hands!