When you’ve been doing something so long that it predates written history, it’s safe to say you’ve got dibs. So it goes with the Japanese and the art of making sake, their most famous alcoholic beverage. But while the country’s breweries, many of them centuries old, carry on their meticulous traditions, the sake scene in America has begun building a reputation independent of its Far East forebears.
The production of sake from scratch right here in the U.S. is not a new development. The spiritual home of Stateside sake-making is most often identified as Hawaii, where the now-defunct Honolulu Sake Brewery was founded in 1908, more than 50 years before the archipelago achieved statehood. Conceived to cater to issei, or first-generation Japanese immigrants to the islands, the company struggled after World War II but was saved from insolvency by late brewmaster Takao Nihei, a Tokyo native who’s been praised as the “father” of sake brewing in America. Other labels, like the California-based Ozeki and Takara, would follow suit in the late ’70s and early ’80s.
Despite the established presence of such domestic brands, the general American attitude toward sake, produced by fermenting specialized strains of polished rice in a manner comparable to beer, has long been blasé. We’ve all had cloying cups of warm stuff from a corner sushi joint, or banged our fists on the table until a cheapo shot drops between chopsticks into a foamy glass of Kirin. Not the most elegant introduction for a product that’s known in savvier circles for its nuance and complexity.
“Our parents’ generation grew up with sake bombs — you’d heat it up to a ridiculous temperature and shoot it with a pint of beer,” says George Kao, food and beverage director of SakaMai in New York City. “You’re not looking for quality. You’re just looking for alcohol.”
Consciously or not, this let’s-get-wasted mentality, spurred by cheap imported product, has influenced American attitudes toward sake for decades. It’s made it difficult for brewers doing it the right way to distinguish themselves among consumers who think they’ve already made up their minds.
“It’s almost like you drank a Bud Light, then said, ‘Oh, I don’t like beer’ and never tried another beer ever again,” says Todd Bellomy, a partner in Dovetail Sake in Waltham, Massachusetts. “It’s just not fair.”
Dovetail, which aims to have its flagship Junmai-Ginjō and nigori styles on the market this year, is a very recent addition to an American craft-sake circuit that’s been growing in relevance since the ’90s. Splitting the difference between Japanese tradition and American ingenuity, these producers hope to change narrow-minded perceptions of their product. “American microbrewers are really starting to shine, understanding what it takes to create high-quality, small-batch sake,” says Kao, who formerly worked as the chief beverage educator for New York Mutual Trading, a venerated importer of Japanese food and drink. And the drinking public seems willing to meet them halfway. “Everywhere, people are more curious and more educated,” Kao adds.
While companies like Yaegaki and Gekkeikan, as well as the aforementioned Ozeki and Takara, spar in the national marketplace, smaller, personality-driven producers take a regional approach. Texas Sake Company, in Austin, cultivates its line with 100 percent organic rice. Ben’s Tune Up, in Asheville, North Carolina, combines its small-scale brewing operation with a restaurant and beer garden. Companies like SakeOne, in Oregon, have embraced multiple avenues of the biz, importing Japanese-made sake in addition to producing its own on American soil.
It’s going to take some time, but these craft producers are hopeful that their products will earn the opportunity to make a first impression on drinkers who are brand-new to the category. “More people now are drinking good sake for the first time ever,” says Blake Richardson, a former beer brewer who, until 2002, had never tried sake himself. He was so enamored with his first glass that he jetted off to Japan to school himself; he later opened Moto-i, likely America’s first sake brewpub, in Minneapolis in 2008. Richardson produces around 20,000 liters a year, served and sold exclusively from his izakaya.
The hyperspecific availability of Moto-i’s sake speaks to a vital, but often overlooked, aspect of overall sake enjoyment: the critical time period between when it leaves the brewery and when it hits your lips. Freshness affects the drinking experience tremendously — so the closer you are to the source, the more you’re going to like it. “Are we as good as a brewer that’s been at it for 1,000 years? Probably not,” says Dovetail’s Bellomy. “But we’re certainly giving it our best shot. And our sake is going eight miles, not 8,000.”