In early September, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced a change in international policy that will affect the way American consumers drink and buy sake.
“Japanese sake” in the U.S. will now be protected under the Geographic Indicators laws — the same ones that say Champagne can only come from one region in France, and Parmigiano-Reggiano can only come from one specific area of Italy. In exchange, Japan will recognize the terms “Tennessee Whiskey” and “Bourbon Whiskey.”
These distinctions are important because of whiskey’s popularity in Japan and sake’s increasing prevalence in the U.S. An estimated 70 percent of the sake sold in the U.S. is made domestically, thanks to California-based producers such as Ozeki and Takara as well as newer, small-scale operators such as Oregon’s SakeOne.
All sake that’s sold in the U.S., whether it comes from Japan or not, has been labeled simply “sake”— until now.
Naming aside, sake has been undergoing a change on both sides of the Pacific as brewers experiment with the rice-wine fermentation process to get a broader variety and depth of tastes.
“They’re getting bolder, bigger, more prominent flavors, and more layers of flavor,” says Beau Timken, owner of San Francisco-based True Sake, the first sake-only store in the U.S., which opened in 2003. For most brewers, that means pulling back on additions such as lactic acid and water and doing things the way their great-grandfathers did.
Producers such as Shiokawa, Born and Dassai are creating richer, more complex sake varieties that add new layers of spice and texture. Here are five of the most important styles you should know:
“It’s one of the oldest styles of sake,” says Toshio Ueno, vice president at the Sake School of America. It as close as you can get to unfiltered sake, hence the milky white color. Nigori sake today are typically fruity and sweet — and more popular in the U.S. than in Japan. Try the Kikusui Perfect Snow for a classic example, or for something with more pop, the Dassai 50 Junmai Daiginjo Sparkling Nigori.
Kimoto rely on airborne bacteria to create lactic acid, a preservative, rather than having it added directly; this was the normal practice until the 20th century. The Taiheizan Tenko Kimoto Junmai Daiginjo is dry and full-bodied, with a rare yogurt-like tang from its acids — sake usually has about one-third the acidity of wine.
Genshu are stronger, as they aren’t diluted with water before bottling. “Only in the past 40 years did brewers start diluting sake to give it a different taste,” says Timken. The Cowboy Yamahai Ginjo Genshu from Shiokawa combines that added heft with more pronounced acidity from a process similar to that of a Kimoto, described above. “This one is very appealing to red wine drinkers and is designed to go with meat, including beef.”
Until a dozen years ago or so, Namazake varieties were available only at the brewery because they’re not pasteurized and thus don’t travel well, but the freshness produces pleasant grassy and vegetal aromas. “Namazake are more raw and alive,” says Eiji Mori, resident sake expert at the dining group behind Sushi Roku and Katana restaurants.
These aged sake are intense, with similar aromas to Madeira or oloroso sherry. This style was prized until 1880, when the Meiji government started taxing sake when it was stored rather than sold, which discouraged aging. Daruma Masamune ages its Koshu for 10 years; Natsuki Kikuya, founder of London’s Museum of Sake, describes it as soft and smooth, with aromas of spice, cedar and nuts.