U.S. warms to quality sake, forgets taste of earlier, cheap heated brews



It may not have been love at first sight, but a growing enthusiasm for sake among Americans is making the United States an important market for Japanese brewers.

Todd Thompson, a 51-year-old lawyer from San Francisco, remembers first encountering sake as a cheap drink “they would heat up in machines and sell at Japanese restaurants.”

“Then, about four years ago, I tried what seemed to me at the time the purist, cleanest drink I had ever had.”

Thompson, along with a growing number of other Americans, is now a loyal sake fan — contributing to an increasing enthusiasm for the drink in the United States that may provide a resurgent boom for the slumping Japanese brewing industry.

Sake sales have been on the decline in Japan for about a decade, said Beau Timken, sake sommelier and owner of True Sake, a popular store in San Francisco that sake lovers such as Thompson rely on for top-quality brews. Over the same period, the Finance Ministry reports that the U.S. market for exported sake has nearly doubled in volume and quadrupled in value.

According to Timken, the current market trend may represent both an economic and societal “second chance” for the centuries-old grog in the U.S.

Imported in large quantities by Japanese companies looking to dump excess product on an untapped market in the 1980s, sake made a widespread debut in America as a low-priced, low-quality alcoholic beverage.

Timken said many Americans acquired their first — and negative — impressions of sake during that time. Since then, notions about sake as a hot beverage relegated to servings in small cups with a high alcoholic content and a rough taste have been hard to shake.

However, buoyed by the enthusiasm of baby boomers who have taken up Japanese food and drink, sake sales have steadily increased in America, effectively changing popular perceptions of the drink.

New varieties, better quality and a newfound sense of hipness associated with drinking sake are contributing to an image makeover. Timken called the current wave of enthusiasm in America sake’s “second chance.”

In contrast with older Americans’ introduction to sake 20 years ago, today young Americans’ first experience with Japanese fare is accompanied by quality Japanese drink — and many are taking away favorable impressions of both.

Extensive sake lists and creative cocktails, including “saketinis” that use sake as a mixer instead of traditional spirits, draw people of all ages to celebrity hot spots and popular eateries across Los Angeles.

Katana, a hip Japanese restaurant on Sunset Boulevard, has one of the largest sake menus in town, with more than 55 selections.

Eiji Mori, creator of Katana’s sake menu, said he chooses only the finest sakes after researching Japanese magazines and newspapers. Mori then personally samples hundreds to decide which ones Katana will serve its upscale clientele.

“It’s a boom,” Mori said. “Even five years ago, no one wanted to try Japanese sake. They would just order a beer and sake and do a ‘sake bomb.’ Now, I have guests come in specifically asking for a ‘daiginjo’ ” premium brew.

Sake sales are growing consistently every year across the nation. According to the Finance Ministry, the value of exported sake to the United States from Japan exceeded 2.75 billion yen in 2006, up 10 percent from 2005.

True Sake, which offers a selection of more than 200 sakes ranging from $5 to $180 a bottle, has increased its profits by up to 25 percent every year, Timken said.

John Gauntner, author of several books on sake, attributes American consumer interest in the drink to its novelty. “It’s totally different from anything else people have enjoyed in the United States. It offers as much potential for deep study as wine does. There’s no end,” he said.

For Americans fed up with the rigidity and snobbery of the wine industry, sake has become a refreshing diversion, according to Timken.

While the current sake trend is based mainly on imported sakes, U.S.-based sake brewers are experiencing increased sales as well. However, Japanese suppliers trying to capitalize on the strong U.S. market are adding more competition every year.

Dewey Weddington, marketing director of SakeOne, an Oregon-based company, has concerns.

“It seems that everyone in Japan is hurrying to export sake on the U.S. market because of how strong it is right now,” he said. “Even this year, I’ve noticed some problems with saturation in the market, such as sakes with past-date labels and others that have been purposely mislabeled for quick sale.”

Sake experts estimate the U.S. market will continue to grow for five to 10 years, focusing on expansion into Middle America, where sake is still relatively unknown.

As for Japan’s domestic sake industry, Gauntner believes there is hope for a revival. “Japanese people are beginning to ‘reappreciate’ that sake is meant to be consumed with Japanese food. Sake will never enjoy the market it once had, but things are slowly starting to turn around,” he said.

“The biggest irony,” lamented Gauntner about declining sake sales in Japan, “is that the quality and taste of premium sake is better now than it has ever been.”