Cover image: Chiyonosono Junmai Daignjo Koshu 1997 by Chiyonosono Sake Brewing © WhereNYC
“Where is the sake industry today?” Sake World editor and our host John Gauntner asked the audience at the sold-out event at the Japan Society. A charismatic figure, with a shock of gray hair, he is the official sake ambassador to the U.S. Since its inception twenty years ago, John Gauntner has dutifully hosted the annual sake event at the Japan Society, covering a range of themes and bringing award-winning chefs like David Bouley and Japanese pottery expert Robert Yellin.
Gauntner said the in the 1990s, New York had just a couple of shops that had a decent range of sake; however, today the city has embraced Japanese rice wine.
Tasting events such as these at the Japan Society, speciality shops such as Sakaya in the East Village and the rise in trendy, authentic Japanese gastropubs, or izakayas, and ramen-yas have boosted sake popularity. Distributors as well as sommeliers, according to Gauntner, are taking sake very seriously, meticulously pairing it with non-Japanese dishes. On average, according to Gauntner, consumption in the U.S. grows 10% a year, with around 5,000 kiloliters imported from Japan.
Both a combination of tasting events such as this and the explosion of authentic trendy Japanese restaurants such as ramen-yas and gastropubs, or izakayas that dot New York City have helped boost sake’s popularity. Finally, craft sake breweries like Brooklyn Kura, one of 15 in America, with the help of the industry in Japan have also begun to take off.
While hot house sake, or atsukan, still enjoys a special place in our hearts, New Yorkers now enjoy an incredible range of different sakes including sparkling to aniseedy premium drinks. At the tasting, reps happily bantered with patrons, hopping from table to table and clammering to sample the goods. There were the reputable big names such as Dassai 23 and the award-winning Kirin Hizou Shu Daiginjo, neighboring the more modest Shichida Junmai Daiginjo by Tenzan Brewing.
While sake’s popularity in the West, particularly the United States, has grown to a roughly 30%-share of the export market, it has had an adverse effect in Japan. Mr. Gauntner said that since 1998, Japanese consumption of sake has dwindled with many sake producers going under. Since 1997, about 586 breweries in Japan have disappeared. Oddly while production is down to almost 60% since the end of the 20th century, the number of sake pubs and high end premium sake have spiked. The paradoxical relationship between the success and demise of the sake industry stems from poor local demand and rising foreign interest. Too often viewed as old person’s drink, many younger Japanese are drinking far less these days.
Meanwhile rice-producing regions near Sendai are still contending with the fallout from the Fukushima disaster of 2011. Even with the success of its export market, Mr. Gauntner said, the breweries cannot only rely on it.
The Japanese government has come to the rescue promoting sake tourism. And younger brewers taking over the family business are giving traditional sake bottles a makeover with sleeker labels and logos to attract younger buyers while making it more accessible through online sales. There are more single source and rice-to-bottle breweries such as the Chikurin organic sake by companies such as Marumoto Sake Brewing. And tasting rooms and sake workshops have also renewed public interest. Flavors
Those who frequent izakayas after work know that there will always be cheap sake, but the different varieties that one should also enjoy may differ from one region to another. Surprisingly, there were quite a lot of aged vintage sake, or koshu at this tasting event. Once a rarity, koshu has made its own niche in the market. Unlike red wines, aged sake’s value may not appreciate in monetarily but these vintage brews certainly pack a massive punch of flavor. Tentaka’s vintage 1989 had deep, bold dry-sherry notes with a long finish.
I particularly liked the 10-year Hanagaki Daiginjo Koshu and 2013 Shousetsu Junmai Daiginjo, simply because I found their flavors more accessible. The 1997 amber Okonomtasu Tokubetsu Junmaiginjo and Hoyo 1984 from Uchigasaki Shuzoten had an intense whiskey-like characteristic, which also had a pleasant fragrance. While all were very enjoyable, they may not be for everyone’s taste.
Though sake consumption in Japan has waned, John Gauntner remarked that perhaps its trendy appeal in the West, in cities like New York, will finally rekindle the Japanese love for this underrated beverage.
For more information on upcoming events, visit the Japan Society.