One such sommelier is Alex Trendler of MIFUNE New York in New York City. At the Japanese fine-dining restaurant, he pours around 20 varieties of sake, selling it in equal numbers with wine and educating eager customers along the way. “People want to experience sake, and they want to learn way more than just the name of it,” he says. “I love that.”
While enthusiasts like Gauntner and Trendler do their part to educate drinkers, the Japanese beverage is still largely misunderstood in the U.S. For starters, though it shares characteristics with both, it’s neither beer nor wine. The brewing process is closer to the former, but, unlike beer, sake is brewed solely from rice and without the presence of enzymes.
Gauntner says wine comparisons stem from the similar alcohol content—sake has about 15 to 16 percent; wine, roughly 10 to 14 percent—as well as the manner in which flavors are assessed, and the fact that both are typically enjoyed with food. Also like wine, sake is categorized. Instead of grouping by varietals of grapes, however, sake is broken down in terms of how much each grain of sake brewing rice (of which there are roughly 70 types) is milled.
Sake also varies greatly by region, chiefly due to climate. The cooler weather of Northern Japan means its sake is fermented and stored at lower temperatures, and the end product is cleaner than that of its Western counterparts, according to Gauntner. Regional food also plays a role. For instance, brewers in oceanside locations often produce light, crisp sakes to match the area’s cuisine.
Emerging from sushi’s shadow
Sake is no longer just a means for washing down sushi. In restaurants, it has blossomed into a menu star in its own right: Bartenders now craft cocktails that spotlight the versatile beverage, and sommeliers like Trendler look beyond wine to offer comprehensive sake lists and sake pairings. At MIFUNE, cocktail producer Shingo Gokan offers the Seven Samurai, composed of rye whiskey, aged sake, East India sake, bitters, and smoked cinnamon.
Trendler, a wine industry veteran who had never worked with sake before MIFUNE, says the drink has broadened his horizons exponentially. “We have a lot of cool sakes that represent a wide range of flavors,” he says. He plays off the restaurant’s ever-evolving seasonal cuisine to create pairings, seeking out both contrasting and complementing tastes. In the case of the latter, he pours earthy Manzairaku alongside a scallop with mushroom consommé.
“Manzairaku tastes just like shiitake mushrooms, so that pairing was a no-brainer for me,” he says. Sake also gives him the opportunity to play up the menu’s bold umami flavors with varietals he says mimic the taste of banana bread and bubble gum. “It sounds crazy until you try it,” he says.
“Five years ago, Japanese fine dining was the upper echelon of luxury,” Trendler says. “Lately it’s become more accessible—and so has sake,” he adds.
That trend toward approachability is also thanks in part to makers like Umenoyado Brewery. The fifth-generation brewer based out of Nara, Japan recently worked with New York-based Spirits Consulting Group to develop Haikara, a sake created specifically for the U.S. market. Spirits Consulting Group CEO Susan Mooney says the citrusy flavor combines notes of yuzu and white peach and is “familiar to the American palate.” Even the name Haikara, which translates to “high collar,” hearkens back to the clothing style of the first Westerners living in Japan and “speaks to the east-meets-west feel we wanted to create,” Mooney says. “We were mindful to make a product that’s authentic and rooted in tradition, but also really accessible,” she says.
Trendler shares Mooney’s sentiment, offering this advice to sake novices: “Don’t worry about the labels or menu descriptions, and don’t be intimidated by new language or classification systems. Sake should just be inviting and fun.”