The Man Who Brought Sushi to America, Part VI
Introducing Sake to America
TJ: Can you tell us about the differences between how wine and sake are made?
KANAI: There are major differences between the two food cultures and the base ingredients. Wine from the Western food culture is made from a fruit; grapes laden with natural sugars. On the other hand, sake from the Eastern food culture is made from rice, a grain made up of starch with no naturally occurring sugars that can be converted directly into alcohol. So, the long chains of starch molecules must first be broken down into smaller links, then into sugars, a process that is achieved through the use of koji, an important mold that’s unique to the Japanese brewing art. In making wine, the end result depends greatly on the grape quality, so growers take immense care of their vineyards. However, with sake, although rice ingredient quality is important, it’s the brewing art that’s truly the key to quality sake.
TJ: How long can an imported bottle of sake last?
KANAI: As long as it’s kept chilled and is never exposed to sunlight, most premium sake can be kept for a while without altering the flavor or quality. But in general, sake is meant to be consumed while fresh.
TJ: Does it need to be kept chilled?
KANAI: Not all sakes need to be kept chilled. For fine jizake, if kept refrigerated, it can last for a couple of years or longer, but if it just sits on a supermarket shelf or at home, subjected to temperature fluctuations and light, quality will be compromised. So, in the U.S. market, you’d want to purchase sake at a Japanese supermarket like Marukai, Mitsuwa, or Nijiya, that has quick stock rotation; specialty wine shops; or Whole Foods Market that stock products refrigerated.
TJ: Do Americans like sweet or dry sake?
KANAI: I think dry, as American foods tend to be heavier and need something to cut the oils and heavy seasonings.
TJ: Do Americans drink more hot or cold sake?
KANAI: With the introduction of premium jizake, Americans are learning to drink sake chilled. Warming up sake a bit according to an individual’s taste is quite alright, but never overheated, as all the delicate nuances will be lost.
TJ: Is there a type of American food that goes well with sake?
KANAI: Sake is accommodating to many foods, especially seafood. It’s like pairing white wine with seafood. Sake is one of those rare liquors that complements a vast array of foods, with some pairing particularly well with blue and Camembert cheeses. Also something that’s unique to sake is that it can be served hot, at room temperature, or chilled, offering multitudes of enjoyment from a single sake. Food pairings aside, Californian lifestyles offer frequent settings for sipping, where sake would be an ideal sipping alcohol. In-home liquor consumption contributes to high sales volume, but in-home sake consumption is still quite rare. Sake is still a specialty item found mostly in the foodservice industry. There are opportunities in the retail trade, however, the American mass market system requires heavy advertising campaigns to promote products, whereas at restaurants, a trained serving staff can push products very effectively. At Whole Foods Market and other specialty wine shops, we train staff members to become sake experts so that they can offer educated recommendations when servicing customers, but I can’t see the same happening at major supermarket chains. We work with Wally’s, Wine Warehouse, Hi-Times, Whole Foods Market and BevMo!, introducing premium sake, shochu, and Japanese craft beers to be sold right alongside their mainstream liquors.
TJ: What about Costco?
KANAI: We tried that. However, Costco’s business model is based on quick-moving and high-volume items, which is not suited for the premium positioning that sake is at right now. I believe, with all Costco Warehouses combined, it’s the single largest wine buyer, not just in the United States, but in the whole world. Their liquor buying system is very closely supported by major American liquor distributors, a structure that specialty importers like us find hard to enter.
TJ: And if you get in, you could service Costco?
KANAI: Not yet. Let’s look at Kubota, one of the highest sought after brands in Japan. If I were to propose selling Kubota to Costco, the brewery would decline, as it would go against the premium and rare-find image of their product. There are many breweries that would like to enter Costco, however, the required sales minimum is much too high without having to invest in extensive and costly marketing campaigns.
TJ: What if you tried to connect it with a holiday like New Year’s Day, by having one of your breweries package it thematically, and promote it at a big chain?
KANAI: We produce some New Year’s commemorative bottles annually as a service to our sake fans. But we don’t create high volumes yet as there’s no guarantee of an entire inventory sell-out.
TJ: Are there countries where sake is becoming more popular?
KANAI: Mexico. Mutual Trading is the first company to ship full containers of sake from Japan directly to Mexico. The sake market is growing there, as is the entire Japanese food trade.
TJ: Mr. Kanai, you’ve been able to predict the future so far, so how long do you think before we start to find sake on menus in American restaurants?
KANAI: I think in about five years you’ll start seeing that. Americans are finding sake as another option to wine. Wine fans and sommeliers are just starting to dis- cover this new and exciting world of sake. Professional trade publications are featuring jizake and we’re taking our products to major wine competitions where they’re viewed by American foodservice establishments. We’re very excited about the future of sake, envisioning it being listed on chain restaurant menus like California Pizza Kitchen and Cheesecake Factory. tj
The complete article can be found in Issue #276 of the Tokyo Journal. Click here to order from Amazon.