Premium sake has been gaining traction in the U.S. over the past decade, a trend that’s been fueled—at least in part—by growing consumer interest in artisanal products and new flavor profiles. As a result, sake has been transcending its standard placement on Japanese menus and finding new potential in an array of non-Japanese beverage programs. “These days, sake is very commonly found by the glass and as part of tasting menus at high-end restaurants,” says Monica Samuels, the New York City–based director of sake and spirits for Vine Connections, an import company based in Sausalito, California.
Restaurants featuring cuisines including Spanish and contemporary American are taking a chance on the category, weaving sake into broader wine, beer, and cocktail programs. They’re drawing on complementary flavors to create memorable food and sake pairings, as well as focusing on staff education and using creative strategies to enhance their programs with the fermented rice drink.
Connecting and Complementing Flavors
As Japanese products like yuzu and miso become more familiar to Americans, these flavors can be used to help introduce sake to guests. At Otoño in Los Angeles, chef Teresa Montaño incorporates Japanese ingredients into the restaurant’s Spanish-inspired dishes. Otoño’s beverage director, Katie Putterlik, pairs flavors from Montaño’s dishes with the flavors of different sakes for the restaurant’s tasting menus. This year’s Valentine’s Day prix fixe menu showed how successful this strategy can be. “We sold out of every single sake that night,” says Putterlik. Otoño now features five sakes by the glass, on a wine list that is otherwise 85 to 90 percent Spanish, all priced lower than a traditional threefold markup, running about $13 to $15 by the glass and $35 for a carafe. “We don’t get a ton of people ordering it,” Putterlik says, “but the people who do order it really get into it, so we want to offer them a value.”
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At Sway, a modern Thai restaurant that has three locations around Austin, Texas, the team uses sake to help distinguish its beverage program from those of other Thai restaurants. Sway lists five sakes by the glass, ranging from $8 to $14, along with five by-the-bottle selections, from $35 to $100. “[Sake] is a great complement to spice and bold, flavor-driven foods,” says Peter D’Souza, the operations manager of Sway’s parent group, New Waterloo. “We sell slightly more liquor and wine because of [people’s] familiarity [with them], but sake sales aren’t far behind, which is pretty significant, considering this is not a traditional beverage served at a Thai restaurant.”
The sake category offers a range of textures and flavors, which makes sake a good pairing partner for many non-Japanese cuisines. Noting that most sake has lower acidity than wine, Marina Giordano, a certified sake educator with the Wine & Spirit Education Trust who teaches classes in Boston and San Francisco, points out that “sake doesn’t conflict with food very often” and adds that “it’s [easy] to pair it with all kinds of foods.” For example, she says, tomato sauces and American brunch fare can benefit from sake’s light savoriness and occasional nuttiness.
Discovery Through Education
The contemporary American restaurant S.K.Y. in Chicago features five sakes by the glass and one single-serving “cup” option (cup sakes typically comprise 180- to 200-milliliter portions that are prepackaged in visually appealing glass containers), ranging from $6 to $9. The restaurant’s general manager, Charles Ford, initially offered sake as a seasonal specialty, but it proved so popular that he made the addition permanent. Ford says, too, “We, as a staff, wanted to learn more about it.”
Education pays off when team members use their knowledge about sake to make it approachable for guests. Ford encourages his staff to draw comparisons to familiar beverages. “Relate sake to the things [guests] drink every day,” he says. “If you’ve got a person who loves craft beer, this is kind of like craft beer, but with rice. Or if somebody likes a delicious unfiltered Chardonnay, why don’t [they] try this delicious unfiltered sake?” Faisal Asseri, the bar director of Cloak and Petal in San Diego, likes to give a personal introduction to sake. “Often I’ll bring out a couple bottles and small taster glasses for a quick crash course,” he says, adding that the memorable experience creates guest loyalty.
Both Ford and John Vuong, the co-owner of High Treason wine bar in San Francisco, say that the range of sakes available from U.S. distributors is significantly better than it was five years ago. Furthermore, both agree that staff training sessions led by importers and distributors were key to fostering team engagement at their establishments.
The Bottom Line
In addition to offering variation and pairing opportunities to a beverage program, sake can reward a restaurant’s bottom line. The category has shelf-life advantage, which is why restaurants can often offer several options by the glass or in tasting flights without risking waste. Giordano notes that once opened, sake should keep for up to two weeks. She also recommends offering one or two cup sakes as an enticing and low-commitment experience for sake novices.
Sake can also help diversify beverage offerings at restaurants that don’t have full liquor licenses. When chef-owner Keith Blauschild opened The Cook and The Cork in Coral Springs, Florida, with a beer and wine license, he brought in sake to add another dimension to his drinks menu. It soon became a favorite among adventurous regulars. “Sake,” says Blauschild, “is an undiscovered treasure in a [beverage] program.”
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Hope Ewing is a writer and bar director in Los Angeles. She is the author of Movers & Shakers: Women Making Waves in Spirits, Beer, and Wine.