Who's pouring saké?

Curious to know how many of us have saké on our list.

I spent a few years studying and selling sake and other Japanese beverage as the co-head of a program in Chicago before moving to LA and diving deep into wine.

The restaurant in Chicago had a Japanese focus, but my co-conspirator and I did what we could to convince industry friends with any influence to incorporate saké into their beverage programs as well. To our logic, it's common enough to stock a wide array of world beverage behind a bar (or in the cellar), even if the kitchen is a bit more geo-centric. Premium saké -- a tier of beverage wholly distinguishable from the cheap boxed swill commonly consumed hot -- is as painstakingly hand-crafted, nuanced, and food-friendly as beverages come, and for my part I feel it deserves better representation within elevated beverage programs.

With that said, I currently work with a program where we have one saké, and only because it's used in a cocktail. I have forsaken my former lover to envelope myself within this new passion. This doesn't mean I enjoy sake any less, or have left off being an advocate, as I do very much wish it weren't relegated as a niche beverage only appropriate with Japanese cuisine.

I know there are many sommeliers, working outside Japanese cuisine, who have incorporated saké into their lists. I'd love to hear from some of you, and about the challenges and successes you've had introducing guests to sake.

And for those of you who may be mostly unfamiliar with saké, or outright adverse to it, what have your experiences been with saké, and how would you feel about making saké available at your restaurant?

  • Looking forward to reading everyone's responses here. I just wanted to jump in to say that we have an Expanded Guide to sake in the works—look for that soon!
  • In reply to Stacy Ladenburger:

    That's awesome, Stacy. I studied with John Gauntner; I took his Certified Sake Specialist course a few years back, but it's been awhile since I've done a solid review. Looking forward to having that resource.
  • I work retail, so can't attest to having saké on a list, but did notice a substantial uptick in saké purchasing last summer. When I finally asked a customer about it, they stated that the gluten-free aspect was what was driving them to it. I'd expect the same to continue, at least until the gluten-free fad dies down!
  • We have a good sake program at two of my places. Mind you, they're both Asian concepts, so it's kind of an obvious fit. One of them has pretty decent sales in that category, the other is rather sluggish.

    Honestly, I've been trying to embrace it more (and am attending a class next week to get the level one certification). Thing is, despite what a cool story it is, how dedicated the producers are, etc, I just don't find myself reaching for it very often. It's not like I haven't tried the good ones, it just doesn't press my buttons.
  • I do serve a Sake here in Belgium with cheeses on our tasting menu. However, I will not impose it, I do propose it to my guests, and so far I had mixed responses. Some people most of the time mistake it for a distilled spirit served in small glasses, discovering naked woman at the bottom of it....;-)
    but most are eager to try it, and some of them actually enjoying the match.
    my main problem here is that I do not find a lot of education about sake, and even my supplier is struggling with getting hold of informations.
    looking forward to this expanded guide then...
  • Interesting responses across the board.

    , I find it somewhat strange that the gluten-free fad would result in increased sake sales, considering that relatively few alcoholic beverages have gluten. Beer, and what else? Many Vodka's advertise as gluten-free, which is not unlike marketing your bottled water, or a bag of apples, as gluten-free. None of these products have a version that contain gluten anyways. I've also been taught that whisky and other grain-based distillates are gluten free, as gluten won't precipitate out of the mash into the spirit, and in practice I've found this to be true and accepted amongst my GF guests.

    *googles gluten in wine and spirits*

    Well, some google research reveals there may be some grey area, as some producers introduce a small amount of the mash back into the distilled spirit to add color and flavor. This strikes me as something that would be practiced by low-quality producers, and I feel it's best to avoid the swilliest of the swill, GF or not.

    I'm also finding online that wine, on rare occasion, can be contaminated with gluten. (Old World producers might seal their oak with a flour paste, and a gluten protein might be used in fining.) Interesting, and though I believe these examples represent the exception, not the rule, I suppose sake does offer a clear gluten-free alternative. And whatever turns people on to sake, I'm okay with. I just hope they are adventuring beyond the Ozeki and Gekkeikan labels, and trying more delicious and nuanced small, artisanal producers.

    , I hope you have a great time next week taking Gauntner's course. If your sake buttons aren't pressed by Gauntner, I'm afraid they never will be. You'll get to taste loads of cool stuff, and, as he is apt to say, 'No sake stone will be left unturned'.

    If you are bitten by the bug, here are a few of the strategies we employed for growing the program:

    1. Good sake is expensive, and to make the good stuff price approachable BTG we decided we were okay making less of a margin than with wine. We shot for around 30% COGS for wine. We allowed sake to inch closer to 33-35% (some of our products we even sold at nearly 40% COGS). To make up for that we had a great draft and bottled cocktail program that ran at around 15%. While this might seem like we were price gouging with our carbonated, batched cocktails, we used that margin to offer other awesome products at great prices.

    2. We poured all our BTG sake from Ishobin, the large 1.8L bottles, and had bartenders measure every pour (3oz/g). The 1.8L bottles cut costs, and measuring the pours limited our waste. Sake has a longer shelf-life than wine once opened, so as long as you can keep bottles refrigerated, and they don't linger longer than a month, you shouldn't be too concerned with spoilage. Additionally, we offered sake flights -- a mixed lineup of 3, 4, or 5 items -- to help guests find their preferred style, while charging a slight premium for the curated line-up. When these guests returned, they felt confident ordering a sake they knew they liked.

    3. Staff education was key. We had to ensure our team could describe each product briefly, noting key stylistic differences. If the guests wanted to get geeky, our staff was sufficiently trained to go more in depth. We talked sake all the time, and consistently brought in distributors -- and sometimes producers -- to host trainings with our staff.

    4. Once you're moving sufficient product, ask your distributors what kind of case discounts they can offer you for buying in bulk. The sake geeks on the distribution side became close friends and colleagues and went above and beyond to get us great bottles for reasonable prices.

    Sorry for going long here. We were definitely trying to take a stronghold in a niche beverage market, and while I know not many people are going to find a benefit for doing likewise, I thought I would try and draw a picture of what I've seen work for anyone interested in putting sake more at the forefront of their program.

    , cool to hear you're pairing sake and cheese. I think there is a ton of room for play and experimentation within this realm. I've found that Yamahai and Kimoto method sakes have a natural affinity for cheese.

    Cheers all and thanks for the feedback.
  • In reply to Ryan Kraemer:

    Again, I've studied it and am on board with the story and specialness of it. I'm just saying I wished I actually liked drinking it more. Unfortunately, the class I was to attend got over-booked and my bar manager and I got bumped to a later class.

    As for your suggestions, they're all really good and we do several of them. First off, we do take a bit of a haircut on the margin for the reasons you give. It simply wouldn't sell if we tried to get 30% or less. At the larger restaurant that does actually move a decent amount, we do bring in the 1.8s frequently for our feature pour. At the smaller one with the more sluggish sales, we switched up from offering a decent number BTG but using 300ml because we wouldn't go through them quickly enough to limiting the number we offer BTG, buying 720s and putting them on the specials menu. Thus far our sales haven't gone up, but our COG on the same sales number has increased.

    What's next is training, which is why I'm bummed about getting bumped from the class.
  • Sure, I'll bite: We pushed sake a little in the past but weren't happy with the results. We are a restaurant with fairly little Asian influence and have a fairly conservative clientele. Our guests are willing to spend much more on wine than they are on sake, so every bottle of sake sold (which wasn't much) felt like a loss of sales. Reception to pouring sake on tasting menus was generally fine, but the outliers were more often disdain than delight. We keep some around for when people request it (which is basically never) but don't list it anymore. Frankly I think we're still a good ways off from it being a beneficial and substantial part of the beverage programs of western restaurants.

    Aside: I always found it a little funny and a little sad that it was quite successful at my previous beverage program in an upscale traditional Chinese restaurant, where our average wine bottle prices were lower. For better or worse, guests do consider ordering sake when they eat any East Asian food, regardless of similarity to Japanese cuisine.
  • In reply to Jonah Palmer:

    This is what I'm sort of afraid may be more true than not. I sort of have a rule of thumb, that being, if something requires a big hand-sell, it needs to be undeniably delicious. It's why my wine list doesn't have much representation from esoteric wines that are also an acquired taste. I don't mind talking someone into, for instance, a really nice Etna Rosso, because every time I do so, the people are totally thrilled. The only thing they need to overcome with that wine is that they didn't know it existed. May not be case with some funky Scholium offering where I almost need the customer to convince me they truly want this wine, lest I end up taking back a wine that actually tastes the way it's "supposed to".

    Now, sake is nowhere near as "weird" as this, but, when a 2 oz pour of some of the better stuff will set you back what a full pour of something you know you're gonna like, there needs to be a pay-off for the consumer. And, "that was nice" may not be enough. After all, <bringing it back to wine again>, sometimes the product needs to be able to stand on its own merits in the glass and not require a long-winded, "This was made by one-eyed monks who sacrifice a goat on the full moon". So, all the stories about how fastidious the process is, how expensive the rice is, and how much they have to discard, may be all well and good, provided the customer isn't wishing they'd just gotten a glass of Sauv Blanc.

    At some point, whatever obligation we feel to push the envelope with our programs needs to be reconciled with the reality that we may be jousting windmills. I'm not saying I'm there yet, because, again, conceptually speaking, it's a very cool product. But, when my wine/beer/cocktail program all do better COG and sake still brings less than 1% to the total sales, it's hard to wonder how much trouble it's really worth.
  • In reply to Jonah Palmer:

    You're right that it's difficult to move guests up the pay scale for a beverage they are less familiar with. The irony is that the quality of sake in the bottle is directly tied to price, meaning for every dollar you spend you're paying for that extra tender love and care in the brewery that makes for an exceptional drinking experience. Nearly without exception, paying more for one sake over another will lead to greater satisfaction, whereas with wine price is gauged on so many factors that might not equate to quality or enjoyment. One of the benefits of wine education is learning to turn $20 or less into a delightful drinking experience. No amount of sake education is going to lead you to an awesome bottle of sake under $20. Due to the realities of sake production and export, it's just not economically feasible. On the flip, you can spend $30+ and feel confident, so long as you like sake and have identified the style, that the bottle will deliver.

    One issue both you and address is that not only is it an uphill battle to hand sell sake table side, it's also not economically advantageous and might even be a disservice to the guest. So why bother? I suppose a large part of the burden right now is on the sake industry itself. To the western eye, a sake label appears foreign, archaic, traditional, esoteric. Change may be on the horizon as, just as we are seeing in the wine world, many young producers are taking over for the aging masters of yesteryear, and these young guns are looking for ways to both modernize and return to tradition. While I don't think a ton of modernizing in the brewery is going to elevate sake's standing in the world beverage market, a bit of modern rebranding might help. Sake producers might do well to follow the lead of trailblazing Japanese producers of whisky and beer who are using ingenuity in marketing and packaging to highlight their products.

    The Hanyu Playing Card Series of Whiskys and the Yo-Ho Brewing Company come to mind.

    Finally -- sorry, you can stop reading, I'm all but assuming you already have -- it would also help if domestic consumption rebounded. Japanese sake is on a slow but steady rise in export markets, but the Japanese themselves are drinking more wine, beer, shochu and whisky; less sake. Sake is often thought of by the newest generation of drinkers as "that stuff my parents drink". This trend has hampered every major beverage at one time or another. The eventual (hopefully) return to greater domestic consumption -- when this generation of drinkers awaken to what a treasure their traditional beverage is -- should breath new life into the industry.
  • In reply to Ryan Kraemer:

    Good points, and yes, I did read the whole thing ;). I hope you're right about the industry and that we simply need to slow-play it. Just keep our lists relevant and efficient until the public starts to come around more and the industry perhaps manages to figure out how to make it easier to make money on. I do really dig much of what they're doing.