Japan's Iconic Beverage on Display at Sake and the City

If you know anything at all about Japanese cuisine, chances are you’ve tasted sake. You probably enjoyed it, even if the seemingly endless varieties and the terms Honjozo, Ginjo, and Junmai Daiginjo completely overwhelmed you. The complex beverage made from four basic ingredients – rice, water, yeast, and koji (a mold that creates enzymes that break down starch into sugar) – has a history in Japan spanning more than two thousand years.

In recent years, however, sake sales in Japan have declined, as the distilled liquor shochu muscled its way into becoming Japan’s national drink. To that end, sake makers are looking outside of the archipelago to market the beverage, eyeing New York as one of their biggest markets.

Timothy Sullivan, urbansake.com, sake, Sake and the City, NYC, Japan, alcohol, JETRO, JSS, Astor Center, Brushstroke, Shingo Gokan
Sake Samurai Timothy Sullivan of urbansake.com

On February 12 the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO) and the Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association (JSS) presented a full day of sake education in an effort to increase awareness of the beverage here in the States. Dubbed Sake and the City, the event was a day/night of seminars and tasting at the Astor Center in NoHo with two sessions, one for trade and press, and the other for consumers.

In the afternoon session Timothy Sullivan, sake educator and founder of urbansake.com, gave members of the trade and press possibly the most concise, easy-to-understand explanation of what sake is and how it is brewed. Designated a Sake Samurai in 2007 for his efforts in promoting the beverage outside of Japan, Sullivan held our hands and deftly guided us through the brewing process from milling the rice to pasteurizing the bottled product. He also made sake’s classifications a little less intimidating.

Chef Isao Yamada of David Bouley’s Brushstroke ran the second afternoon seminar, pairing different types of sake with sumptuous dishes such as bamboo shoot with watercress, karasumi (mullet roe) and daikon, an umami-rich soup made from sake kasu (the leftover rice when sake is pressed), and a magnificent wagyu beef jerky.

Noted mixologist Shingo Gokan of Angel’s Share and the newly opened SakaMai prepared cocktails using sake as the base. The three fragrant and flavorful mixed drinks blended sake with sherry and rye whiskey, St. Germain and Bombay Sapphire, and green tea power and Japanese black sugar syrup. Gokan also demonstrated his skills as a venenciador, one who is skilled at pouring sherry from a small cup on an unbalanced stick in a dramatic fashion.

But the main purpose of Sake and the City was to showcase the selected sake makers. Representatives of sixteen sake brewers from northern Honshu (Japan’s main island) to Kyushu in the south were shoehorned into Astor Center’s aesthetically pleasing yet quirky event space, pouring glass upon glass of their prized products. After the rush of trade and press, the brewers reloaded to serve approximately 300 curious and thirsty consumers in the evening session.

Timothy Sullivan, urbansake.com, sake, Sake and the City, NYC, Japan, alcohol, JETRO, JSS, Astor Center, Brushstroke, Shingo Gokan
The crowd at the evening session

Keita Akaboshi, national sales manager for the sake industry promotion company Kuramoto US, was excited to introduce new types of sake to potential customers. Akaboshi served Poochi-Poochi, a semi-sparkling sake that’s produced by Suehiro Sake Brewery in Fukushima and sold locally only at Mitsuwa in New Jersey.

“This has been very popular with younger people,” says Akaboshi, referring to Poochi-Poochi’s bubbly nature reminiscent of champagne.

Shin-ichiro Kodama, president of Kodama Brewing, watched guests riding the wave of a mini-mosh pit from table to table and poured them his gold medal-winning Taiheizan sake. “In Kyushu in Southern Japan, maybe shochu is popular, but in my region [Akita Prefecture in Northern Japan] the volume of sake is bigger than shochu,” he says. “New York is still a big market for sake; New Yorkers like sake very much.”

And from the look of the crowd, Kodama is right.

To see more photos from the event, click here.