A low-profile drink is making a splash in L.A.'s trendy circles, even though it isn't exactly a new phenomenon in fact, it's been around for centuries.

Sake, a 1,700-year-old Asian rice brew, has long been enjoyed by sushi lovers around L.A. as a lukewarm accompaniment to raw fish. But now a higher-end, chilled version of the beverage is supplementing the wine lists at many non-Japanese restaurants in Los Angeles.

Local sake distributors have noticed an increased interest in the high-end product both among non-Japanese restaurants and local wine merchants.

Aya Ichikawa, a spokeswoman for Japan Sake Exporting Board, a Japanese trade association in Torrance that represents sake brewers overseas, said the number of cases of sake imported to California by its members last year was 11,380 more than nine times higher than the previous year's total of 1,112.

Local retailers are getting in on the sake bandwagon: Earlier this month, Algabar, an upscale home furnishings store in West Hollywood, hosted a sake tasting party, complete with caviar and take-home sake accoutrements. In June, Japan Food Corp., one of the nation's largest sake distributors, is planning a sake tasting in Los Angeles.

In January, Wally's Liquor in Westwood began offering a wide array of sake, from domestic brews to the more pricey, premium Japanese imports that go for about $80 a bottle.

"Sake's an up-and-coming drink," said Judy Latkin, Wally's sales manager. "The hot things were high-end vodkas for martinis now we're into very hot tequilas and sake." Sake starts about $5 a bottle and runs to upwards of $100.

Next month, the Wine House in West L.A. will introduce eight new sakes. Earlier this month it held a sake seminar for its employees to introduce them to its newest selections.

"We've carried it for a while, but we really started getting into it about a year ago," said Jamie Giannioses, sales manager at The Wine House. Sales, he says, have gone from one case a month to 10 cases a month in just over a year. "We feel it's a very viable market to be in. It's for the open-minded consumer interested in food and wine," he said.

The sake pouring into L.A.'s restaurant and bar scene is not the conventional brew that is served hot from a ceramic decanter. The newer, higher-profile sakes come chilled and are sipped from a wooden bowl.

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