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.
“People are being more selective and requesting it more and more,” said Andy Nakano, owner of Jozu, an Asian-California bistro in West Hollywood and a sake connoisseur.
Since opening his restaurant in November 1996, Nakano features a new sake every week and every patron is given a taster. “I’d say 90 percent of the guests really enjoy it, especially the people who haven’t been here. When they taste it they say, ‘This is like nothing we’ve ever tasted before.’ ”
Sakes are a little more potent than wine, but the drink carries an abundant array of flavors from fruity to nutty to floral. Sakes have about 400 flavor components, making it a suitable match with everything from raw fish to fruit soup to steak. There are more than 4,000 sake brewers around the world.
At Wolfgang Puck’s Spago restaurant, chefs cook with it. Puck also offers a variety of sakes at his Beverly Hills eatery, Obachine.
Paul Iiyama, a sake sales representative for Japan Food Corp., saw his non-Japanese restaurant accounts grow from zero to nine in the past 18 months. West Hollywood eateries like The Curry House on La Cienega Boulevard and the hip Sunset Boulevard eatery Bar Fly are now carrying it.
“We’ve definitely seen an (increased) interest,” said Iiyama. “Most of it was sold mainly to Japanese restaurants, but about a year and a half ago many of the fusion California restaurants started carrying it.”
Industry observers point to a number of factors for the emerging sake trend in L.A. The most influential, they say, is the fact that more Asian-influenced restaurants in the city are carrying it.
“It started in New York. More Japanese expatriates are residing there so there was a market for premium sake,” said Dian J. Egner, marketing manager for Ozeki Corp., a Japanese sake brewer whose U.S. headquarters is in Burlingame. In L.A., “many of the American and Asian-fusion restaurants started carrying it, and people began learning more about it.”
Egner said U.S. sake sales at Ozeki were up 130 percent in 1997 compared to the year before.
Sake Service Institute, a trade organization with offices in Torrance, has begun participating in local sake tasting functions including the one at Algabar and is aggressively pushing sake to local retailers.
“Sake producers in Japan asked SSI to market them in the U.S.,” said Iiyama at Japan Food Corp. “SSI has really accelerated their marketing.”
But it’s the restaurateurs like Nakano and Puck who are the most effective marketers. “We call them missionaries,” chuckled Iiyama. “These people are very influential and are really promoting sake. They don’t have a vested interest, they just enjoy it.”