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What images come to your mind when you think of saké? Do you imagine yourself enjoying a glass of nice chilled saké? Or do you consider saké to be a hot drink that tastes more like jet fuel?
If you chose “jet fuel,” you may be surprised to learn that Oregon is one of the top markets in the U.S. for premium saké. In fact, saké sales in Oregon have quadrupled in the past five years and many of the consumers are Americans aged 21-45, according to certified saké sommelier Marcus Pakiser.
OPB’s Kayo Lackey visited Portland’s Zilla Saké House on a recent weeknight and found it packed with customers drinking premium saké and eating sushi. Owner Allison Lowe opened the restaurant four years ago and offers 80 different varieties of saké on the menu, including saké that is locally made in Forest Grove.
“I was a humanities and art teacher at an art high school, and my background is in art and anthropology. I’ve always had an itch to start a business, to create an interesting environment for people to experience something new,” says Lowe. “Saké was the perfect fit, employing my passions for education, art and culture.
To learn more about Oregonians’ love for saké, and to pick up some tips that will help make your saké sampling experiences enjoyable, we talked with Marcus Pakiser, a certified Saké Sommelier and Saké Category Manager with Young’s-Columbia. Pakiser has been working in the saké industry for 20 years and his passion is to help Americans learn how to enjoy premium saké.
Q: What is saké?
A: First of all, let me tell you what saké is not. Saké is not rice wine. People call it rice wine, but wine is made with grapes. Saké is a beverage fermented from rice and it has been around over 2,000 years. What you need to brew saké is saké rice, water, yeast and koji. Koji is like an enzyme, which transforms the starch in the rice to glucose to make it into the fermentable sugar so that the yeast can transform it into alcohol. It’s like malt in beer brewing.
Q: Is saké better hot or cold?
A: People think that all saké should be served hot. That is a myth and incorrect. Most saké should be served chilled. If you serve saké hot, you are destroying the flavors and aromas. Some saké can be served body-temperature-warm, but the majority of premium saké should always be served chilled. If you were to warm up premium sake, that would be exactly like boiling chardonnay or drinking hot pinot gris.
Q: Why do many Americans associate saké with a hot drink?
A: Right after World War II in Japan, they made a lot of poor quality saké due to the shortage of rice. And the poorest quality saké got shipped to the United States. In order to make it palatable, [restaurant owners] heated it up and introduced it to Americans. That’s how it got started back in the ‘50s, and many restaurants continued to serve hot saké since it was profitable. Premium saké did not really get going until the 1980s. Traditional culture also followed the tradition of warm drink and warm food is best for the body.
Q: What kind of food pairs well with saké?
A: It is hard to find food that does not go well with saké. Saké is half the acidity of wine, gluten-free and sulfite-free. Because saké is low in acidity, it does not get into a fight with food. Saké is extremely diverse and goes well with cheese, fish, meat and vegetables — far beyond sushi-saké combinations. I may be biased about this, but I think saké and cheese is a better pairing than wine and cheese.
Q: What advice do you have for someone new to saké?
A: Go to a restaurant with a decent list of saké — most likely the servers are trained on the saké list and they know which one would be good for beginners. They may recommend some easy-to-drink Junmai-style saké or they may offer you a fruity Ginjo-style saké. Good restaurants are doing saké flights [a tray with a few different kinds of saké]. Flights are a good way to learn about saké.