Twenty-five years ago, the only places to find sake in the United States were Japanese restaurants and Asian grocery stores.
“It was brutal,” said Marcus Pakiser, vice president of the sake category at Young’s Market. “You didn’t really see these imports in America. I would go in to accounts to sell sake and they would say, ‘We don’t get any Asians here,’ or, ‘We don’t do sushi.’ ”
In the years since, few other American cities have embraced the Japanese rice wine more than Portland. Among distributors such as Pakiser, the city is believed to consume the most sake per capita in the U.S., a title earned through a number of avenues, from Forest Grove’s 25-year-old SakéOne brewery to restaurants simply pouring sake by the glass. And with Portland’s seventh annual Sake Fest PDX scheduled for this Wednesday night, combined with the city’s global reputation for fostering one of the geekiest and most educated communities around the beverage (not to mention Japan’s obsession with Portland), there’s arguably no better place in America to drink sake right now than here.
Compared to beer, wine or spirits, sake is a bit of a unicorn in the alcohol universe. Brewed using a similar process to beer from varying levels of polished rice — the more it’s polished, the higher the grade — and often more alcoholic than wine and almost exclusively associated with Japanese food, sake has had an uphill battle in the American drinker’s macrocosm. In Portland, sake consumption is still mostly centered at Japanese restaurants, but the drink has made strides in popularity over the past decade, appearing at high-end modernist restaurants such as Castagna and Roe, cocktail bars including Expatriate and Shift Drinks, and even a pizzeria. More on that later.
Pakiser has taught the highest level in sake for the Wine & Spirits Education Test for the past two years — the highest certification available for sake — and is one of 60 “sake samurai” across the world, a distinction the Japanese government gave him for his efforts in promoting the liquor. He said sake’s growth locally has been aided by restaurants choosing to offer glass pours.
“Outside of Oregon, you’ll find a lot of places that do these 350-milliliter bottles of sake and not serve it by the glass or do flights with it,” Pakiser said. “Nobody would ever consider selling wine by the bottle only … it’s the most ineffective way. You walk in off the street, don’t know anything about it, are you going to plop down $40 for a bottle? No way.”
When Kate Koo became the sushi chef at Zilla Sake nearly a decade ago, the restaurant already had 40 to 50 sakes on the menu, almost all available by the glass. Today, after a sizable remodel this month that included adding a dedicated sake bar, that number has grown close to 100, giving Zilla one of the largest sake collections in the Pacific Northwest, if not on the entire West Coast.
“I don’t think this is a flash in the pan,” said Koo. “I think people are learning there is this amazing beverage out there that’s gaining a real following of people who aren’t like, ‘Oh, this is the next new fad.’ It’s people who are discovering sake and it will stick with them.”
In her time at Zilla, Koo has seen a noticeable increase in consumer knowledge when it comes to sake.
“We have people coming in who are like, ‘I know I like this or that, can you steer me in a direction of something new I would enjoy?’ There is a real interest in sake at an intellectual level that has started to grow,” she said.
Many, like Pakiser, see the next milestone as breaking the habit of pairing sake only with sushi or Japanese food.
“Even the sushi thing now, it’s getting people out of that thinking,” Pakiser said. “It’s fine to have (sake) with sushi. It’s fine to have it with pizza. It’s fine to have it with burgers.”
As if to test that theory, local wine enthusiast and sake expert Paul Willenberg paired a sake series with wood-fired pies at Northeast Portland’s Pizzeria Otto Tuesday night. More than 40 people showed up.
“The two best pairings were the Tae no Hana, a Kimoto brewing method sake where only 10 percent of the rice was polished away,” Willenberg said. “It’s from the first female master brewer in Japan, and (Pizzeria Otto) chef Sam Reed paired it with a pizza of olive tapenade, shiitake and porcini with Quadrello di Bufala and micro shiso.”
Willenberg, who like Pakiser and Koo, has received the Wine & Spirits Education Test Level 3 Award, said he first fell in love with sake at sushi-free Southeast Portland izakaya Tanuki 10 years ago, because it helped fill in some blanks that wine couldn’t.
“Grilled asparagus destroys a wine, but it’s perfectly fine with sake,” he said. “Super-salty or fatty foods can overpower wines or clash.”
Years after his introduction at Tanuki, Willenberg eventually found himself helping his friend Ryan Roadhouse with beverage pairings at Nodoguro, Roadhouse’s creative Japanese cuisine pop-up-turned-restaurant. Now, Portland’s sake scene has developed to the point where more niche enterprises can flourish. Each month, Willenberg curates a themed monthly shipment of sake for devotees across the country.
Willenberg said you’ll know when sake truly arrives when you see it commonly poured with French or Italian food.
“(That would be) a good indicator that you’ve tipped over into widespread, mainstream consumption,” he said. “That you could go to (French restaurant) St. Jack and order a bottle of sake and it wouldn’t be weird.”
— Samantha Bakall