Belly Up to the Bar for the Saké Revolution: Momokawa and SakéOne

Remember when “I’ll have a beer” meant “I’ll have a Budweiser?” In the bad old days before the craft brew revolution, there was only one kind of beer — the cheap domestic stuff.

Ditto the rice-based beverage called Saké. Most Americans think there’s just one kind — something they’ve encountered in their neighborhood Japanese restaurant that smells like paint thinner and tastes like…well, paint thinner.

But I discovered recently that there’s a Saké revolution brewing (sorry about the pun) engineered by a couple of guys from Portland, Oregon. Hey! Wasn’t Portland the birthplace of the craft brew revolution? What a coincidence…

Steve Vuylsteke, President and CEO of a company called SakéOne, spent years championing the Oregon wine industry. Now he’s joined up with America’s only Sakémaster, Greg Lorenz, to transform our experience of Japan’s unique beverage. They’re producing premium Sakés that are every bit as elegant and food-worthy as fine wine.

Greg Lorenz, America's only Sakemaster

Now before I go any further, let me admit that my previous experience of Saké was limited to pounding a bar top and yelling “Sake Bomb!!”  Thankfully, I learned lots of cool stuff about Saké during a recent online, live tasting event with Steve and Greg. Here are a few things to remember if you want to be at the front of the saké wave:

  • Get the name right — it’s “sa-KAY,” not “SA-kee.”
  • Serve the good stuff chilled, in a proper wine glass, to release all the aromas and flavors.
  • Think of Saké as a food-pairing beverage, just like a fine wine.

So is Saké a wine? No.

Is it a beer? No again.

Greg explained that Saké is a unique product created by the interaction of two living organisms — yeast and koji, a mold spore that digests the rice and, along with the yeast, determines the character of each Saké.

The SakéOne company crafts premium Saké — Junmai Ginjo  — using traditional techniques learned from their Japanese “brewer partners.” Their label, Momokawa, includes several styles and flavors that they believe are a good introduction to the beverage for American palates, and fit SakéOne’s mission of “providing a transition between cultures”.

All Junmai Ginjo Saké is a giant quality step above the stuff served in your local Sushi restaurant because the rice kernels from which it’s made (which are grown in California’s Sacramento Delta area) are ground down to about 60% of their original size. Removing most of the outer kernel removes impurities that would cause harsh flavors (like that paint-thinner aroma).

Momokawa Organic Junmai Gingo was the first Saké we tasted. Being a Saké neophyte, I approached this tasting as I would a a wine taste, pouring chilled Saké into my glass and swirling. I got a few surprises right off the bat. The nose offered aromatics that just didn’t conform to my “wine-o” vocabulary. The aromas reminded me more of an aromatic gin than a wine, with some light herbals and botanicals. If I had to label it with a fruit name, I’d say musk melon.

On my palate, the Momokawa was both delicate and viscous, with a pungent aftertaste that lingers. At least part of the punch comes from the high alcohol content — almost 15%. I tried to imagine the foods that would compliment this beverage, and certainly all the fruits of the sea would be perfect — sushi, salmon, shrimp.

By the time I’d finished with the next beverage, Momokawa “G” Joy Saké, I knew I was kinda lost in the wilderness. The brew they’ve nicknamed the “Bad Boy of Saké” tips the scales at 18.9% ABV. Yow! This Saké is Genshu, or undiluted, and packs more than one kind of punch. It’s creamy and more viscous than its predecessor, with a finish that’s pungent and spicy. Steve and Greg favor pairing this Saké with heavier foods (something off the grill, maybe?) and richer sauces. But the high alcohol is a little bit intimidating.

Clearly, I need to achieve more of a connection to the Saké culture.

Next we sampledNigori, or unfiltered Saké. The cloudy, milky appearance is simply rice sediment suspended in liquid, and the bottle should be shaken to mix all the good stuff together.  Strangely, this style has become one of their best sellers. The flavors offer more richness, with a cinnamon/spice component and hints of coconut. It’s apparently a great combo with spicy food such as Thai or Szechuan. Drink this baby now, though — it’s not made for aging.

Finally, Moonstone Asian Pear is a flavor-infused Saké that’s designed to be user-friendly for the American drinker. The layers of pear overlay the Saké base and bring a nice fruit element to the party. If you think “Saké Cocktail” for this one, the folks at SakéOne are already way ahead of you, offering exotic cocktail recipes on their (very informative) website.

If you think you oughta start experimenting with this new wave of Saké, that’s a lot easier than it used to be. Momokawa is now sold in wine bars, particularly on the East and West coasts of the U.S., and in many better retail shops. Grab whichever one you can find, chill it down, and start experimenting. Check out SakéOne’s website, too — it’ll help bridge that gap between cultures. Cheers!



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