Monday, May 27, 2019

The Fervor Over Fermented Rice

Last week, I mentioned how Dragon and Meeple only has a "beer and wine" liquor license, as opposed to the "spirits" liquor license that a full bar would have.  I also mentioned how the general manager, Josh, found a loophole that allows us to serve margaritas.

The topic was sufficiently interesting to me to prompt a bit of research, and I ended up writing this shorter piece on "the saké loophole" for another journalism class.  Enjoy!

(PS: In case you were wondering, Tony Stark has precisely zero identifiable alcoholic drinks in Infinity War and Endgame, another subtle influence of The Mouse.  However, in his three Iron Man movies and the first Avengers, he manages to down 4 scotches, 3 glasses of champagne, 2 glasses of wine, a bunch of champagne from the bottle (three separate instances), 2 hot sakes, and a martini.  Here's a list and screenshots from the first two Iron Man movies and the Avengers.)


The Fervor Over Fermented Rice:

The Saké Loophole

Los Angelenos have long associated saké with izakaya, Japanese public houses, rows of which occupy Little Tokyo and West Hollywood. But saké is slowly migrating into restaurants that serve American cuisine, and the reason why is simple: It’s not regulated as a spirit, but as a wine.

A saké sommelier and restaurant manager, Joshua Wolf has been exploiting the “saké loophole” for years. Deemed a “wine,” saké falls under the jurisdiction of beers and wine, as opposed to spirits; in restaurants that only have license to serve beer or wine, saké is able to pick up the slack for cocktails that would otherwise be illegal.

“Try this,” says Wolf. What he’s serving me now is a Manhattan. The taste of the saké is indistinguishable from whiskey; that’s because Wolf is using a brand called Sabe, which mixes saké with spirits. This particular variety, Sabe Copper, is 60% saké and 40% whiskey, again loopholing this particular brand into the category of “wine and beer” instead of “liquor,” making it more accessible for restaurants that lack full liquor licenses. It’s also less expensive to buy, which means higher profits for restaurant owners. While I’m speaking to Wolf, a man orders a double shot of “whiskey” and forks over $22 (minus the four-dollar tip).

It makes sense to me that “Japanese rice wine” should fall under the classification of wine and beer, but Wolf is swift to correct me. “It’s not wine,” he says. “It’s a spirit. The fermentation, it’s fermented with yeast, like beer, but it’s got a lot more kick than beer.” Several times, when I call it “rice wine,” Wolf corrects me and calls it a spirit. When I ask how the spirit falls under the category of “beer and wine,” he laughs, shrugs and says, “Don’t ask me, man, I don’t write the law.”

In Japan, “saké” literally translates to liquor; the stuff Wolf is mixing into drinks is called “seishu,” or clear liquor, which has its own category in Japanese liquor law. But America hasn’t yet caught up, and federal liquor laws have only three categories: wine, beer and “distilled spirits.” Although saké is a spirit with an alcohol content of anywhere from 15% to 30%, because it is brewed by fermentation, it currently occupies a grey area in beer-and-wine jurisdiction.

Wolf is a graduate of the Saké School of America, located in downtown Los Angeles. Endorsed by Saké Service Institute International, the largest organization of saké sommelier certification in Japan, the Saké School of America offers a three-day, $1,050 course. Wolf describes the course as being “worth every penny, even though I didn’t remember a lot of it. Woo, it was a wild ride.”

Wolf is not alone in exploiting this legal loophole. Many bars have begun serving saké or saké blends in lieu of other spirits.

The discovery of the “saké loophole” comes at an opportunistic time, not only for restaurants who are looking to save some cash, but for the Japanese saké industry as well. Since the 1970s, domestic consumption in Japan has dropped by about 30%, but imported saké sales have been on the rise; the last year alone, they rose 20%. The United States is the largest market for imported Japanese saké, accounting for a third of all saké exports, because it has only 21 domestic breweries. The rise in popularity of saké has created a huge demand, one that is bolstering the Japanese industry while also creating unique opportunities for U.S. businesses.

Wolf offers me a taste of another cocktail: a margarita made from Sabe Blanco. Using only saké, lime juice and simple syrup, he has created a remarkably palatable facsimile. Mixed in a small keg and hooked up to a tap, I doubt this is what Wolf’s saké sommelier course intended when it had him try over 23 varietals in small, ceramic clay cups. Then again, maybe it was; saké is an evolving industry, and as it moves into new markets, its consumption is expanding into new and unexplored territories.

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