This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2009, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
For years, most Americans knew sake -- assuming they knew it at all -- as a hot, jet fuel-like drink sipped from thimble-sized cups between bites of sushi.
Turns out, we were swallowing schlock.
"There wasn't a lot of selection and what did come to us was an inferior brew," says Ed Lehrman, founder of Vine Connections, a wine and sake importer.
"Distribution of sake was limited to Japanese trading companies. They sell you the food, the plates, the sake. It's one-stop shopping for sushi restaurants. In that environment, sake wasn't getting its due. And the majority of the sake exported was table sake, which isn't very good."
But about 10 years ago, two things changed that.
In the U.S., Asian food trends boomed. Asian and Asian-fusion restaurants flourished, non-Asian restaurants served dishes with ingredients such as miso, wasabi and edamame, and grocers offered more ethnic fare.
At the same time, the Japanese began turning their noses up at sake. In Japan, young drinkers view sake as old fashioned, favoring beer and wine instead. As a result, sake consumption has fallen sharply since 1995.
To survive, premium sake (pronounced SAH-kay) brewers in Japan turned to Americans and began working with importers, who introduced sake to the fine wine market.
"Non-Japanese companies started importing sake and doing dog-and-pony shows to educate people about it," says Beau Timken, author of "Sake: A Modern Guide."
"Some educators started coming online," he says. "Restaurateurs are making an incredible effort to get people to try something they're not used to. Sake started getting more face time."
Americans' thirst for sake exploded. The U.S. has become the largest importer of Japanese sake worldwide.
During the past five years, the volume of sake brought from Japan has grown about 14 percent a year (987,475 gallons in 2007 and estimated at more than 1 million gallons for 2008), with an estimated total retail value around $150 million.
Now, restaurants such as Shibuya at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas even have a sake sommelier on staff to guide guests through their 110 sake offerings.
It's even increasingly common to find sake on the wine lists of non-Asian eateries. Chanterelle, New York's famously high-end French restaurant, has been hosting an annual sake tasting dinner for the past nine years.
Drinking sake at home also has become easier as premium sakes show up at more grocers, wine shops and stores like Timken's True Sake in San Francisco, which are dedicated solely to the Japanese drink.
And single-serve, sake drinks such as sake2me, a lightly carbonated sake that comes in Asian-themed flavors such as yuzu and ginger mango, are on the upswing; sake2me launched last year and is already available in 16 states.
Despite the upswing in consumption, most people still know little about it. Though often called rice wine, sake is brewed like a beer. "Sake is built like beer and drinks like wine," explains Timken.
Like beer, sake is fermented from a grain -- in this case rice -- whereas wine is made from fruit. Brewers polish the grains of sake rice to remove the outer coating.
How much of the outer layer is milled away is part of what determines the sake's grade. Brewers then steam the rice and add yeast to it so it will ferment before aging. Filtering and pasteurizing the sake completes the process.
"Another common misconception is serving temperature," says Timothy Sullivan, who runs the UrbanSake blog and teaches a Sake 101 class. "Some people think it must always be served cold. Others think it must be served hot. The truth is it depends on your mood and what kind of sake you're drinking."
Heating often is used to mask lower quality sakes, but some do blossom with a little warmth. However, for the most part, high-quality sakes are best consumed cold and out of wine glasses.
And as French, American and other non-Asian restaurants have demonstrated, sake isn't just for Asian food.
In general, delicate sakes -- those that have more of the outer layer milled away -- pair better with lighter food so the sake is not overwhelmed by the meal. More robust sakes can stand up to heartier flavors.
"Part of sake's appeal is that there's no snob factor," says Timken. "Don't be afraid to experiment, taste lots of different types and ask questions. That's how you learn. I have all these sake licenses. I'm even a sake samurai. But I'm just a guy from Ohio. If I can learn to understand sake, anyone can."