Saké (pronounced: sah-keh), the classic alcoholic rice beverage often served with sushi, might have grown up in Japan but has found a second home in Oregon. Founded in 1993 as an importer, SakéOne, located in Forest Grove, became a leader in this move when they built their own brewery in 1998. The inspiration was simply, “To bring premium saké to the United States,” says SakéOne President, Steve Vuylsteke.
Forest Grove may, at first glance, seem like an unlikely place to bring a Japanese cultural gift to the states, but it has something special: water. This is not just any water. The Oregon Coastal Range forms a thriving aquifer that filters as much as 120 inches of annual rain through soils of sediment, sandstone, siltstone, igneous rock and basalt. The resulting water is low in iron and manganese which makes it ideal for the production of premium saké.
Saké production is a unique blend of wine and beer production methods, but made with a totally different base. It is brewed and fermented from rice, rather than other grains or grapes. Water, yeasts and Koji-kin (a magical mold which converts starch to sugar to induce fermentation and create alcohol) are the other essential ingredients.
Saké is produced in a brewery called a Kura and cared for by the Sakémaster, the Toji. Like wine grapes, there are thousands of varieties of rice, each one offering a distinctive expression to add character. At SakéOne’s Kura, they integrate time-honored techniques with modern technology to create a consistent and handcrafted product in several styles and flavors; from dry to sweet and from classic to flavor infused.
Guided by their sister company in Japan, Momokawa, and their master brewer (Toji), Yoshio Koizumi, SakéOne produces close to 100,000 cases per year of their brands Momokawa (traditional style), G (super-premium style) and Moonstone (flavored with pear, raspberry, plum or coconut lemongrass). They also import a distilled spirit, Tombo Shochu, and two brands of sake: Murai Family and Yoshinogawa.
As for serving suggestions, with the exception of the Peaceful River line, saké is usually best served cold in a white wine glass. Pairings? Saké isn’t just for Sushi anymore. “One message that we are working to get out is that saké is great with more than just sushi. Currently one of my favorite pairing is Organic Junmai Ginjo with BBQ,” says Vuylsteke.
Sakés also make a great addition to a mixologist’s tool belt. The flavors are delicious and gluten free, low in calories, and add flavor and body to traditional recipes. SakéOne has created a great pamphlet with lots of their drink ideas, as well as spirit specialists and beverage innovators such as Portland’s Lucy Brennan of Mint/820 and Certified Saké Sommelier, Chris Johnson of New York. Vuylsteke’s favorite drink?
The Mojito Saketini
4oz Momokawa Organic Sake
1/2oz fresh lime juice
1 oz. frozen limeade
4-6 mint leaves
Muddle the mint with ice. Combine with lime juice, limeade, sake and serve on the rocks. Top with a splash of soda
Like many local wineries, SakéOne has a tasting room where curious visitors can increase their saké acumen as they settle into a pleasant environment with indoor space and alluring outdoor seating. They offer three different tasting options, ranging from just $3-$10, and tours are available daily at 1:00, 2:00 and 3:00 p.m. Tours take about 20 minutes and educate visitors on saké classifications and key styles, giving folks the opportunity to view everything from the bottling line to the brewing tanks.
For those interested in learning more about mixing drinks with sake: on the third Saturday of each month, they offer Saketini Saturday, an exploration of saké and cocktail mixing.
Thanks to adventurous sommeliers, curious consumers and domestic producers, this classic rice adult beverage has taken on a fresh life here in Oregon, with an expanded resumé in new food pairings and as a mixer. Saké is a drink lover’s drink: seamlessly mixed in a cocktail or, for folks like me, perfect chilled in a glass to sip on with, well … pretty much anything, or nothing at all.