By Will Jarvis, Sake Matters

There’s something about flavors that sends ripples of excitement into the North American consumer. We’ve seen it with ice cream, popcorn and candies, more recently with craft beers and now it very much seems the turn of our sake industry to soak up this upsurge in interest.

But first things first, hold onto you o-choko as it only seems right to get the legalities off the table before we get into all things flavored.

In Japan, flavors cannot be added to sake. Well, they can be, but the brewer then gives up the right to call it seishu, the legal term for sake as defined by the Liquor Tax Law.

There are plenty of breweries in Japan making flavored products, some really delicious ones too. It’s hard, for example, to leave Wakayama Prefecture without a couple of mikan mandarin orange and ume plum bottles clanking about in your luggage. 

However, juicy delicious though they are, they are not legally sake.

In North America, the jury’s out on just where to draw the line with our own definitions, legal hardline, simple guideline or otherwise. The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (or TTB) is making labelling a challenge, with set phrases meaning that “infused” is out but “flavors” is in. The latter brings to mind more negative connotations, a heavy handedness that the former doesn’t, and that’s something we’ll be looking at in more detail in 2022.

And that’s probably just as well as there tends to be quite a division between those who like to infuse and those who don’t want to confuse. Sceptics may ask why add a layer of complexity to the sake brewing process with the addition of flavor and is it right to meddle with such a unique and mysterious beverage?

Where do you sit? Take your time to consider that but for now, shake off any preconceptions and see what’s driving innovation at your local sake brewery. There’s a groundswell of activity around flavor and with a neutral hat on it seems this movement is helping to grow sake sales in North America, without causing too much collateral damage to the original recipes.

Leading the case for the defense is Chris Pisano, owner of Apex Flavors, with a long history in the world of flavor and a recent member of the Association: “My family has been in the flavor business since 1933. I started Apex Flavors, Inc. in 2006 to supply smaller manufactures with high quality extracts and flavors.

This almost century working in flavortown has led to one key approach to blending which North America’s sake brewers wholeheartedly support. “We try to help our customers choose flavors that complement the products they are flavoring,” says Chris. “All too often flavors are used to mask the finished product.  We feel the best results are achieved when a flavor complements and enhances the finished product.

Tsuki Sake’s Jill Watanabe walks the same line, explaining “I always try to balance traditional Japanese with modern American in all things with our brand. When infusing this is particularly important because I don’t want to overpower the ‘sake flavor’ entirely with the item we are infusing sake with.

Patrick Shearer would definitely describe himself as an infuser. Having started his sake adventure working with Sake One over ten years ago, there’s not many an aroma he hasn’t considered, or used.

Now at Ben’s American Sake, these last three years have also been spent deep in infused sake too. “We are very focused on using natural ingredients,” says Patrick, “so we use 100% real fruits and juices even though the costs and labor is significantly greater. Ideally when we make our blends the customer will still be aware that the base product is sake.

And therein lies the key point, sake needs to play a starring role in the finished product, and seemingly this adds another skillset to the already difficult process of brewing sake. 

Working with fruit infusions, as the fruits sometimes change in potency and strength, it is always advised to start with less and add more ginger or jalapenos, or whatever the infusions may be, as needed,” explains Patrick.

But with challenge comes opportunity, as Chris Pisano mentions: “Good Sake is typically multi-dimensional and the subtle flavor nuances make it challenging and dare I say fun to flavor.  We are just scratching the surface with what can be done with flavored Sake.

This precarious balancing act, managing the delicate innate DNA of sake with external flavors, has a real and valid purpose, tried and tested in the craft beer industry, as Patrick explains:

I think the craft beer scene in the USA has inspired me to be creative and to be unafraid to push the boundaries when brewing sake and working on new infused blends. There are interesting parallels with craft beer and the German Purity Laws, the Reinheitsgebot, and what we are doing with infused sake and the strong sake brewing traditions of Japan. To see where the craft beer industry has gone in the last 20 plus years is very impressive and I’m sure many of the sake brewers in North America hope we can achieve something similar.” 

A common thread across many online panels and in after-hours brewery tap room discussions is the constant need to educate would be sake consumers about the merits of what is a difficult beverage to understand. Too many dawns have broken on bleary eyed North American revellers who have fallen prey to cheap and badly presented sakes, each vowing a croaky “never again.” 

Sakes made accessible by familiar, safe and normalised flavors is therefore a simple mechanic to tease and nurture potential converts. It seems to work for Josh Hembree of Setting Sun Sake:

I believe that sake can be made most approachable to American palates when flavored or paired with familiar food. Though thankfully, I find that as my patrons become more sake literate, they inevitably become fans of junmai.

And that’s a sentiment mirrored 800 miles or so to the northeast, at Tsuki Sake “I would say that infused sake can be fun to play around with in cocktails. I’ve even seen pickle sake to mix into bloody marys! It definitely can make sake more approachable and easier to try out if there is a recognizable ingredient in it besides ‘rice’ lol. I’m a sucker for a saketini!

Some 2,500 miles east, at Ben’s American Sake, the feeling is the same “Serving infused sake absolutely appeals to a wider audience here in the USA,” says Patrick Shearer. “Many of our customers only have a faint awareness of what sake is and we use our infused products to try and get them to open up and try something new and exciting. We certainly hope that after trying our infusions they will be open to trying our non-infused more traditional products as well.

But does this, to some more cynical readers, sound like an exercise in sleight of hand, masking the true virtues of the sake beverage and distracting the consumer from the Japanese core?

Well I can’t definitively prove that one way or the other but any lingering pangs of guilt could well be assuaged by the collective commitment shared by North America’s brewers to do the right thing by Japan’s industry, whilst wholeheartedly embracing local sourcing.

Whereas the lack of any strict regulations in North America allows sake slinging innovators like Josh Hembree to get all experimental and diverse in this modern day Wild West, it does throw open the door to interpretation. But it seems to be working at both ends of the spectrum.

I abide by the traditional sake methods defined by the Japanese, in which sake is made of rice, water, yeast, koji, and is then pressed. This is how it is defined in Japan,” says Jill Watanabe, a relative newcomer to brewing but making a name for Tsuki Sake in their inaugural year of brewing.

At Ben’s, entering its eighth year of sake brewing and thereby a seasoned bastion in North America’s industry, the story is one more of fusion between east and west:

Occasionally someone will challenge us and say that what we do is not really sake. My response is usually something along the lines of ‘Yes, in Japan, our infused products would not be considered sake and that’s ok. We are making something for the American consumer in our market.’ Our sake is unabashedly American.  We aim to remove any pretension from the experience of serving and drinking this refined drink.

So the choice is up to you, and in so making that choice take your time, discover what’s out there and give all options your keen attention. Key thing is, the winner out there is sake, be it traditional Japanese, America’s finest, flavored or otherwise. Just keep that glass topped up, and those of your drinking partners. 



The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Sake Brewers Association of North America or its members.