Co-founder Troy Nakamatsu (left) in the production room
I am a proud ABJ (American Born Japanese). So when I see a new ABS (American Born Sake) on the market, I'm rooting for them. In the eyes of others, ABS' might be hard to categorize, are marginalized, or considered inauthentic, but they have the same spirit as any American – resourceful and innovative, with an optimistic outlook to boot.
Kayoko and I first met founder and brewer of Sawtelle Sake, Troy Nakamatsu at our event in LA at Yojimbo last fall. Nakamatsu is a ball of energy – brimming of ideas and positivity. His outlook on craft sake in the U.S. is inspiring and I can't wait to see where Sawtelle Sake goes.
Their flagship sake, Clear Skies, is a perfect reflection of Nakamatsu himself. First off, it's in a can, which makes it feel casual yet practical, and it's adorned by the brewery's mascot Daryl, the daruma, who "dusts himself off and tries again," (learn more about Daryl below).
Nakamatsu was kind enough to take some time to answer some questions we had for him about Sawtelle Sake and Clear Skies. He'll also be at our bar April 24 to pour his sake. Stay tuned for details for the event.
How did you get into sake making in the U.S.?
Brewing sake started off as a hobby with small batch doburoku (rustic sake) made from koji and rice I was able to get at my local Japanese grocery store. If you've never tried making doburoku, it's surprising how good a simple fermentation can be. I became increasingly interested in complicating my homebrews; eventually, I ended up hand-making koji and experimenting with the sandan-shikomi method. I was determined to figure out sake fermentation despite the many difficult challenges that come with the finely detailed process.
What did you do before entering the sake industry?
My career (during this hobby phase) was in investment management at a large bank and I came to the realization that if I didn't pursue sake at that point, it might never happen. So I left my job in 2019 to start Sawtelle Sake with my business partner.
What would you say sets Sawtelle Sake apart from other U.S. sake breweries?
Sawtelle Sake fully expresses the unique flavors of locally-grown California rice using traditional methods and techniques. We are somewhat similar to Japanese breweries in that sense. Some of the equipment and processes are not exactly traditional, but that's mostly due to a lack of access to sake-specific tools in the U.S.
Our business strategy, however, aims to completely shift the consumer perception of sake. Our goal is to make sake mainstream which means educating consumers and breaking down the barriers that make sake hard to order and relegated to Japanese menus. We are convinced that American consumers haven't been given the proper chance to order and understand sake, and we hope to change that dynamic.
Why did you choose your location as the site of the brewery?
Our current location is in a shared production space with a distillery named Ventura Spirits. I'm pretty sure we are the first sake brewery to be co-located with a distillery in the U.S. Our partnership with Ventura Spirits has allowed us to avoid starting from scratch, saving us considerable time, money, and headaches. Because we have been expanding as a business, we are currently in the process of securing a dedicated facility in Los Angeles.
How do you introduce your sakes to people who don't know anything about sake?
There are a lot of misconceptions of what sake is and how to drink it. Some folks think it's distilled like vodka; many others think it must be served warm. I frequently hear people express that they don't know the correct way to drink sake. Our approach is to first acknowledge the experience people have had with sake and clarify that there really is no wrong way to drink it.
We then explain how our sake is made with only four ingredients, and that we source all of our rice locally. Finally, we highlight our tasting notes – ripe melon and green grape, and explain the playfulness of acidity and its importance in sake. Our sake, Clear Skies, is a clean, fruit-forward junmai with a pronounced acidity profile, brewed specifically to be easy to drink.
What are some challenges that you face as a sake maker in the U.S.?
Production is always the biggest challenge. Scaling production to allow for wider distribution has been the hardest thing I've ever done. Having to design large-scale equipment while also repurposing equipment made for beer or wine production (with the hope that it works out for our needs) has been very stressful.
Because there is no history of sake production here, we don't have a blueprint to follow or resources to rely on. There is a great community of sake brewers here in the U.S. but it's small. I think we're all experiencing similar production problems to different degrees.
The other huge challenge we face daily is changing the perception of what sake is and how to drink it. This becomes the key issue when pitching new accounts, which for us is mostly restaurants and bars. How sake fits into different menus and educating beverage staff on how to talk about sake with customers has been something we are constantly evolving and developing.
Spreading the steamed rice for koji-making
You are tackling challenges on all fronts, from production to marketing. What are some creative things you've done to confront those challenges?
On the production side, we've been constantly experimenting and learning how to design equipment that operates efficiently in a production system. We've worked with a few local tank manufacturers to build custom tanks and have also done a bit of welding ourselves for equipment like our steamer. Our shubo (main mash) tank is a repurposed industrial jacketed kettle that was originally used for soups, which works great.
And how about on the marketing side?
To help push sake into the mainstream, one thing we've had a lot of success with is bringing in bar staff for a private tasting and sake training whenever we get a new account. It's a great time for everyone and really gets the staff excited about our sake and the story behind it.
Where do you think sake in the U.S. is headed?
The direction right now is incredibly positive for numerous reasons. The American sake brewing industry is still in its infancy but more and more breweries are popping up every year. It's really incredible to see different brewers taking the leap and pushing sake in so many interesting ways.
I believe the entire category has a lot of room to run. As the American brewing industry grows, consumers will begin to expect to see sake at restaurants, bars, BBQs, stadiums, and other places. This goes for American and Japanese sake. Consumers already like sake, they just need to know how (and be able) to order it.
I am also seeing a significantly increased demand for sake as a base for canned cocktails. This could be a massive development for the industry because of the potentially large volume demands. Because sake is treated as a wine, replacing a spirit base with a sake base in a cocktail opens a lot of distribution opportunities for canned cocktail brands. And because sake mixes so well with so many different types of flavors, this really could help grow the American sake industry to larger scale production.
How do you think the taste profiles of U.S. sake vs. Japanese sake differ?
It's so hard to compare all the different types of domestic and Japanese sake out there! From my perspective, in terms of consumer preferences, there aren't well established flavor profiles here in the U.S. that consumers expect to taste.
This is important because, for example, in Japan, even the most inexperienced drinker could have a preference for amakuchi (sweet) vs. karakuchi (dry). A large majority of Japanese sake can fit into categories that are understood well. In the U.S., this is just not the case. Consumers here don't have a developed framework for what sake should taste like, and because of this, I feel American sake brewers maybe have more room to be creative with flavor profiles.
Ultimately, the American sake brewing world is still so small at this point that I don't think you could really identify an "American style." Time will tell as American brewers progress.
What is your favorite thing about sake-making?
The one thing that I still can't get over is how four simple ingredients can come together to make so many different things. Fermented rice is really something beautiful.
We are offering Clear Skies to our Level 1 Sake Gumi members this month. I'd love to learn more about how this sake came about.
Clear Skies is an expression of our locally-grown Yamada Nishiki. It's brewed to be clean and very easy to drink. It's meant to pair well with all types of modern American food or enjoyed alone. Our intention is to make it hard to put down.
This is the second sake we produced at Sawtelle but it really is our flagship product that represents who we are as a company. My goal was to brew a solid junmai ginjo before moving on to anything else. All of my energy over the last three years went into this.
I love the packaging and label – it evokes the Southern California feel, with a full nod to the Japanese American community.
A very talented local L.A. artist named Joel Zuercher came up with the original sketch of our logo. The face of Sawtelle Sake is Daryl: a papier-mâché doll known as a Daruma in Japan. We took inspiration from my neighborhood, Sawtelle, which was one of the only areas in L.A. where Japanese immigrants were initially allowed to settle, only to lose everything and be sent to internment camps during WWII.
Japanese Americans eventually came back to restart and create one of the only four recognized Japantowns in the U.S. The fighting spirit and determination of these families is a testament to the saying, "fall down seven times, stand up eight," which is what the Daruma dolls reminds us of. Daryl is the name Daruma chose for himself when he came to L.A., trying to fit into American culture, pouring sake everywhere he goes.
Darryl the daruma in the koji!
What are some aromas and tasting notes you have for this sake?
Clear Skies is unpasteurized and has a pretty lively mouthfeel. Juicy notes of ripe melon, green grape, honeycomb, and citrus are present but not overpowering. Soft umami finish. I put a lot of effort into the acidity profile which is really pronounced and allows it to be easily paired with heavier foods.
We love pairing Clear Skies with pepperoni pizza and hot fried chicken. This might sound strange but we actually do this with our private tastings and the response is always great. It really shocks people how well our sake pairs with these type of full flavor dishes.
I will have to try it with World Famous Hotboys right down the street from us in Oakland. What about drinking temperature?
5-10 mins out of the fridge is the perfect temperature. Straight out of the can or in glass are both perfect.
We love seeing the reactions of people who come to the Umami Mart bar when they've tried something new. Can you share some unique or interesting reactions of this sake from your customers that you never thought of or didn't expect?
It really never occurred to me that some customers order alcohol based on the highest ABV. We are in a few beer and wine restaurants where we stand out as the highest ABV item at 16%. We sell quite well where we are the highest ABV item.
Can people your brewery for a tour and/or other offerings?
Yes, we have a private tasting experience in the Sawtelle area. Reservations can be made here.
Noted, Kayoko and I will definitely make reservations next time we are in L.A.
What are some plans you have for 2022 and beyond? Anything new or exciting?
We're finalizing a new dedicated production facility in LA. Early plans are for production to begin by year-end. This allows us to scale production for much wider distribution. We also will continue our cocktail and product collaborations with different local brands and artists. Potentially bringing on a spokesperson for the brand and ambassador of sake is something we hope to finalize soon.
Finally we have always been working on a kasutori shochu product which allows us to become a zero waste brewery. Many things left to iron out before that becomes an actual product, but feedback on our initial batches has been very positive.
Wow, lots in store. And of course, on April 24, we'll host a pizza party with you and Sawtelle Sake! We can't wait to invite our people and have them try your sakes.