That’s the Spirit!

That’s the Spirit!

Saké in the South

Words by Christine Van Dyk

Photos by Alex Crawford, Carol Spans

The crowd is surprisingly lively for a weeknight. Business types and hipsters mingle as the bartender serves up hand-crafted highballs and specialty drinks. There’s a yakitori grill firing up out back and a vintage Randy Newman song on a turntable, thanks to some 20-something who just discovered 1970s pop. When a group of grad students stumbles in, they head straight for the vinyl records stacked along the cedar bar, making their own contributions to the evening’s playlist.

This place is exactly what you’d picture from a micro neighborhood bar in music city. Only at this bar it’s not White Claws and PBRs on tap; it’s saké.

Rice Vice is part of a growing trend of saké bars popping up across the country, even in the South. Unlike the hot, sugary stuff you order with your California roll, Rice Vice serves a premodern-style saké brewed in-house at its distillery, Proper Saké Co.

“It’s not what you think,” Alli Suthard, Nashville co-ed and recent fan of Rice Vice, said. “The saké is less sweet and fruity, more like what you’d find in Japan. And while you wouldn’t think Nashville would be all that into it, the bar is pretty full for a Wednesday.”

So, why are Americans turning to saké? And why are Southerners suddenly sipping a drink that’s been around since 712 CE?

Saké: It's what you’ll be drinking next

To understand the attraction to this ancient Japanese beverage, we turn to an unlikely source: a 34-year-old woman who is one of the driving forces behind the trend.

Tessa Hahn is the founder and CEO of her own portfolio of beverages. At just 23 she launched a water beverage with members of the Bacardi family and then went on to spearhead, among other things, the rise of rosé wine with Whispering Angel, now the most popular rosé in the world.

“We took a wine that was somewhat dated and turned it into the quintessential day-drink,” she said. “Now I’m looking for what’s next.”

The realization that saké could be that next big thing came when she noticed a growing interest among athletes, health-conscious types, and ambitious professionals.

“I’d begun to shy away from drinking because I didn’t think it was serving me,” she says. “I wanted to feel good the next day, not hungover. It turns out, the problem wasn’t drinking; I was just drinking the wrong things.”

Because of its ancient fermentation process, drinking saké doesn’t lead to hangovers. It’s a clean alcohol without sulfates, gluten, or added sugar—making it appealing for younger drinkers, particularly women. It’s also simple, made from just four ingredients: rice, water, yeast, and a fermentation culture called Koji Kin. But despite the appeal, not all saké is created equal.

Perhaps you associate the drink with late-night college binging. Remember saké bombs? Or, you picture the syrupy, warm drink served at sushi restaurants. Either way, it’s not your fault—you didn’t know better.

Maybe it’s the lack of quality saké served in the U.S., or because, even if you could get your hands on a bottle of the good stuff, it’s doubtful you could read the label unless you were versed in Japanese kanji. Yet despite all the reasons there are to overlook the drink, the taste for saké continues to grow.

For years, Japanese producers didn’t export high-end saké to the United States, so we were left sipping poorer-quality beverages served hot to mask the inferiority. Fortunately, America now grows its own saké rice, a large portion of which comes from artisan craft brewers in the South who are garnering their fair share of spirit awards.

That’s thanks in part to a multi-generational rice farm in Arkansas that, oddly enough, has the same climate as Kyoto, Japan. For years it was believed koshihikari rice couldn’t be replicated outside of Japan. However, today Tessa is working to develop a superior saké that comes from rice that is flooded, farmed, and brewed with water drawn straight from hot springs in Arkansas.

But is there a market for saké apart from sushi? A taste that goes beyond a spicy tuna roll? Tessa claims there is and that it won’t be long before you’ll be sipping it like any other liquor in the bar back.

“You’ll soon see it in full-service bars and private dinner clubs, at the beach and poolside,” she predicts. “As tastes evolve people want something dry, crisp, and clean. They’re looking for something light that leaves them feeling good, without a headache or a groggy feeling.”

But how do you convince people who associate sake’ with the land of the rising sun to try a drink brewed in the Ouachita Mountains of Arkansas? And perhaps more importantly, how do you convince them to order something that can seem a bit intimidating?

Saké bars, like Rice Vice, are attempting to make saké less daunting and even a bit more fun. Japanese-style “listening bars,” where the atmosphere is casual and the vinyl collections are extensive, help create a space where it’s OK to relax, ask questions, and try new things.

For newbies, the best education begins with the bartender. Pull up a seat and tell your mixologist about your typical drink. Do you like beverages that are fruity or bright? Are you opposed to acidity or do you prefer a drink that’s more subtle? Knowing your tastes will help him or her serve up the perfect saké. It’s all about being open and willing to try something new.

The good news is that there are no hard and fast rules, only this: when drinking saké, never pour your own. So, invite your friends, family, or colleagues to join you for a drink. Chat up the bartender and find a saké that’s right for you, then offer to serve the person sitting next to you. As you raise your glass, offer a bit of cheer for the drink, for the fellowship, and for your good fortune. Kanpai!

10 Southern Saké Bars to Visit Now!

  • Ben’s American Saké — Asheville, North Carolina
  • In Between Days — St. Petersburg, Florida
  • NAOE — Miami
  • North American Saké Brewery — Charlottesville, Virginia
  • Origami Saké — Hot Springs, Arkansas
  • Proper Saké Co./Rice Vice — Nashville• Pure Land Saké — Nashville
  • Texas Saké Company — Austin, Texas
  • The Void Saké Company— Lexington, Kentucky
  • Wetlands Saké — New Orleans

Saké Etiquette

  • A serving of saké is typically six ounces.
  • A serving comes in a small carafe known as a tokkuri that is then poured into smaller cups called ochoko.
  • Chilled saké should be between 50 and 55 degrees, so take the bottle out of the fridge at least 30 minutes before serving.
  • Saké is meant to be sipped slowly.
  • Use two hands when receiving or pouring a glass of saké.
  • Drink only when everyone at the table has a full glass.
  • The toast for saké is kanpai! When clinking glasses, make sure the most senior or respected person has the highest-raised glass.
  • Always leave a sip in your cup, otherwise you’ll continue to be served. 
  • Saké is meant to be communal. When you pour a glass for others you create an interaction known as oshaku.
The most important thing to remember? Never serve yourself.