August 2010

Successful Saké Secrets Revealed

By: Richard Carleton Hacker

At Michael Mina's XIV in West Hollywood, CA, a Rock Saké Berry Sakétini, made with Rock Saké Cloud, vodka, muddled blueberries and fresh lemon, complements the flavors of XIV's interpretation of a central Thailand dish of hamachi sashimi with nuoc cham vinaigrette, salty caramel peanut powder and cilantro with micro basil. Bartender Moira Taylor releases the prime garnish. PHOTO: RICHARD CARLETON HACKER
One of Japan's oldest alcoholic beverages has just become one of America's hottest new cocktail commodities—and it only took 1,700 years to make it to the back bar. But now you can throw away those traditional wooden maso boxes and ochoko ceramic cups; you won't need them for this 21st-century libation. Instead, bring out the rocks glasses and stemware, because the secret to saké's success is out: It's called Rock Saké and it's made in Oregon with pure coastal mountain water and Sacramento-grown rice and is crafted specifically for American tastes. In fact, it is the only American-named and -owned saké on the market.

Moreover, Rock Saké has two distinctive flavor profiles, not to mention a name that customers can pronounce. Plus, it is gluten free, sulfite free and lower in calories than most hard liquors. Needless to say, the Americanization of this ancient Japanese drink is changing the way mixologists and their customers call for cocktails.

In its simplest form, saké (pronounced "sah-KAY") is a fermented rice beverage, made from polished rice and 80 percent water, to which a kōji, or fermenting agent, is added to convert the rice starches into sugar. But then it starts to get complicated, as there are seven different classifications of saké, and up until now, all had unpronounceable brand names (unless you were conversant in Japanese) and were rarely found outside traditional Japanese establishments.

So not only was saké hard for most Americans to categorize and define, it was linguistically impossible to call for, either on-premise or off. But an innovative Southern California entrepreneur has changed all that.

"I used to be in the wine business and had only tried low quality hot saké," said Seth Podell, who, with his partner, Brad Paddock, founded Rock Saké. "Then one day I met a saké sommelier in a sushi restaurant who introduced me to premium saké, which, of course, was served chilled. I loved it, but couldn't pronounce nor remember the name, so I couldn't order it again. Besides, I didn't want to just have it with sushi. It was such a great drink, why was it only available in Japanese restaurants? 

"So I started studying saké and ended up going to Japan and meeting with brewers. I decided I wanted to create a user-friendly saké for Americans, something light and non-astringent, without the bite. Ironically, I found myself talking with a master saké brewer in Oregon. After 18 months of working together, we finally got the exact flavor profile I was searching for."

SushiSamba signature cocktail The Kumori features nigori saké, shochu, gin, muddled cucumber and an addictive noriwasabi powder-salt rim. PHOTO: SABIN ORR
Just introduced, two grades are offered. Rock Saké Junmai Ginjo, in the white bottle, is a crisp, clear, ultra-premium saké. It can easily be substituted in any cocktail that normally calls for vodka. Its flavor, of course, is quite different, and there are subtle hints of mild cherries and lime; its crisp freshness is somewhat akin to taking a power shower in rainwater. Although a Cucumber Rock Sakétini immediately comes to mind, serving it neat, chilled and straight up would be Rock Saké Junmai Ginjo in its purest form.

Rock Saké Cloud is an unfiltered saké type known as nigori, which means "cloudy." It is aptly named, for it has an opaque texture that will gradually become denser unless the bottle is shaken each time it is poured. Nigori is the most traditional of sakés, and its taste is noticeably more pronounced, with a mouthfeel reminiscent of gin, but with a flavor fusion of mossy earth with a touch of sweet and sour. 

One can't help but think of it in Polynesian cocktails, or perhaps served straight up with a splash of olive brine as a "Dirty Cloud." Both Rock Saké Junmai Ginjo and Rock Saké Cloud should be refrigerated once opened and consumed within five days to preserve their natural freshness. In essence, think of them as fine white wines.

"It takes a brand to make a category," says Podell, "and Rock Saké is that brand."

Rock Saké at Sushi Samba: This is How They Do It in Vegas

From the moment you hear the name, see the bottle, and taste the product, one word comes to mind: Vegas. Sexy Rock Saké seems like a perfect fit for Sin City, a longtime proving ground for new spirit categories.

With Las Vegas now truly taken with mixology madness, not to mention a significant Asian presence, there couldn't be a better time for the approachably hip sip. And there couldn't be a better ambassador for the brand in Vegas than funky fusion restaurant-lounge SushiSamba in the Palazzo. Still, SushiSamba General Manager Hayes Swope admits he was a reluctant admirer. "I'm a snob," he tells THE TASTING PANEL, speaking at length about rare bottles in SushiSamba's saké cellars and his certainty that an American-brewed saké wouldn't be up to his standards. But, he admits, "when I tasted it, my prejudice went away."
SushiSamba General Manager Hayes Swope with Rock Saké’s Seth Podell. PHOTO: SABIN ORR

It is, he claims, "the first U.S. saké I've let step foot in SushiSamba." For Rock Saké's Seth Podell, SushiSamba was a crucial stepping stone. The chain (with outlets in New York, Chicago and Miami) was a pioneer in saké cocktails and blends Peruvian and Brazilian flavors with sushi and robata to combine as the perfect showcase for saké's cultural flexibility.

It took very little time for Rock Saké to prove its worth to SushiSamba. "When you pour the bottle, people want to know what it is, and that helps sell it," says Swope, noting that saké cocktail sales have increased exponentially. The brand has become almost the exclusive mixing saké for all of the restaurant's branches-Chicago being particularly enthusiastic. And needless to say, many other Vegas outlets are now interested. "It's approachable but sophisticated," Swope says with a smile; "the kind of girl you want to party with all the time."  —E. C. Gladstone

Michael Mina's XIV: Staying Ahead of the Curve with Rock Saké

Now with a completely revamped menu that emphasizes both individual and chef's choices, Michael Mina's XIV ─a Sam Nazarian SBE/Mina Group partnership─ is once again kick-starting the L.A. dining scene into passing gear. And honing this cutting edge is the decision to add Rock Saké cocktails to the West Hollywood hotspot's bar menu.

At Michael Mina's XIV, Rock Saké's Seth Podell (left) and Boe Trumbull, Senior Director of Operations for SBE Entertainment, opt for Seth's favorite drink, Rock Saké chilled and straight up. PHOTO: RICHARD CARLETON HACKER
 "I work with mixologists and sommeliers of our different divisions to create unique and special profile cocktails to insure SBE is ahead of the market curve," says Boe Trumbull, Senior Director of Operations for SBE Entertainment. "I found Rock Saké to be a very innovative and approachable product: versatile, high-quality and with a very fresh approach to the saké category.

"We're constantly looking for ways of providing a well-rounded beverage program that can expand beyond vodka, gin and tequila. We want drinks that mix well with natural ingredients, sit well by themselves or be combined with non-traditional formats. One of the things that Seth and Rock Saké offer is a duel set of products that does all these things. As a result, we're creating innovative cocktails with Rock Saké for SBE properties that nobody else will have.

"I deal with a lot of companies and buy millions of dollars worth of product a year, and I believe Rock Saké is going to be one of the country's hottest new products. Will it ever overtake vodka? No. But will it be the next sub-culture leader of mixology? I think it will be."  —R. C. H.

Thompson Beverly Hills: Where the Hip Sip

A sophisticated clientele seek the celebrity-friendly solitude of this tucked-away luxury hotel miraculously hidden in plain sight on Wilshire Boulevard. The ABH (Above Beverly Hills) 360-degree rooftop bar sets the scene for rollicking poolside parties and romantic star-studded nights. Six private cabanas with TVs and mini-fridges keep the Rock Saké cold.

"We've been offering exclusive frozen Rock Saké drinks at our summer pool parties, and they've gone over extremely well," says Jameel Gaskins, Food & Beverage Director of Thompson Beverly Hills. "There's so many different things you can do with this quality product that we put it on our drinks list. Our customers know what they want and tend to order by brand. So why not have Rock Saké become their call saké of choice?

"It's up to us and Rock Saké to make guests knowledgeable about the product, and I think word of mouth and the mixed drinks we're doing will speak volumes. Because it's such a clean, fresh taste, we use fresh ingredients such as grapefruit, limes, lemons, strawberries-any of those fresh juices go extremely well with Rock Saké. We had been thinking about having frozen drinks for quite some time, but anyone can do a Daiquiri. But a frozen Rock Sakétini? I challenge anyone to tell me where they've seen that before."  —R. C. H.

Rock Saké founder Seth Podell and Jameel Gaskins, Food & Beverage Director of Thompson Beverly Hills, enjoy a Sweet Sakétini, a Ms. September cocktail and the Beverly Hills skyline from The Swarovski crystal-studded rooftop swimming pool of the Thompson Beverly Hills. PHOTO: TOM ZASADZINSKI

 The Thompson Recipes

Ms. September

2 oz. Rock Saké (Cloud)
1 oz. St-Germain elderflower liqueur
1 oz. fresh lime juice
1 oz. fresh cucumber juice

Serve frozen or on the rocks.

Sweet Sakétini

1½ oz. Rock Saké (junmai ginjo)
1½ oz. Absolut Citron vodka
Splash fresh grapefruit juice
Splash fresh cranberry juice
Splash fresh lime juice

Serve frozen or straight up.

Rock Saké Cloud, an unfiltered nigori, (left) and Rock Saké junmai ginjo stand tall behind Thompson Beverly Hills's signature poolside cocktails: Sweet Sakétini, served both frozen and straight up, and Ms. September, on the rocks and frozen. PHOTO: TOM ZASADZINSKI



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