Kokkaku, a Japanese-inflected meat-centric restaurant, opened in Wallingford in July in Miyabi 45th's vacant space. At that point manager Julie Shizukuishi had only two sake options mixed into her wine list, thinking that since Kokkaku doesn’t serve sushi, people wouldn’t care much about sake. But people kept asking.
The list at Kokkaku has since ballooned to around 15 types, most offered by the glass, and many offered in flights of 3 to 5. Shizukuishi now offers printed tasting notes and stats for each.
For a city replete with solid Japanese restaurants—from sushi to ramen to izakaya—sake has taken hold only slowly. Though for a long time it's seemed like it was on the verge of wider acceptance. Our first sake shop, Sake Nomi, opened in 2008. Its owners then told the Seattle Times they were on a mission to make sake “as popular as sushi in America,” but it’s still the lone outpost for serious sake retail. A couple local brewers—Cedar River Brewing and Tahoma Fuji Sake Brewing Company—arrived around 2013, but Cedar River is still the only place brewing on any scale, and it is now leaving its Phinney Ridge location without another lined up; owner Jeff James says it’s time for a break.
Perhaps stranger—given the widespread Japanese influence on restaurant menus—sake only very rarely makes it out of Japanese joints, while European and U.S. wines invade menus all over the city, and it’s possible to find amaro at any non-Italian place with a half-descent cocktail program. The reasons for sake's slow acceptance are as much due to practicalities as taste.
“I think it’s the pronunciation,” Shizukuishi says. “These junmai ginjos. The words scare people,” which is part of why she started offering flights: “So they can just relax and enjoy.”
And for the same reason it can be tough to get an unskunked Heineken in Seattle (or, for that matter, a good American microbrew in Europe), sake is sensitive to import and age. According to Mutsuko Soma—who once helmed Miyabi 45th and is now the chef-owner and sake sommelier of soba and tempura–focused Kamonegi—the rice brew is best served within a month. It loses its nose, the lovely aromatics, frequently within a few days of the bottle being opened, even if it’s refrigerated. Light and heat can damage it easily, much like beer. (The drawn shades and low light in Sake Nomi are not some noirish affectation.)
Soma, who’s also studied wine, said part of sake’s draw for her is how well it pairs with a small plate format. The range of flavors equals that of wines—a bright fruity gingo like a young riesling, a sweet nigori like a drunk take on rice milk—but it’s far more forgiving, not given to the ugly clash of, say, red wine and shrimp. And Soma says many restaurants “offer a ‘Budweiser’ sake,” something simplistic, often coming from a box, served either hot or cold.
Sake is best served cool to lukewarm, but Soma even has an option for those who like it hot: blowfin sake. The Kamonegi crew heat sake and add some salt and a dried blowfish fin, the effect being like a boozy umami-rich consommé.
To explore sake more deeply, Soma and Shizukuishi offer simple advice: Seek out places with good programs, restaurants like Yoroshiku, Sushi Kappo Tamura, and Mashiko. Ask the servers for advice. Try different types, and Shizukuishi says, “If you don’t like it, it’s okay to say it. That’s how you learn.”