When the doors to Caesars Palace’s Augustus Ballroom open for The Joy of Sake at 7:00 p.m. on September 19, guests will see something quite spectacular, even by Las Vegas standards. With a total of 391 competition-level sakes spread out across eight islands, they’ll be looking at the biggest sake tasting display in the world outside Japan.
What is The Joy of Sake? It’s a sort of sake caravan that travels around the world every year. It starts in Honolulu each summer, then heads to the continental U.S. and finishes in Japan in late fall, when the sake-brewing season is underway. But it’s more than a mere caravan: All the sakes are presented for self-serve sampling, and those sips are accompanied by sake appetizers from a dozen of the city’s top restaurants. Organizers decided to bring the event to Las Vegas this year to give the city’s sake enthusiasts and beverage professionals an opportunity to taste the world’s finest sakes in peak condition.
Two things set The Joy of Sake apart. One, the sakes present an amazing variety of styles and expressions. There are artisan labels from every sake-brewing region of Japan, many from breweries held in the same families for centuries. Over half are not even available in the United States, except once a year at The Joy of Sake. And, 175 of the sakes are elegant, ultra-premium daiginjo labels.
The second thing that sets these sakes apart is that all are entries in the 2015 U.S. National Sake Appraisal, which was held in Honolulu in July. This is a rigorous blind tasting, conducted under the guidance of Japan’s National Research Institute of Brewing, established over 100 years ago to elevate the level of sake-brewing. Seven judges from Japan and three from the U.S. spent two days judging all 391 sakes. Those they deemed exceptional are marked at The Joy of Sake with gold and silver stars.
Sakes judged by Japanese standards. When The Joy of Sake started in Honolulu in 2001, American interest in sake was just beginning. That year importers brought in 1,829,536 liters from Japan, but there were challenges. Media reports tended to be more enthusiastic than knowledgeable, so misinformation circulated. Promotional tastings masqueraded as legitimate competitions, with questionable participants awarding themselves grand prizes. For the public, it was getting harder to find out what a good sake really was.
Against this background, in 2001 the members of the International Sake Association, a non-profit in Hawaii, voted to hold a “sake appraisal” in Honolulu, with experienced professional judges from Japan. They would follow the same judging criteria used at the Japan National Sake Appraisal, established in 1904. Four judges from Japan and four from the U.S. graded each entry on balance, aroma, taste and overall impression. Balance was, and is, considered fundamental. Sakes with very full aromas or powerful taste profiles, but without the underlying structure that ties all the elements together in a balanced way, generally do not fare well in the competition.
But there was one thing about the Japanese tradition that the International Sake Association didn’t like. The public sake tasting that follows the Japan National Sake Appraisal every year in Hiroshima is pretty much an industry event. Guests go down long tables with perhaps 150 bottles per table, tasting and spitting, tasting and spitting all the way down the line. This didn’t seem like much fun to people in Hawaii, who wanted a more joyful expression of sake enjoyment. So they invited nine chefs to create sake appetizers, held a ceremonial kagami biraki or “breaking of the cask” at the opening, and staged hula performances throughout the evening. In the first year there were 124 sakes and 450 guests. That’s grown to a record 391 sakes and 1,600 guests this year. Worldwide, The Joy of Sake events will draw more than 3,500 sake enthusiasts in 2015.
In 2003, The Joy of Sake was held in San Francisco for the first time. In 2004, the event began a ten-year run in New York. So far there have been forty events in major cities, with attendance growing by the year. And in a curious way, as the U.S. National Sake Appraisal and The Joy of Sake worked together to introduce to Americans competition-level sakes in perfect condition, sake imports in San Francisco, New York and Honolulu went up. By 2007, when attendance at The Joy of Sake events had grown to 2,500 people, sake imports had doubled from their 2001 level. I suspect this was partially due to the Appraisal’s policy of shipping entries under refrigeration and keeping them in cold storage so they would be at their peak for The Joy of Sake. Importers began adopting this practice, resulting in a marked improvement in sake quality. And of course when sake tastes better, it sells better, and the growing import figures reflected that.
A drink that’s on the rise. Sake is at a crossroads in the United States today. We still lead the non-Japanese world in our understanding of this most enticing and elusive of the world’s three great fermented beverages. Europe lags ten years behind. Across the U.S., imports are up 15.4% over 2014 and will easily top 5,000,000 liters this year. Over the last fifteen years no other category of imported beverage has grown as quickly or as consistently as sake. Wine imports from some countries attain wonderful numbers for a while, but that never seems to translate to the steady, consistent growth that we see with sake as it gradually works its way into the lifestyle of Americans.
What’s keeping it back from even more growth? I think that people’s dining and drinking habits are deeply embedded and don’t change that quickly. It will probably take generations, but if that’s true it’s good news for sake importers and distributors, as well as their restaurant and retail customers. At The Joy of Sake Honolulu, which attracted a record 1,600 people, guests were overwhelmingly in their 20s and 30s. It seems that as they consider what their beverage of choice will be in their lifetimes, many are drawn to sake.
We expect the restaurants at The Joy of Sake Las Vegas to be a big draw. Dishes like Roy’s braised pork belly with huckleberry compote and uni sauce, SushiSamba’s tiradito with salmon, garlic chips and kinkan honey, and Other Mama’s smoked shrimp ceviche with sweet potato chips—not to mention Raku Aburiya’s sashimi slicing station—showcase sake’s versatility as a pairing companion par excellence. Never assertive, always supportive, it complements a wide range of cuisines. Why else do so many chefs reach first for the sake menu when the time comes to relax after a long day in the kitchen?
Great sake and delicious food by themselves still aren’t enough to put an event over the top, as happens every year at The Joy of Sake. Some kind of magic happens when you’ve got more than a thousand people enjoying themselves so much. It’s hard to describe. I hope you’ll have a chance to experience it for yourself.
The Joy of Sake
September 19, 7:00-10:00PM
Caesars Palace, Augustus Ballroom
Tickets $75/$85 at the door
Available online at www.joyofsake.com