‘My wife said to me, “if you fail in New York City, that’s cool but if you fail in a smaller city, that’s not so cool.”’ It’s a pessimistic take on Frank Sinatra’s classic line but it nonetheless led Shinobu Kato to open Kato Sake Works, a working sake brewery and bar, in Bushwick, Brooklyn, in 2020. Today, Kato is in good company, with Brooklyn Kura at the far end of the same borough and Dassai Blue opening outside the city in the Hudson Valley. A combination of passionate New York residents and outside investment is making New York a focal point for the burgeoning craft sake brewing scene in the US.
Kato had developed a taste for sake in Tokyo but when he came to the US, he became frustrated by the lack of affordable quality sake. ‘It was either cheap, sushi restaurant hot sake,’ he says, ‘or sake from brands I used to enjoy in Tokyo but at special-occasion pricing.’ Nashville, where Kato was living, was becoming a craft beer hub, so he embraced craft beer instead. He discovered that many craft brewers had started by making beer at home, so he decided to try the same with sake. When the time came to go pro, he came to New York. ‘Booze business is a scale business; if you do small scale, you have to charge higher prices. I wanted to make good sake at a decent price point, like I used to drink in Tokyo.’ New York was a big enough market to match his business model, with a plethora of imported sakes in the market and a vibrant collection of Japanese restaurants of all sorts.
Kato was not the only budding sake brewer who thought so. Brooklyn Kura bottled their first sake in 2018 and have expanded rapidly. Aside from a vibrant market, founders Brian Polen and Brendan Doughan saw additional virtues to a New York location. ‘To produce high-quality sake,’ Polen says, ‘you need a high-quality water source and it just so happens that New York water comes from this beautiful source upstate. It’s soft in the spectrum of Japanese brewing water and gives us a foundation for being able to do a good job. It’s really a testament to New York City investing in what I’ve read is one of the largest public works projects of its time, and we benefit directly from it.’
I wanted to make good sake at a decent price point, like I used to drink in Tokyo
From the beginning, Brooklyn Kura made a point of bridging New York and Japanese worlds; their local opened the door to many non-Japanese restaurants and bars, and they built close relationships with the Japanese sake brands active in the market. ‘We’ve hosted effectively every major sake distributor in the US and their products in our taproom,’ Polen says. Their advocacy for sake as a whole has just expanded with the addition of the Sake Study Center, which will conduct consumer and professional-level sake education programmes helmed by director of education Timothy Sullivan.
The Sake Study Center is just one part of a massive expansion brought about by a strategic investment partnership with Hakkaisan, a major Japanese brewery based in Niigata. The brewery itself has also doubled in size; the larger taproom and menu opened in November 2023. Aside from increased production, the new brewery will allow them to produce fully pasteurised sakes for the first time. Pasteurisation is the norm in the world of sake, which otherwise doesn’t travel as well as, say, wine. The new equipment will greatly expand Brooklyn’s distribution possibilities; Hakkaisan will even be importing the sakes to Japan.
Dassai Blue is the result of another sort of collaboration. Hyde Park, in the Hudson Valley, is home to the Culinary Institute of America, the country’s leading culinary school, and when they offered to support the creation of a sake brewery nearby, Asahi Shuzo, which makes the top-selling Dassai brand in Japan, jumped at the chance. The idea was first broached in 2016 but thanks to Covid and other challenges, the 55,000 square foot brewery only opened in October 2023.
Despite the scale of the project, production is very focused, with only two Dassai Blue sakes in production. ‘In Japan, our brewery only makes one kind of sake, known as Junmai Daiginjo,’ says Dassai Brewery Chairman Hiroko Sakurai. ‘It’s the highest quality sake category. And we only use one rice variety, Yamada Nishiki.’ They’re doing the same in New York. At the moment that means importing the rice from Japan but they’re working with rice growers in Arkansas, the largest supplier of rice in the US, to grow domestic Yamada Nishiki rice next year.
For now that means Dassai Blue, despite being the largest of New York’s sake breweries, is only producing two sakes but Chairman Hiroko Sakurai says they hope to introduce a sparkling nigori sake in the future. Kato Sake Works, on the other hand, typically has nine different sake types in regular rotation, all made from Calrose rice, a US variety also grown in Arkansas. Brooklyn Kura has three sakes in regular production but visitors to their taproom and members of their ‘Kura Kin’ sake club can enjoy a wide variety of limited releases as well. Recent examples include a sake brewed from 100 percent Arkansas-grown Omachi rice and the Three Koji Sour, which is made with koji strains normally used for shochu and awamori rather than sake (koji converts the starches in the rice into sugars, which yeast then ferments into alcohol).
Local sakes have become more refined and consistent in just a few years
George Padilla, co-founder of the restaurant Rule of Thirds and Bin Bin Sake shop, is a fan of this small batch approach. ‘I think it’s an asset for them to be able to brew in small batches and get direct feedback from customers at their taprooms,’ he says, noting that local sakes have become more refined and consistent in just a few years. And ultimately their success is good for sake as a whole. ‘For me, the discussion about local breweries is very important because they really close the gap between something that seems so foreign and so unfamiliar and provide an opportunity for people to go to the brewery, taste fresh sake out of the tank at the taproom and talk to the people that are making it.’
Top sakes to try from New York breweries
Dassai Blue produces two sakes and both are Junmai Daiginjo made from 100% Yamada Nishiki rice. The Type 50 is a similar style to the Japanese Dassai range: aromatically lifted and fruity, light, and with a gentle sweetness. It was recently joined by Type 23, the even more delicate new flagship (the numbers denote how polished the rice is for production i.e. Type 50 means the rice is polished to 50% of its original size. More polishing increases the cost of production.)
Kato Sake Works
All of Kato’s sakes are made from the same kind of rice, Calrose, all milled to 60%. So the differences are all in the brewing process. The kimoto is the most complex, and the nama (unpasteurised) is very fresh and vibrant. They also do a nigori (cloudy) sake that’s drier than typical for the style but still has the fruitiness.
The Number Fourteen, a Junmai Ginjo, has emerged as an unofficial flagship, unpasteurised and made with a mix of Calrose and Yamada Nishiki rice. The Catskills Junmai Daiginjo is in a much more delicate, floral style. Brooklyn Kura (as well as Kato Sake Works) makes an everchanging number of small-batch offerings, sometimes in classic styles like kimoto, sometimes using non-traditional techniques like hops, or koji normally used for shochu production; the latter creates higher, more wine-like acid in the finished sake.