At the Japanese restaurant Yuzu in Quebec, Canada, just over an hour's flight from New York, a Japan-themed party is being held.
Two men are wearing "happi" coats: Frenchman Dominique Grandemenge, 53, and American Keith Norum, 50. They are the overseas sales representatives for the Nagano-based Miyasaka Brewing Co., makers of the sake Masumi, and have come to be known as the "sake samurai."
Loud dance music plays and images of geisha appear on a screen. The 70 guests partake of hors d'oeuvres together with chilled Masumi served in wine glasses.
"I think the combination of sushi and sake will do well in Quebec too," says Frederick Matte, 33, the owner of the store hosting the party. "People still don't know much about sake, so we have an opportunity right now."
Despite the fact that the market remains small, some sake producers are introducing their wares to regional North American cities.
Before the party began, the sake samurai gave a training session for staff at a large liquor retailer in inner city Quebec. The store stocks around 2,500 bottles of wine, and in the sake section set off to one corner, there are as many as 15 major brands such as Hakutsuru, Shochikubai and Gekkeikan. Grandemenge imparted sake knowledge in French.
"Over half of the rice is polished away to make 'daiginjo.' " "The yeast brings out a fruity aroma."
Miyasaka Brewing President Naotaka Miyasaka, 56, has bitter experiences of exporting his products to the United States. In the mid-1980s, he targeted resident Japanese and Japanese Americans. However, in some cases his sake was left on supermarket shelves for extended periods, causing it to turn yellow.
At a sushi restaurant on the West Coast, he got into an argument with a chef who said his sake tasted bad. He became despondent over the lack of understanding of sake and eventually pulled the plug on exports.
Miyasaka decided to make another go of it in the late 1990s and changed his strategy, selling to establishments managed by non-Japanese.
"Japanese are sensitive about how foreigners react," says Grandemenge. "If we can gain a favorable reception overseas, people will turn their attention to sake again." This summer, Grandemenge and Norum are making the rounds of even smaller markets such as Spain and Denmark.
There is also an emerging trend of sake production in the United States. The Texas Sake Co. is located in Austin, the state capital of Texas. Its president and "toji" (master brewer) is locally raised Yoed Anis, 29, who quit his job as an IT engineer and set up the company last October with his life savings.
His sake is made from organically cultivated Texan rice, which is polished sparingly to preserve 77 to 80 percent of the grains. "Japanese daiginjo is overly polished, and the flavor is too uniform," Anis says. "I want to make a local sake that better utilizes the rice as an ingredient and has a uniquely Texan personality."
The production process may be time-consuming and costly, but as it does away with the need to pay for freight across the Pacific Ocean, this local brew is being viewed as a viable competitor for sake imported from Japan.
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