Sake. A four-letter word we either love or love to hate. Co-founders, Jon Rugg and Troy Nakamatsu of Sawtelle Sake have decidedly turned sake on its head, but it’s not as easy as they make it look. It feels trendy to be drinking sake from a can at their headquarters, but Nakamatsu and his COO, Maxwell Leer, discuss the stigma that they’ve unwittingly inherited simply by going into business as sake brewers.
“Most Americans’ first experience with sake was at some Japanese-American restaurant where they were served industrialized sake that was nuked in a microwave.” Leer continues, “When you heat something, inevitably the alcohol evaporates and it concentrates the sugar and you get a hangover.” And just like that, he describes my own experience with sake, as I recall the microwave pinging in the back of the Chinese restaurant just before the waiter set the carafe in front of my mom.
I’ve been invited to their offices – a two-bedroom apartment on Sawtelle Boulevard where their tasting room is in the works. Nakamatsu’s passion for good quality, local sake is palpable and his knowledge about the process, history and culture surrounding it runs deep. “Fermenting rice is not something people normally first land on when they’re trying to start their fermentation journey,” he jokes. His journey began as a hobby in 2012 and seven years later, it grew into a business and a tiny can named “Clear Skies,” which is crisp and delicious.
Sawtelle Sake sponsors an excitement about not only their products, but the process, the culture, the methods and of course the honor encompassing all of it. Making koji, which is the basis of brewing sake, takes hours and the rice is treated almost like a baby. It’s flipped and covered in blankets and left to rest for twelve hours. (A 12-hour nap would be a dream for any parent).
They’ve embraced the obstacles presented by owning a sake business and have recently come out with ‘Pink Can’, a pleasant sake spritz they concocted by adding the highest quality Japanese brown sugar (kokuto) and yuzu they could find. “We made every effort to buck the trend,” Troy says. “This can is packed literally with the most expensive ingredients we could find. No one would ever think to mix this with anything else. It’s just not done. We took a very high-quality sake, mixed it with high quality ingredients and came out with this high quality can,” he says referring to the dearth of bottled sake cocktails in the marketplace.
I’ve never loved my job more than when I’m sitting with these gentlemen sampling sakes and the ingredients they use. “So, wait, I’m eating moldy rice?” I ask incredulously, as I wash it down with a sip of Pink Can. “We like the phrase malted rice or inoculated rice,” Leer replies, referring to the koji they use as a starter in fermenting sake.
Sake has many health benefits, especially when its ingredients are sourced locally. Filtered, yet unpasteurized to this point, sake is fermented, but unlike wine, contains no sulfites. Naturally gluten free, it contains more amino acids than other beverages.
Behind the can lies carefully factored ratios and scientific preparation. As Troy discusses fermentation and rice starch ratios, he tells me about the importance of the Yamada Nishiki rice they use and its starch content. It all comes down to the inner core and outer bran and their ratio. They source their rice from California where a small percentage of the crop is used to brew sake. Using California rice not only keeps it local, but also ensures the heavy metal content is lower than rice grown elsewhere (you’ll find the lowest levels of arsenic in rice grown here and in Southeast Asia).
It’s not all fun and games for these two, though they admit having to sample sake during the work day more often than not (poor guys). The farms from which they source their rice participate in the Ricelands Waterbird Foundation’s program that sponsors wetlands for birds after the rice is harvested. In creating homes for birds that would otherwise have to migrate elsewhere due to drought, they’re one step closer to sustainability.
Their newest product, and perhaps their secret weapon, is called ‘Super Drink,’ as it’s known in Japan. Referred to as a ‘drinkable IV-drip’ by many, it is a probiotic, packed with good bacteria, B vitamins and other nutrients. Super Drink, or amazake, is a byproduct from making koji and is versatile by any respect. Having a similar consistency to kefir, it is naturally sweeter and takes on the taste of whatever it’s mixed with. Nakamatsu and Leer hope to see cutting edge restaurants integrate it into dishes like dressings, ice creams and even marinades. Marinating meat in Super Drink, the pair claim, can cut down on aging time for meats by days if not weeks.
From a hobby started 11 years ago came Clear Skies, the quaint little can. Now Pink Can has joined the Sawtelle Sake family. With their exciting addition of ‘Super Drink’ they’re just getting started and turning the world of sake on its head. “There’s a saying in Japan ‘If you fall down seven times, you get up eight’.” It doesn’t look like they have far to fall to me.
Sawtelle Sake is available at Blackbeard’s Crafts on Sawtelle and the restaurants Cento, Shibumi, Otium, Crudo e Nudo, Father’s Office as well as at other retailers and restaurants across LA.
Easy (& Delish) Miso Soup
5 1/2 cups water, divided
1 large piece of kombu (about 3 inches), unrinsed
3 tablespoons wakame, rehydrated
1/4 cup organic white miso
1/3 block medium firm organic tofu, cubed
2 green onions, sliced
In a large pot, simmer 5 cups water and kombu for ten minutes.
While simmering, place wakame in 1/2 cup water to rehydrate.
Discard kombu and add miso, whisking until dissolved.
Add green onions and tofu.
Katharine A. Jameson