When a food makes it onto the list of foods protected by Geographic Indicator laws, that’s when you know it’s officially 'made it.' Sake is joining the ranks of such cherished regional specialties as Parmigiano Reggiano and Champagne with this status, which requires regulations on labeling in order to distinguish between authentic, imported regional products and domestically-produced “knock offs.”
In the case of sake, that means establishing that everything labeled “Japanese sake” is actually made in Japan. It’s estimated that about 70 percent of sake consumed in the U.S. currently is produced domestically rather than imported from Japan. California and Oregon are some of the highest-producing sake states, home to sake producers including Takara and SakeOne.
For Japanese producers, the new regulation could have a favorable effect on U.S. sales; a higher price tag will come to be associated with authenticity and not just, well, more money. “People look at a menu and some sakes are $10, and some go up to $30, $60, or $100,” said sake sommelier and founder of UrbanSake.com Timothy Sullivan in an interview with MUNCHIES. “If the assumption is that all sake is the same, many consumers say, ‘I’ll get the $10 bottle,’ not knowing it came from California. But if there is a clear differentiation that this is premium Japanese sake and that’s why this costs $20, maybe they’ll give that a try.”
It will also be interesting to see how the change in labeling impacts U.S.-produced sake; will the domestic sake industry continue to sell a lot of cheap sake or make a big change in their approach to sake production?
The regulation adds a level of transparency to the sake market that was definitely lacking. And because no international deal really works without a little tit for tat, Japan will return the favor of geographic indication by clearly labeling “Tennessee Whiskey” and “Bourbon Whiskey” so, in the wake of the whiskey boom in Japan, Japanese drinkers know they are getting American whiskey.
Ready to learn more about sake? Watch Martha and Koichi Hara explore different styles of sake and sake cups and bowls: