Aspen’s Kenichi knows sake
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
ASPEN – When Scott Brasington began working at Kenichi in the mid-’90s, the hot thing at the Aspen restaurant was hot sake. Brasington says that about 95 percent of the sake he poured was the hot variety. But as Brasington rose through the ranks – he is now managing partner of the Kenichi in Aspen, as well as the branches in Austin and Dallas – he became educated about the Japanese beverage.
Serving sake hot, he said, “is masking the flavors. It’s cheap sake, with alcohol added to it. But it’s all people knew.”
Brasington has cooled off his audience of diners. He reports that Kenichi now serves far more cold sake than hot – about 80 percent is now served cold. He credits the swing to staff training and education of his customers. “Even though hot sake has a higher profit percentage, I’d rather serve a higher quality product to go with our food,” he said.
Since December, the product he has served most is Kenichi’s own brand of sake. Last winter, Brasington and founding partner Bil Rieger unveiled Tanuki’s Magic Junmai Daiginjo Sake, and have watched it become the restaurant’s most popular sake. (For the moment, it is available only in the restaurants.) And the educational component of Brasington’s job has been amplified.
Brasington explains to interested customers that “junmai” means nothing has been added. “A lot of sakes have alcohol added. This is just water, rice, yeast, and koji, the mold spore,” he said.
“Daiginjo” refers to the quality of the rice. For all sakes, the rice is milled down so that the inside heart of the kernel, the most flavorful part, is used. Regular sakes strip away 30 percent of the kernel. Daiginjo refers to sakes that strip away half of the kernel. The process is longer, and more rice is required overall, but Brasington thinks the flavor justifies the effort. Kenichi’s brand mills away 60 percent of the rice. “You’re trying to get to the heart of the kernel, where the best rice is,” Brasington said, adding that the other key to his sake is the “soft, smooth” water that comes from a stream in the eastern hills of Kyoto.
The best part of the story, however, is Tanuki. When Brasington and Rieger did a three-week tour of Japan in 2007, to taste sake and start up their own brand, they noticed a familiar figure hanging outside many of the sushi restaurants.
“We’d see these statues of what looked like a badger. He’s got a hat on, a flask in one hand, and in the other, what looked like a bunch of tickets,” Brasington said. “Also, huge testicles.”
That was Tanuki, a character in Japanese folklore who dates back a thousand years. The fun-loving Tanuki would come into a sushi shop, have a drink, get rowdy, steal the women. And when he left, the money he paid would turn into leaves – “Like he didn’t pay you at all. Those are the tabs in the other hand,” Brasington said.
The figure of Tanuki, he added, “means it’s a welcoming place, a fun place. And that it has sake – that’s the flask. When Bil and I were told these stories, we said, ‘That’s us. That’s what we’re going to name the sake.'” Kenichi’s bottle, designed by Aspenite Katie Viola, is centered around an image of Tanuki. “We removed the large testicles, but he’s peeking around the corner; he’s mischievous,” Brasington said.
With three Kenichi restaurants (the two Kenichi spots in Hawaii and owned and run by Kenichi Kanada, who co-founded the Kenichi in Aspen with Rieger in 1991), and an in-house brand of sake, Brasington is on the leading edge of sake-drinking in the U.S. The Texas Kenichis boast two level-two sommeliers, the highest designation given to sake experts, and there are three more level-one sommeliers in the Kenichi empire. Two long-time employees at the Aspen location, Chase Cook and Bill Dougherty, will start training in August.
Brasington said his growing force is an outgrowth of the opening up of Japan’s great wall around sake. For years, the Japanese kept sake-making a tightly held secret. But recently sake sales in Japan have nose dived – mainly because younger people see it as their grandparents’ beverage, Brasington explained – and they have opened themselves to the world. One result is that sake sales in the U.S. have skyrocketed – by roughly 20 percent a year over the last decade or so, according to Brasington.
“Americans are getting educated,” said Brasington, who is returning to Japan in October to participate in the brewing process. “When I started with Kenichi, we had four or five dusty bottles [of cold sake] on the shelf. They drank hot sake; that flew out the door. Over time, as more information became available, we passed it on to our customers. They learned that better sakes should be drunk cold. You shouldn’t shoot it like a shot.”
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