The idea of sharing a drink amongst friends after a long day is practically a religion in Japanese culture. But before sitting down for a said drink, connecting over the provenance and process is equally as important. In Japan, the unique concept of a saketen sits at the crossroads of a sake retailer, bar, and local community. It’s not quite a place to go and indulge in whatever will “do the trick” so much as gain knowledge and insight to potentially expand your palate.
For our good friend and collaborator Elliot Faber, he’s looking to further the agenda of sake with the launch of a new bar concept called SAKETEN. The name serves a dual purpose of paying homage to the concept of a saketen, but also serve as a platform for 10 specially-chosen producers who will have a special place on the shelves of SAKETEN.
The spot aims to provide a quaint and honest watering hole while also showcasing the incredible diversity of sake. The Japanese fermented rice beverage (careful, not wine), falls under a unique process where the rice’s starch becomes fermentable sugar and the yeast consumes the sugar to produce sake.
We caught up with accomplished Canadian sake samurai and published author over the concept of SAKETEN and the bright future ahead for sake.
Ezra’s Ln, Central
Closes at 2AM
What’s the concept behind SAKETEN? How did you come up with the idea?
In Japan, a saketen is a shop; think of it as your friendly neighborhood liquor store. However, it isn’t like a typical liquor depot in North America. It’s more like a small shop that embraces a community of enthusiasts. A place where you can ask the shopkeep about different bottles, and they will probably open some up to try. Before you know it, you’re half a bottle down, and some snacks start coming out, and you leave later that night with a bottle in hand and having tasted and learned something that you hadn’t tried before. The line between the right saketen is somewhere between a bar and a sake shop. We choose to lean a little heavier on the bar side, but our entire selection is available for retail through a takeaway window. On the other hand, we wanted to play with the word SAKETEN, which means 10 sake producers. We feature ten producers who take up residence over a period from six to 12 months. We go deep into selling and understanding their sake. We carry their different-sized bottle formats, their seasonal releases, limited edition and mainstream offerings to show just how diverse the offering of a single brewery is and the world of sake. I was inspired to create this concept after my visits to all of the community neighborhood liquor stores in Japan’s rural communities, and though it isn’t only a rural phenomenon, the sense of community and amount of sharing seems to be higher in these suburban areas.
Having started other restaurants/bars/concepts in the past, how does SAKETEN differ?
SAKETEN is open later than any of the other outlets I’m affiliated with. We want to be a place for our friends and colleagues to come and drink after work. This was also a key factor in developing the concept. With regards to Sake Central, if Sake Central is a comprehensive Japanese experience that emphasizes sake but embellishes on elements like glassware, ceramics, artists, food ingredients and preparation, SAKETEN is a bar. It is a place to get loose and carry out your evening. It is where you go AFTER dinner at Sake Central, Yardbird or Ronin, and maybe the staff joins you! I have focused more than ever on storage as well. We feature a custom display fridge for optimal sake storage that keeps sake at -5 to 0 degrees Celsius and service fridges that keeps sake from 0 to 5 degrees plus a vintage sake warmer for warm sake service. We also have draft sake, whisky highballs, shochu highballs and of course Suntory beer on tap – the draft highballs are new for me.
What part of opening your own thing is always difficult? Which part gets easier?
It’s all about the partners. I couldn’t achieve anything without the people who support me every day and that list of people is getting bigger. But we are all a team, and we help each other wherever we need it, and we all share similar passion and ambitions: to get more people eating great food and drinking sake, enjoying our own interpretation of Japanese culture. It’s getting easier because of the support but licensing, getting the branding perfect, contractors… these things are never easy!
Where are we currently in the whole sake cycle? Education? Growth? What determines its velocity?
Sake is definitely in a growth phase. The overall volume of sake being consumed is lower, but the average price point is higher. Even an increase in the average spend of one or two US dollars has a massive influence on the quality and style of sake that people are drinking. Also, domestic consumption of sake might be going down, but internationally it’s growing. As Japan tends to be inspired by global trends, Japan needs to see how much the world loves sake and they will embrace it as their own again.
Do you think sake has a better chance to succeed with future generations that may drink less or prefer less alcoholic beverages?
Sake can be produced at multiple sweetness levels and alcohol levels. Once people understand how it is made and what effects its taste, it will become easier to try various styles that are suitable to their palate and diet.
Tell me about the sakes you currently stock, what informs that season’s choices? Or is it about diversity and breadth?
We are working with 10 producers from all over Japan. One project, Nihonshu Oendan, focuses on making one tank of unpasteurized, undiluted, sake at six different breweries across Japan. Their team participates in every step of the process at each brewery for their tank: from planting rice to harvest, production and bottling. Their sake is one of my favorite on the market right now! Another featured brewery, Shichiken, is basically sake royalty, they have existed for over 300 years in Yamanashi prefecture and have been a frequent host for various members of Japan’s royal family over the centuries. Their style is incredibly fresh and approachable, drinkable in large quantities!
What does success with SAKETEN look like?
SAKETEN has been designed to go global. I believe that first and second-tier cities around the world are ready for their own SAKETEN and that there are enough enthusiastic sake makers to see this vision through with me. I’m excited to watch this project grow and hope to use this project as a gateway to introduce more people to the enjoyment of sake and provide a watering hole for all of those sake lovers abroad whose palates are homesick.
Photography: Alex Maeland