“What we’re really trying to do is express the flavors of locally grown California rice, much in the same way that a Japanese brewery wants to showcase their local rice and local water.”
Troy Nakamatsu says this 25 minutes into a deep conversation about sake, the craft and skill required to produce it, and the alcoholic beverage’s place in the American drinking market. As the co-founder and head brewer of growing local sake brand Sawtelle Sake, Nakamatsu is responsible not only for the way his product tastes, but also for how it’s understood. Nakamatsu and his partner Jon Rugg are, they say, embarking on a new plan to push mainstream sake even further, bringing a locally made version of the fundamental Japanese beverage to the Los Angeles drinker by way of bright colors, a packaging redesign, and an overall shift in thinking.
“Everybody knows what sake is,” says Rugg. “Everyone’s familiar with the category. But if you ask someone about their favorite brand of sake, 90 percent of people couldn’t name one.”
Both Nakamatsu and Rugg believe that they can help to change that perspective, one party-ready 200-millileter can at a time — but first they need a tasting room to call their own. Since 2019, the pair has been in a kind of marketing wormhole, using a name tied to Sawtelle Japantown while brewing out of a shared Ventura distillery space a county away. “Initially we thought we’d have our own brewery [by now], we’d sell on site, and we’d sell to bars and restaurants,” says Rugg, ”but then COVID-19 happened and everything shut down.” To compensate, Sawtelle Sake has spent most of the past two years in limbo, moving from the planned tasting room idea to a wholesale and direct-to-consumer model, selling in prominent doors like Oakland’s Umami Mart and to bar and restaurant customers like the Waterfront Cafe in Venice. They also brew Yangban Society’s Korean makgeolli rice wine.
The two have also been clandestinely hosting “private, pre-booked events” for Sawtelle Sake at a ground-floor apartment just behind a row of commercial buildings on Sawtelle. There, Nakamatsu and Rugg talk customers through the basics of their California sake from koji (inoculated rice from the Sacramento Valley that forms the fermented basis of the drink) to canning.
So far, the private space has been a boon for the duo as they carefully navigate new waters with curious customers. Sake’s history is as old as the written histories of Japan itself; it’s notable that Rugg and Nakamatsu, from America’s West Coast, are crafting an all-California version, using sunset oranges and pinks and a charming owl logo to attempt to broaden the drink’s appeal. Sawtelle Sake does not use any Japanese writing on its labels, a move the founders saw as an opportunity to not “confuse” the local audience. “Here’s a category that has been mis-marketed, misunderstood, and unapproachable to a Western audience,” says native Angeleno Rugg, “because what’s written on sake bottles is so often in Japanese. Our thought was: let’s break the mold.”
“I do have some cultural ties to Japan,” adds Nakamatsu, who grew up in Hawaii, “but those aren’t really relevant for me in my life. I don’t really have family in Japan; I’m fourth-generation American. I want the brand to represent who we are, and we certainly are not a Japanese sake brewery. We’re going to honor those traditions as much as we can — we’re going to try really hard not to bastardize this beautiful drink. And we’re going to brew with the rice that’s local to us, and try to not be something or somebody else.”
“If we can grow California sake into its own thing, that rising tide can lift all ships for the industry as a whole,” echoes Rugg. “That would be our long-term hope.” The next step is a tasting room, a tiny sub-500 square-foot space right in the historic Sawtelle Japantown neighborhood. It’s in the works at 1836 Sawtelle Boulevard now, not far from the unlisted apartment they’ve been using up until now. They’re committed to bringing sake production into Los Angeles County too — as Covina’s Nova Brewing has already done — and hope to have their own facility by the end of the year. Once both are live, Sawtelle Sake will be a powerful, consumer-facing force for craft sake not just locally, but for all of California.
“The sake industry in the U.S. isn’t necessarily small,” says Rugg, “but the craft sake market is very small. Most people in the U.S. tried sake for the first time as hot sake, or a sake bomb, or something like that. It takes a while for them to move to higher quality sakes.”
Nakamatsu believes that Sawtelle Sake can ultimately help to bridge the divide between new sake drinkers and long-timers by offering a craft experience with compelling marketing. The important thing is to not let the product itself slip. “I have such a tremendous amount of respect for the history and the culture and the traditions that have produced Japanese sake,” says Nakamatsu. “I want to honor that.”
Sawtelle Sake hopes to open a tasting room at 1836 Sawtelle Boulevard this fall, and a brewery space in Los Angeles County next year.