Trouble getting sake in Florida? Law could soon change for the better

If Gov. Rick Scott agrees to classify the Japanese staple as wine, its popularity may rise.

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Kanpai! • If Gov. Rick Scott signs off on the legislation, starting July 1 sake can be sold by any retailer or restaurant licensed to sell wine. • Sushi is more popular than ever, ditto ramen, yakitori and a host of other formerly exotic Japanese foods. Yet fans of sake, the famed Japanese rice wine and the perfect accompanying quaff, have long had to contend with murky legal issues that sometimes make it impossible for Floridians to enjoy both at the same time. • That's because state law officially defines wine as a beverage fermented from grapes, berries or other fruit. Made from fermented rice, sake (pronounced "sah-kay," not "socky") often has been erroneously lumped with liquors, typically distilled from grains. Restaurants, grocery and convenience stores, and other places allowed to sell and serve wine and beer, but not liquor, have often shied away from sake, fearing legal problems.

House Bill 689, passed by the Legislature in the 2017 session but awaiting action from Gov. Scott, would finally clarify that sake is indeed a wine, making it legal to serve or sell it anywhere other wines and beers are sold.

"This prevents chaos in the marketplace, because technically under the law, sake is not a wine," explains Jason Unger, an attorney lobbyist at GrayRobinson in Tallahassee who has been pushing for this change. "So all of the restaurants that have just a beer and wine license, which is a lot of the Asian restaurants, would not legally be able to sell sake. It's just one of those quirky stories of Florida law."

That said, Unger guesses that most restaurants had no clue that this was an issue. He might be right.

Eric Fralick has a beer and wine license for Noble Rice in Tampa. He says adding sake to the definition of wine would be good for him, and that confusion about the status of sake and shochu (a Japanese distilled beverage often made from rice) has created "some havoc." It's his understanding that until there is a law passed that specifically identifies sake, "we're allowed to operate in the grey area without consequence."

Theo Koebel, vice president of portfolio management for the Winebow Group, which hired GrayRobinson to lobby in Tallahassee, says that the objective was not to loosen the law, but rather to pre-empt the state's Department of Business and Professional Development, which licenses and inspects restaurants, from cracking down.

Because of recent legal and ethical concerns over how to categorize alcoholic beverages like Four Loko, Koebel says, the Department of Business and Professional Development was gearing up to scrutinize alcohol categories more rigorously.

"We looked at it and sake was not defined, and we didn't want it treated as liquor. A good amount of sales of sake, 60 to 70 percent, is in 2COP (beer and wine only) accounts."

Sake, he says, has seen double-digit growth in the past three or four years, partly due to demographic changes and the increasing number of Japanese restaurants, but also partly because of the rise of things like craft beer.

"We're looking at American consumer awareness of higher-quality food and beverage," Koebel said. "Consumers are looking for authenticity."

BT Nguyen, owner of several restaurants in Tampa including her flagship Restaurant BT, hopes the governor will sign off on the bill.

"I think most real Japanese chefs and restaurateurs will be very happy to showcase their true traditions and will be very proud. This will change the way American consumers drink and buy sake. I think Japanese sake deserves to be respected as Champagne and Parmigiano Reggiano (are)."

Fralick isn't so sure the upshot will be increased sales.

"As for people's perception, I'm not sure that this will make a big impact. For the few that it does, I will count that as a blessing. … I think that the majority of people think of sake as cheap rice wine that's served hot in little cups. This leads to most distributors not carrying a large variety in their inventory."

Michael Sponaugle, who owns Buya Ramen in St. Petersburg, isn't sure that much will change if the governor signs off on the bill. But he does admit that there is confusion about the category.

"A lot of people like to call sake rice wine, which isn't correct," he said. "Sake is actually more like a beer in the way it is produced. Wine is made by fermenting the sugar present in fruit. Beer is made from a two-step process by converting starch in grains to sugar, and then fermenting. This is the same process used to make sake. The starch in the milled rice is converted to sugar and fermented."

Grace Yang, who is also an attorney for GrayRobinson, doesn't anticipate opposition to the change.

"I don't see that adding a word could be controversial," she says, adding, "But politics can be a funny thing."

Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.

     
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