Nashville has the Whiskey Trail, several local breweries and even a few vineyards. But one truly unexpected drink just landed on the scene – sake. This ancient rice-based beverage originated in Japan thousands of years ago. But Belmont Graduate, Byron Stithem took his sheer love for the drink and is making it right here in Nashville with the opening of Tennessee’s first sake brewery, Proper Sake.
At Proper, Stithem does it all. “I’m the owner and only employee. I clean the floors regularly,” he says.
He makes the sake, sells it and operates the bar. “Sometimes it’s terrifying but I also love the amount of control from start to finish,” he says.
Education is also a part of his job, since most of his customers are sake-novices. “Sake is a rice-based beverage that’s naturally brewed just like beer,” says Stithem.
Stithem’s love for the drink started about 9 years ago while he was attending college at Belmont. He went from making sake in his home to taking the plunge into opening “Proper Sake” in the So-Bro neighborhood.
Learning about sake hasn’t been easy in Middle Tennessee. “There’s not a lot of English language materials so I’m still learning,” says Stithem. He’s been to Japan several times to learn as much as he can, and he even speaks enough Japanese to ‘get around a brewery,’ he says.
As soon as you walk into Proper Sake, you’ll find the tasting room where everything was built by Byron and a friend. In the back of the bar is where the sake is actually made. There’s a climate-controlled brew-room where all the Koji, which is the rice to start the ferment, is stored. Then the fermentation process starts.
Proper Sake is the only sake brewery in the state of Tennessee and one of only a few in the south. “I think a lot of people are put off by not knowing exactly what it is, or maybe their first experience being that really hot, aggressive alcohol-forward sake they get at a sushi restaurant,” says Stithem. “It’s kind of a misnomer for people, and that’s part of my goal as well to celebrate this really cool culture and beverage and also highlight the approachability of it.”
If you haven’t tried sake and you want to ease into your first time with a familiar taste, Stithem also ages some of his sake in whiskey barrels. “It’s really versatile, there are a ton of different flavor profiles, so part of my goal to highlight that as a beverage that is just as versatile as wine, beer whiskey whatever,” says Stithem. Proper Sake is served “Genshu” style, which is chilled.
“It has certain parallels to the wine ferment as well. Right now I’m doing a few different varietals,” says Stithem. Five different varietals in all, there’s Barrel-Aged, Grad Parlay, The Diplomat, The Diplomat Unfiltered and Super Gold which is sparkling sake. “My goal really is to celebrate the versatility of sake but also help people cross that boundary between one beverage to another,” he says.
There’s no doubt Nashville is in a part of the country focused on whiskey and beer, but Stithem says we’re ready for sake. “I think now is the perfect time for Nashville to do something like this. I’ve been proven right I guess along the way so far, just with the level of reception I’ve had. It’s very humbling.”
Proper Sake is sold at about 20 restaurants in the state and 20 retail shops. Their tasting room and brewery is located on Ewing Avenue, right off of Lafayette Street.
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