Sake could soon be regulated, treated like wine in Florida

Currently, the Sunshine State classifies the popular sushi accompaniment as a liquor.

click to enlarge Sake comes in all sorts of flavors — some dry and sour, others floral and sweet. - Pixabay
Sake comes in all sorts of flavors — some dry and sour, others floral and sweet.

It’s the Japanese rice wine that is the perfect liquid companion to a sushi roll (or four). Sake and sushi have become the PB&J of the 21st century — you really can’t have one without the other.

Sake comes in all sorts of flavors — some dry and sour, others floral and sweet — that’re served hot, chilled or at room temperature, depending on the sake and personal preference. It’s also used to create one-of-a-kind cocktails, including the popular sake-tini and sake bomb, plus substituted for gin or vodka (think sake and tonics as well as sake screwdrivers).

For many, sake has become less trendy and more tasty, and there’s a big market for it, even for those who aren’t heading out to their local sushi bar. Since many grocery stores carry sushi and people do DIY sushi at home, buying sake wherever beer and wine are sold is super convenient.

What you might not’ve known is that selling sake, and, thus, buying it, isn’t really a cut-and-dry affair. Some confusion on the books is making it difficult for some sake importers to distribute to stores.

Florida hasn’t had sake on their wine list, despite some stores carrying it in their wine sections. Currently, the state classifies sake as a liquor, which falls into a sort of “catch-all” category. But there’s a catch to the catch-all.

Sake isn’t distilled — it’s fermented.

Confused yet?

Where the product can be sold and at what tax rate are questions that’ve been unclear for many years. One sake distributor importing the beverage wanted clarification after noticing a higher-than-usual demand. The client started working with Richard Blau, the chair of GrayRobinson's Alcohol Beverage and Food Department who leads the firm's Alcohol Industry Team, in 2016 to find out how the state classified sake for regulatory purposes.

Here’s what they found out: Sake isn’t defined as a beer or a wine in Florida. The state classifies beer as a malt beverage, while wine is defined as a fermented beverage made from fresh fruits. Sake is neither, as it is fermented but made from rice.

“It also was an issue for on-premises licensees such as restaurants. Many restaurants operate only with a beer and wine license; to the extent it was unclear whether sake fell into the liquor category by default [due to lack of specific regulatory designation], those restaurants with only a beer and wine license were disadvantaged when it came to sake,” Blau said.

The cloudy issue was recently brought to the legislature, and the Sunshine State has decided sake should classify as a wine. An amendment to Sect 564.01 of the Florida statute now includes sake, and starting July 1, the drink can be sold by any on- or off-premise retailer licensed to sell wine — as it should be.

For consumers, the change means they’ll be able to buy sake wherever beer and wine are sold, with the exception of retailers whose license only allows for the off-premises sale of beer; some locations may carry sake already, but the new classification is sure to see sales expand to additional beer and wine merchants. It also means that more companies may import different brands to sell in stores, which can only serve to expand your posh palate.

Editor's note: This story has been updated since its original publication.

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