Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Las Vegas: My sake education begins at Shibuya.

My formal introduction to premium Japanese sake began at Shibuya at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas on my birthday in January 2005. I was with a group of other writers on a press trip. As part of our whirlwind itinerary, we were welcomed by Shibuya's then sake sommelier Eric Swanson (who now consults for major wine and spirits distributor-- Wirtz Beverage Nevada). On that fateful afternoon, I learned that there was way more to sake than the warmed over beverage that I usually ordered. While fortified, warm sake that comes from a box, has zero complexity compared to what smaller producers create. Think Miller Lite to craft beer and you'll understand.
What I gleamed that day is that sake has been in production for more than 1,000 years in Japan and almost all of the regions or prefectures in Japan have their own type. I tend to like sake from Niigata--famous for its mountain water. Once you start tasting different kinds, you'll develop favorites too!
Shibuya's extensive sake list and program was developed in consultation with John Gauntner--no U.S. sake blog can go too long without mentioning him. He has done much to bring Japanese sake to the world--I've heard him lecture; in April 2008 I attended a tasting of seven Rihaku sakes he arranged at L.A.'s Wine House, which sells some interesting sakes. Wandering Poet, Dreamy Clouds and Divine Droplets were among the sakes (nihonshu) sampled with Gauntner that night.
One of the main reasons people are reluctant to try premium sake is the labeling--most labels are hard to decipher without some prior information. I'm hoping my blog will help educate others as sake is about to hit the big time. There's more tastings and premium brands available in the U.S. Per the Wine House's newsletter, there's been a 50% increase in imports since 2008. With more than 1,000 Japanese sake breweries, and most of those not available in the U.S., it will take many, many blog posts to even touch on the complexities of rice wine (a misnomer of course since rice is brewed not fermented).
Like many, I first drank sake at a sushi bar--served warm, it is still the way most order the the alcoholic beverage (about 16% alcohol content). Let's progress past the box and explore the world of premium sake together.
Kanpai! (Cheers!)

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