Sake begins with rice. Via a process that originated 1,000 years ago in Japan’s feudal era, the humble grain is transformed into a feather-light, nuanced rice wine, with layered, complex aromas and flavors.
As American diners have come to appreciate Japanese cuisine—there are now more than 9,000 restaurants that serve sushi—their taste in sake has grown increasingly refined. Just as we recognize that Japanese cuisine is more than tuna rolls, most now realize that sake is more than sake bombs and warmed, generic boxed brew.
Perhaps one reason for this expansion in the average American’s premium sake horizon is that restaurants are now offering more choices. Few can match Sakagura in Manhattan with 200 brands or the 110 different offerings at the Shibuya in Las Vegas. Yet, even average-sized restaurants’ sake lists now usually feature at least seven to 10 choices, and sake appears at both casual and upscale dining spots and increasingly at non-Japanese eateries.
In Los Angeles, Gonpachi offers sake flights, or tasting portions, in the most authentic of settings – a Kyoto Temple-style restaurant complete with a private sake tasting room. On the Sunset Strip, Asia de Cuba at the Mondrian Los Angeles Hotel pours (6) sakes and the popular Asian Sidecar cocktail—a blend of Hennessy V.S., Kaori Junmai Ginjo Sake and a splash of lime juice, designed to complement its mix of pan-Asian and Latin cuisine. And, Sake Hana in New York City is an intimate bar and lounge that delivers sake sipping with an informal vibe.
Choices are also expanding for consumers who prefer to sip their sake at home. In addition to being available at Asian markets like California’s Mitsuwa, sake is also increasingly found at specialty liquor stores, and a number of sake-only shops have sprung up on both coasts: True Sake in San Francisco, Sake Nomi in Seattle and coming soon (now open) to Manhattan’s East Village, Sakaya.
Why the surge in sake’s status? Experts point to the popularity of Japanese cuisine and sake’s savory, unassertive flavor profile that pairs well with food. And in general, today’s imbibing trend leans heavily toward lighter alcoholic beverages.
Sake is brewed in both the United States and Japan following a venerable tradition. Though there are variations to the process, essential steps include the rice milling and polishing away of the grain’s outer hull and the subsequent steaming and mixing of the polished rice with a cultured mold (koji). An added yeast mash jumpstarts fermentation; then the sake is filtered, briefly aged and is finally bottled or barreled.
Today, Japan is home to more than 1,900 sake breweries, and many are still family run with low production (comparable to a boutique winery). Sake is made across Japan’s 47 prefectures; certain prefectures are known for their sake quality, among them Niigata, Hiroshima and Yamagata. The purity and mineral content (either hard or soft) of the water utilized in sake production also plays a part in sake’s taste. Although there are more than 100 types of sake rice from which premium sake is brewed, typically one does not order on the basis of the rice varietal – rather premium sake is distinguished by grades, which indicate what percentage of the outer rice kernel was milled away.
“If you remember one word, remember ginjo,” advises sake expert John Gauntner at a recent sake tasting in Los Angeles. (American, now Japan-based Gauntner is recognized as the most knowledgeable non-Japanese in the field.) Ginjo encompasses the top four grades of sake: Daiginjo-shu, Ginjo-shu, Junmai Daiginjo-shu and Junmai Ginjo-shu. These four types represent the pinnacle of the sake brewer’s art, according to Gauntner. The greater the amount of rice milling, meaning the percentage of the rice husk removed, the more refined the sake. Daiginjo and Junmai Daiginjo are brewed from rice that has been at least 50 percent milled away. Also of note: Junmai-shu and Honjozo-shu. They are the first level of premium sakes with a minimum of 30 percent of sake rice grain milled away. Futsu-shu is table sake, with no minimum requirements in terms of milling, and this sake represents 80 percent of the market.
Sake is shaped by its brewing method. For instance, Nigori sake is lightly filtered and milky white. Sparkling sake features added carbonation and is popular with Japan’s younger drinkers. Expect the back of an imported sake bottle label to offer important details on the product. The Sake Meter Value (SMV) is a scale that indicates the sweetness to dryness of the sake (the higher the positive number, the dryer the sake). ALC reports alcohol content, typically around 16 percent. Look for the name of the brewery on the label as well as the prefecture of origin. Each sake brand also has a name, designated by the brewery. Translated, names like “Heaven’s Door,” “Summer Snow” and “Moon on the Water,” are poetic and evocative but don’t reveal much to an American consumer.
For the sake-curious, a sake tasting is a sure path to greater understanding. (Experts) recommend seeking out an establishment that has a variety of sakes to taste in small amounts or making a connection with a restaurant’s sake expert. At Gonapachi in Los Angeles, Drew Myers is just that person—willing to patiently educate customers on the finer points of the eatery’s expansive sake list, grouped under the categories of aromatic, poised, powerful or sweet and special, individually described by flavor profile.
In Seattle, Johnnie Stroud and his wife, Taiko, of Sake Nomi, a sake shop and tasting room, are committed to educating customers and demystifying sake buying. The bi-cultural couple met and married in Japan and founded their shop in part because they couldn’t find enough quality sake selections locally. To further his customer’s sake knowledge, Stroud presents detailed tasting notes in English as well as daily sake flights for tasting.
Or consider the DIY-approach. Shop markets for both domestic and imported sake brands; recently Trader Joe’s added its own house label, and Whole Foods can be relied on for an interesting mid-range priced selection. (Look for Hakutsuru’s Junmai Ginjo in a distinctive blue bottle.)
As Japan’s indigenous beverage, sake goes naturally with Japanese food. Chef Masa Shimakawa at Onyx at the Four Seasons Hotel Westlake Village in California suggests traditional food pairings such as Kobe beef carpaccio with chilled sake; never with fried foods or buttery sauces. As with wine, the weight of the dish, should match the weight of sake: the lighter the dish, the lighter the sake. Premium sake is best chilled; conveniently, the ideal serving temperature is found on the label.