As a gal who's slung sushi for a living in Japanese restaurants from London to San Francisco, you'd think I'd have learned a little something about sake along the way. But here's what I've learned: when someone orders sake, you press the button on the generic wall dispenser and hold the little ceramic bottle under the tap until it's full. Then you bring it to the table.
My vast sake education enabled me to sample the stuff -- provided, of course, that the boss wasn't looking. But as much as I wanted to like sake, I just couldn't convince myself that it didn't taste like warm, cheap vodka. The very thought of it made me shudder -- a world-class drinker like me! I hadn't considered that maybe it was the sake and not me.
Years after I left the restaurant biz and entered the wine biz I began to hear rumors that there are as many varieties and quality levels of sake as there are of wine. And some were even reputed to taste good! Could this be true? How could such important knowledge have eluded me all those years?
Out of all the sushi bars I've worked or dined in, not one of them offered a choice of sakes. That's pretty amazing when you consider that these joints cater to a pretty sophisticated crowd and generally have very high standards -- not to mention prices -- in terms of food.
How are we supposed to know about the good sakes when the only places we ever drink the stuff is at sushi bars that serve sake the equivalent of Night Train?
Maybe they don't want us to know. Maybe they want to keep the Yanks away from the good stuff. You know, some kind of sake conspiracy. Well fear not, faithful readers! I'm about to blow the lid off their sake cover-up!
Before I delve into the sake "X-files," let's cover the basics.
JUST WHAT THE HELL IS SAKE, ANYWAY?
Sake is a rice-based alcoholic beverage that was first produced in Japan before the third century A.D. Legend has it the first sakes were made with rice that had been chewed up by virgins and spit into vats to ferment.
Thanks to improved technology (and perhaps a shortage of virgins) today's sake brewing process is, happily, spit-free. Although often described as "rice wine," sake is actually brewed like beer. Sake production begins by polishing away the outer layer of short-grain rice to reveal its white starchy core. This is necessary because the outer layer contains high levels of protein that can give sake off colors and flavors. After the rice is cleaned, soaked and steamed, a Japanese mold called koji is added to convert the starch in the rice to sugar. More steamed rice, yeast and pure water are added to the mixture, and the yeast converts the sugar into alcohol. The sake is filtered, pasteurized (except in the case of some specialty sakes) and bottled. After a very brief aging period, it's ready to drink.
Achieving sake perfection depends on a delicate balance between rice, water and brewers' art.
There are 200 different varieties of rice grown in Japan, but fewer than 30 are suitable for making sake. Sake is made from short-grained rice that differs from table rice in the size of its core. Only 20 percent of the grain's outer layer is milled away for table rice, while at least 30 percent is removed for sake rice. The more the grain's outer layer is polished away, the better the sake's flavor will be. At least 40 percent of the grain must be milled away for a sake to be labeled "premium." Sometimes as little as 30 percent of the grain remains after this process, which is why it takes more rice (and more money) to produce premium sake.
In California, sake rice is grown mainly in the Sacramento Valley area. This rice is known for having a large, starchy kernel and tough outer layer. The hardness of the outer layer makes it necessary to mill away more of the grain to reach premium quality, but because rice is five times cheaper in California than it is in Japan, production costs are kept low.
TYPES OF SAKE
There are several different types of sake on the market, including the ginjo, genshu and nigori varieties. Ginjo sake is ultra-premium, made from rice that is polished down at least 40 percent. It's typically light-bodied with a slightly fruity aroma. Genshu sake is full-bodied with a higher alcohol content. Nigori sake is known as "cloudy sake," because its coarse filtration leaves particles of rice floating in the liquid, giving it a milky appearance. If there's no designation on the label, the sake is probably the generic variety.
Since ancient times, Japanese brewers have known the importance of using the purest spring water for their sakes. They discovered that sakes made with mineral-rich, hard water have a more robust character, while soft water results in more delicate-tasting sakes. Hard and soft waters may be blended to achieve the desired balance.
Because California's water has a high mineral concentration, sakes made from the state's untreated water can be rough and harsh. This problem is easily remedied through filtering technology that removes excess minerals from the water.
THE TOJI'S ART
Traditionally, Japan's brewmasters, or toji, were rice farmers who worked in sake breweries during the cold winter months. The brewing process was learned through a lifetime of experience, and all the work was done by hand. This is still the case in many of Japan's smaller regional breweries.
But in recent years, Japan's shift away from agriculture has led to the development of computers and machines to aid in sake brewing. This technology is especially important in California, where workers with sake brewing experience are virtually impossible to find.
Even with today's modern machinery, the judgment of the brewmaster is crucial to making good sake. At every stage of the brewing process, the toji must monitor and adjust the factors that influence the finished quality -- water content of the steamed rice, the spread of yeast over the grains, alcohol content of the mash, acidity levels, brewing time and temperature.
Maintaining ideal conditions for sake's fermentation process is also very important. With sake, the conversion of starch into sugar and sugar into alcohol must occur simultaneously. This double-fermentation is much more complex than that of beer or wine.
Filtered sakes should be crystal clear and colorless, except for an occasional pale yellow or greenish tinge. A darker color may be an indication that the sake is past its prime. Unlike wine, sake does not improve with age and should be drunk within six months of bottling.
Freshness is of the utmost importance in maintaining sake's delicate aromas and flavors, so dust-covered bottles at the local liquor store are best avoided.
The aromas of sake are much more subtle than those of wine and can range from fruity to floral, yeasty and nutty. Sake should be clean-smelling with no off aromas.
In style, sakes range from sweet to dry. Japanese sake labels often include a sake meter value that indicates its level of sweetness. The taste of sake is most often described in terms of sweetness, dryness, bitterness and acidity. Sake tasters should look for balanced and harmonious flavors with a clean finish. Premium sakes should have no aftertaste. According to Ronn Wiegand's sake aroma wheel, flavors commonly found in sake include honey, anise, steamed rice, banana and soy sauce.
Premium sakes should be served chilled or at room temperature. The hot sakes most often served in America's Japanese restaurants are actually cheap, bulk varieties that are warmed to kill their harsh flavors. Heating sake also gives it an alcoholic taste, which is why many people falsely believe sake is high in alcohol. The reality is that sake contains only about 15 percent alcohol -- only slightly more than wine. (Incidentally, sake is also sulfite-free, leading many sake drinkers to claim it's also "hangover-free.")
Traditionally, sake is served in a small, wide ceramic cup or a in wooden box called a masu. Masus are made from fragrant cypress or cedar, which blends with the flavor of the sake. However, most chilled sakes are best served in a wine glass, so their subtle aromas are easier to detect.
Like wine, sake tastes best when served with food. But with sake, the pairing process, known as sakana, works a little differently. Instead of matching sake to the food you're having, sakana involves preparing food to match the sake. Although most sakes pair well with Japanese dishes like sushi and sashimi, they're also surprisingly good with pasta dishes and all types of seafood that aren't prepared in rich, buttery sauces. Nigori sakes are particularly good with ethnic cuisines like Thai, Korean and Chinese. Smooth, fruity ginjo sakes are best served with shellfish and grilled or roasted meats.
BRANDS OF SAKE
In Japan, it's safe to say there are about 6,000 brands of sake on the market. Our options are more limited here in the United States, but many of the major Japanese sake companies, such as Shochikubai, Ozeki and Gekkeikan, have established stateside breweries to meet growing demand.
The premium sakes reviewed here represent a sampling of brands widely available in the United States. Even if your favorite sushi bar doesn't carry them, a decent-sized liquor outlet in your area probably does. Japanese grocery stores are also great sake sources.
Let's stop talking and start drinking!
Momokawa Silver Sweet, Japan
Clear in color with a slight yellow tinge. Mildly acidic nose with clean aromas of banana and yeast. Delicately sweet, yeasty flavors and a short, clean finish. Very pleasant. (Recommended with spicy cuisines like Cajun and Thai.) $15/720ml - Imported by Japan America Beverage Co., Forest Grove, Oregon.
Clear with a shade of wheat coloring. Caramel, vanilla and yeast aromas with a whiff of alcohol. Strong alcohol flavors with a long, clumsy finish. Seems like this one won't wait 'til the morning after to give you a headache. $9/750ml - Hakusan Sake, Napa, California.
Crystal clear in color. Very clean nose, almost without aroma. Faintly sweet-smelling with subtle flavors of exotic fruit. Clean, light and refreshing. (Recommended with mildly seasoned foods like pasta and grilled or poached fish.) $3.99/300ml - Takara Sake, Berkeley, California.
Clear with a nice floral aroma. Banana, coconut and caramel scents are also evident. Mild acidic burn in the mouth followed by tropical fruit flavors. Slightly longer finish. (Recommended with sushi, shellfish and roasted meats.) $6/300ml - Takara Sake, Berkeley, California.
Momokawa Silver Dry
Colorless with a strong mineral aroma. Slight acidic sensation in the mouth. Smooth with a slightly sweet, clean finish. $15/720ml - Imported by Japan America Beverage Co., Forest Grove, Oregon.
A slight yellow tinge in color. Yeast and mild chemical aromas. Full-bodied with flavors of black licorice and a refreshing, clean finish. $20/720ml - Imported by Japan America Beverage Co., Forest Grove, Oregon.
Momokawa Nigori Genshu
Opaque, milky-white in color (as is typical of nigori sakes.) Delicate aromas of exotic fruit and vanilla. Slightly floral. Intense sweet and sour flavors with some undertones of vanilla. A punch of alcohol at the finish. (Try this one as a dessert sake.) $20/720ml - Imported by Japan America Beverage Co., Forest Grove, Oregon.
Now that I've finally had a chance to taste some premium sakes, maybe you're wondering if I've been converted. Not yet. Although these sakes are worlds better than the hot, steaming swill they serve at the average sushi salon, it seems to me that sake is an acquired taste that I've not yet fully acquired. But then, aren't all of life's best goodies acquired tastes? (Red wine and sex leap to mind.) I, for one, am boldly willing to stick with this rice wine stuff for the sake of cultivating a delightful new vice. Kampai!
SAKE TASTING DESTINATIONS
GEKKEIKAN SAKE, USA
1136 Sibley St.
Folsom, CA 95630
HAKUSAN SAKE GARDENS
1 Executive Way
Napa, CA 94558
JAPAN AMERICA BEVERAGE CO., USA
Forest Grove, OR
OZEKI SAKE (USA)
249 Hillcrest Rd.
Hollister, CA 95023
TAKARA SAKE USA INC.
708 Addison St.
Berkeley, CA 94710
TORAYA SUSHI BAR (SAKE LOUNGE)
1915 Fillmore St.
San Francisco, CA 94115
Offering 15-18 sakes by the glass daily
(served in martini glasses for extra style)