Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Sake Is Not Beer, Nor Is It Wine. Sake Is ...

The best place to get good sake is at a sake bar. Photo by Carlos Porto/


the first thing that comes to mind upon hearing the word “rice”?
OK. What’s the second thing? Third?

Well, sake might not make the top five. No wonder, actually. The sake that most people drink is the stock-staple stuff commonly found in many Japanese restaurants. Personally, I have nothing against the garden variety, but let’s be real. Fine wine it ain’t.

Most restaurants serve the Budweiser of sake. It’ll wash down tempura, sushi & bento box well enough, but that’s about it. Cut it with a little vodka, add julienned cucumber and call it a saketini if you must, but that’s the closet most get to swilling it by itself.

Poor sake. No wonder it has such a bland reputation in many parts of the West. Time to restore this liquid gem to its rightful place. Time to find a sake to drink for its own sake.

SAKE 101
But first of all, what is sake? Some have called it “rice wine,” and I, too, have done the same, until recently.

Before sake comes rice. Photo from USDA.

Sake is not a wine. Wine is produced from fruit. Sake, produced from a grain but not distilled, shares far more in common with beer (Hi, Bud!) than wine. But since I promised a sake feature for this wine column, let’s ignore that point. Or better yet, let me quote Rick Smith, proprietor of Sakaya, NYC’s first sake shop: “Brewed like beer; drinks like fine wine.”

Sake is what you get when you cross mineral water and milled rice with a mold spore, yeast and time. Doesn’t rock your boat? Check out the ingredients of beer or bourbon. Great things have come from less.

Vary the type of rice, refine its milling, alter the water, change the double-pasteurization techniques (or omit them altogether) and the character of the resulting brew takes on colors and richness of no fewer hues than that of wine.

A way to get to know sake (pictured is Nichiei, "Glory of the sun") intimately is through tastings. Photo from

The temptation, then, is to describe sakes as if they were wines: their nose, flavor comparisons to fruits or spices, types of finishes. And one can do this. (In fact, I will because that’s what happens when a wine taster writes about sake.) But in the East, sake is more often described as the balance of sweet to dry on one hand, and rich (or full) to light on the other. The highest quality sake is a harmony of disparate elements.

To expand your tastebuds beyond the Budweiser-like variety, skip the local Japanese restaurant and go to a sake bar. No doubt, the staff will mention the two main types: futsushu, or common sake, and Tokutei meishoshu or premium sake.

Sake unlike, wine, is popularly drank from cups. Photo by Brian Lary/

You will learn at the sake bar that premium sakes are divided into sub grades, depending upon the extent to which the rice has been milled and whether additional alcohol has been added (Ginjo, Honjozo, Junmai, Junmai Daiginjo, Junmai Ginjo). They will pour samples of the various styles, from bone dry to strongly sweet and in between. Your tastebuds will be ever so grateful.

Nevertheless, there will always be iconoclasts who would rather not sit through a mini-seminar, no matter how fun or short. Fine. Create your own sake-tasting party. In New York City? Definitely drop by the exquisite Sakaya, featuring premium sakes. Rather order from home? Try Circle Japan Get a few of your friends together, snare some nori (delicious prepared seaweed sheets), fire up the rice cooker and try, for example, three very different sakes to be served slightly chilled:

Renaissance Kanazawa is ideal as an after-dinner drink. Photo from

Nichiei “Glory of the sun”
(Junmai Daiginjo)
Imagine a sake that evokes a pinot grigio swirled with a licorice stick. Full-flavored and slightly sweet, the combination is smooth.

Light, sweet, with a slight aftertaste of lychee, Renaissance Kanazawa is a perfect after dinner drink (digestif).

Ichinokura “Nigori”
(Specialty: Seasonal)
As the first rice harvest’s first batch of brew, Ichinokura is Beaujolais Nouveau’s elegant Japanese cousin. Being “Nigori” or unfiltered, it looks as cloudy as ouzo-and-water. But there’s no licorice taste in this exquisite brew; its flavor resembles a hearty pear cider with a slight “zing” on the tongue. Note: because this sake is also unpasteurized and therefore does not store well, it is available for only a few months every year. Contact Sakaya directly for purchasing information.

Serving & Storing Tips
Sake can be served either chilled or warmed. Warming tends to smooth out its flavor. To savor the brew at its fullest, try it chilled first. Always refrigerate after opening.

Next: The Vulcan Wines of Sardinia

No comments :

Post a Comment

Creative Commons License
VEVLYN'S PEN: The Wright take on life by Vevlyn Wright is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License .
Based on a work at .
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at .