Unless you’re already a connoisseur, forget what you think you know about sake, never again order the hot stuff served in a ceramic flask, and get ready to spend some serious money. Does this sound familiar?
After diligent tasting over the course of several days, the following has become clear: Chilled sakes are a far more interesting and rewarding beverage than the schlock served hot at your favorite sushi bar. You do have a favorite sushi bar, right?
But first a little helpful terminology. In Japan, the word sake stands for all alcoholic beverages, not just the fermented rice drink we have come to know; when ordering what we think of as sake there, you would ask for Nihonshu, “the sake of Japan.”
Next misconception: Sake is not a rice wine — nor is it a beer, though that comparison comes closer. It is a beverage made from various kinds of polished rice mixed with a special enzyme called koji and diverse strains of yeast in a complicated fermentation process that converts starch to sugar at the same time sugar is being converted to alcohol.
You will forgive me for neither going into the kinds of large-grain rice used for sake-making, nor the degree of polish that can burnish away as much as 50-percent of the grain. Water source and strains of yeast are also crucial, especially in the two premium styles, Junami-shu and Honjozo-shu, to which a small amount of neutral alcohol is added. It helps to know, too, that there are dry, semi-dry, and sweet styles, and that some styles are either unfiltered or “coarsely filtered,” leaving lees (the spent yeast) in the bottle, which you may choose to shake up or not.
Many of these premium sakes, with alcohol levels of from 12-18 percent, can be drunk across a range of temperatures, from cold to merely cool. We were served them cold and made short work of most.
The best restaurant selection of sake in town seems to be at Sushi-Zushi with at least 14 selections by the glass or decanter and several by the “personal” bottle. We attempted to sample styles from extra dry to very mellow, but in the end were guided more by the poetry of the names than any other consideration. Surely the sake gods would be pleased by such an approach.
The winner was the Yuki No Bosha in a semi-dry style with woody, walnut overtones and hints of warm spice. Saltwater taffy, said one sipper.
Number two was the dry Take No Tsuyu with a much fruitier palate of Asian pear and a “beery” back note. As it warmed slightly, it became more floral — especially when sipped from the ritual overflow on the saucer.
Number three, the Kubota Hekiju, brewed in a very mellow style, was the most expensive and also the most reserved, exhibiting a little yeast and white flowers on the nose but little on the palate, a quality that suggested the need for garnishing — cucumber sticks, for example. (The sake gods may be less happy about this.)
We next moved on to the personal “draft” sakes and found S-Z’s Shirayuki dry both expensive at $9.50 for a 300ml bottle and less sophisticated than the previous pours. It nevertheless did flaunt pear and lychee flavors, along with a little ester-laden banana, and even Coco Lopez, all of which made this bottle seem good as a starter sake.
The tasting team continued with draft bottles at the next stop, Godai (because that’s all they offer), always carefully observing the ritual of each person pouring his companion’s sake, but never his own. Cuts down on solo drinking if nothing else. In this case, the Sho Chiku Bai Ginjo (careful selection) was both the most expensive at $12.50 and the most rewarding with its delicate floral nose and hints of almond.
From California came the Sierra Takara “Gold Sake,” clean but undistinguished with vague notes of cucumber and mineral.
At home, I opened an unfiltered sake, the Ozeki Nigori, from Central Market’s impressive selection, trying it two ways: Pouring from the clear, top portion, and shaking up the copious lees to distribute them. Verdict: The clear portion was startlingly perfumy and almost sweet; lees incorporated, the milky product took on a fuller, richer flavor. My advice: shake.
Another day, at Sushihana, an $18, 300 ml bottle of Ume No Yado Junmai Ginjo (poetry again) almost proved worth the price with its clean fragrances of fruit and a perfumed palate suggesting pear and ripe, yellow plum. It was the hot Peaceful River sake from Oregon, dispensed from a box atop a heater, however, that reinforced the superiority of the cold-served product. True, it was only $7 for a decent-sized ceramic carafe, but such is the cost of reading this column. •